Director Tom Hooper was determined to get “The Danish Girl” right

by Chris Narloch

In late 2015, I spoke by phone with Tom Hooper, director of the Oscar-winning films “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables,” about his latest big screen effort, “The Danish Girl.”

Featuring another Academy award-nominated performance from Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first identifiable recipients of sex reassignment surgery, “The Danish Girl” recently received a total of four Oscar nods.

The movie’s 43-year-old director, who is London-born and Oxford-educated, told me he felt a tremendous responsibility to bring this little-known history to light and honor the woman who inspired his film.

Read on for my interview with Tom Hooper.

Tom, I was very moved by this story, and I think your movie is very beautiful. How did you get involved in filming Lili’s story?
My casting director, who I’ve worked with since I was 21, suggested I read the script, and I absolutely fell in love with it, especially the love story between the husband and wife. The screenplay made me cry, which almost never happens, and one of the reasons I wanted to make the film was because so few people have ever heard of Lili Elbe. There is almost nothing on Wikipedia about her, and so I felt urged to redress this injustice in which this pioneer who should be more widely known has been marginalized by history. Like many people, I wrongly believed that Christine Jorgensen was the first person to receive sexual reassignment surgery.

The film pays great respect to Lili and honors her experience as a trans person. Was it a challenge to pay that respect without turning her in to a saint or a politically correct poster child for the trans community?
The challenge was really to tell her story accurately given the time in which she lived, because many of the details of her life are missing. The evolution of understanding on this issue has accelerated so much in recent years compared to the 1920s, when Lili began transitioning, that it was important to show how many of the doctors at the time had no compassion or even understanding of her condition. I wanted to depict her extraordinary courage in allowing a doctor to operate on her who had never attempted this type of surgery before.

Gerda, the wife of Einar (who eventually became Lili), also demonstrated great courage…
That’s absolutely right. Gerda remained loyal to Lili, and she was totally understanding throughout all of the changes in their relationship.

How lucky were you to get Eddie Redmayne to play the lead in your movie?
Very lucky. He won his Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” two weeks in to filming on our movie. He came back to the set Tuesday morning after taking the weekend off for the Oscars, and we probably talked about it for five minutes or so, and then I looked at my watch and we went back to filming. I was struck by how unchanged Eddie was by winning the award. He has a genuine humility, and he just wanted to get down to work.

You also have two of my other favorite young actors, Alicia Vikander and Matthias Schoenaerts, in the movie. Talk to me about the importance of casting.
I had seen Alicia in “A Royal Affair” and thought she was amazing. I needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with Eddie Redmayne, and that is a tall order. The actress also needed to be able to project this bottomless pit of love and compassion for her partner, and I think Alicia pulled it off. And Matthias is a natural film star. He has such a great presence, and I was so pleased when he accepted the role.

I personally think the best actor for a role should play the role, but lately there has been a lot of debate over whether trans characters should only be played by trans actors. Do you have anything to say about that?
I think the culture is changing so rapidly that going forward there will increasingly be more opportunities for trans filmmakers and trans actors to have a voice in films. And I hope that the increased visibility will lead to more access to quality roles and quality projects by, for and about the trans community.

When this article was posted online, “The Danish Girl” was still playing at the Varsity Theatre in Davis, as well as at the Century Roseville 14 and the Century Stadium 14 in Sacramento.

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