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Eddie Redmayne: Reading 'Danish Girl' Script Was Like Getting 'Sucker-Punched'

Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe in Tom Hooper's <em>The Danish Girl</em>.
Focus Features
Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe in Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl.

Actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar last year for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Now he's been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in another biopic, The Danish Girl. The film tells the story of transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first people known to have had gender reassignment surgery.

Lili begins the film as Einer Wegener, a Danish painter whose artist wife, Gerda, one day asks him to fill in as a model for a portrait she's working on. The subject is a dancer, so to help his wife, Einer dresses the part — and so the film's story is set into motion.

Redmayne tells NPR's Ari Shapiro what drew him to the role of Lili and what he learned from talking to trans women while preparing for the role.

Interview Highlights

On the love between Gerda and Lili and how that drew him to the role

I was given this script actually when I was making Les Misérables with Tom Hooper, the director, and I read this story and I was just completely sucker-punched by it. I found it the most profound love story about these two formidable women, and it was a story of courage and authenticity. And I kind of came running out of the trailer and I said to Tom, I was like, "I'd love to do it. Can we do it?" And that was about four years ago and finally the film is coming to light now. ...

"... this was a story about love not being defined by gender, not being defined by bodies, but really being about souls."

One of the things that sung to me in the script was that this was a story about love not being defined by gender, not being defined by bodies, but really being about souls. And one of the trans women I met said that she would give her everything and anything to live a life authentic. That was her mantra, in some ways. But at the same point, this person that she was with, who she was deeply in love with, she constantly questioned how deep her partner's pool of empathy was. And so that notion of the space that Gerda allows, through her love, for Lili to become who she is, that was something we discussed a lot.

On what he learned from talking to trans women while researching the film

One of the interesting things for me was trying to relate moments in the script to contemporary experience. And there's one moment in the film when Lili and Gerda go to the ball. Lili is going out [for] the first time, and she meets a man and it's a complicated scene. One of the trans women I met over here in Los Angeles described how, before she'd come out, her favorite night of the year was Halloween. And she went to this bar dressed as a woman and this man came over to her and started sort of talking to her and sort of hitting on her. And she described this extraordinary mixture of adrenaline pumping through her veins and excitement at being accepted for who she was, mixed with this utter fear that this man may not know who she is. And that mixture of excitement and thrill with the constant fear was something that I tried to take into that scene when we shot it.

On the scenes that show Lili perfecting her gestures and observing how women move

That idea of observation — and early on in transition particularly — was important because blending, for some trans women, is important early on. And it seems that, when you read about Lili's story, she would blend almost immediately in the world. But there's one scene in the film which was always stunning to me in the script, which was when Lili is being forced to live as a man in Paris and she goes to this peep show, to this sort of sex show. And whilst in this illegal place, as it were, where men are watching and getting titillated by watching a woman strip, you see Lili actually is going there to be in an enclosed space where she is free to observe. ...

One of the things one had to keep remembering with this film is that Lili had no vocabulary, she had no context, she had no predecessors, she had no community. And so at that moment in the film, she is watching this woman, but through a glass; and she keeps capturing her own reflection and it's this aspiration to be herself and to be what this woman has, but also catching her failings in her own reflection at a time in which she had no knowledge of whether she was even capable of becoming herself.

On whether the recent shift in transgender awareness (Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, the Amazon show Transparent) will affect how audiences respond to the film

I hope so, because the education that I had in the three or four years of preparing I feel like is now entering the mainstream media and the world is being educated. And what is astounding is some of the, you know, the discrimination or the violence that Lili lived through is still so rife across the world. I mean particularly [in] job discrimination — you can be fired in 32 states for being trans. ... When you, as an actor, meet people and people share their experience, one also feels a sense of responsibility. And certainly I've been trying to learn to be an ally to the community in any way that I can.

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Corrected: December 27, 2015 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said 31 instead of 32 in reference to the number of states where someone can be fired for being trans.