Transformative: Tom Hooper reunites with Eddie Redmayne for drama of pioneering ‘Danish Girl’

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When Eddie Redmayne arrived at the barricades in Les Misérables for his first day of ten-minute-long takes of French-Revolutionizing, director Tom Hooper slipped him a life preserver in a brown paper envelope. It was the script of The Danish Girl.

Redmayne took it home and came back onto the barricades the next day and said, “Tom, if you ever get a chance to make it, I would love to play Lili. Just let me know.”

The director didn’t require a second read, either, to want to do the picture, but getting it done has been quite a different matter. “I fell in love with Lucinda Coxon’s beautiful script seven years ago—in late 2008 when I was in production with The King’s Speech—but, on this film, that makes me a relative newbie,” he quickly qualifies. “Gail Mutrux has been trying to get it made for 15 years, and Anne Harrison, the other producer, for 10 years. It’s been a passion project for all of us—for me, a seven-year journey to move audiences like I was moved when I read it.”

The Danish Girl, from Focus Features, tells the movingly unconventional love story of a couple of married artists in Copenhagen of 1926—Einar Wegener, whose specialty was intricately detailed landscapes, and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb, a just-as-exacting portraitist with a particular forte for the female form. One day she prevails on her husband to fill in for an absentee model and don a dress so she can meet her deadline. He obliges.

What a barn door that proves to be! It opens irreparably wide not only their marriage but Einar’s true feminine nature as well. As this starts to assert itself, Gerda lets it happen, by launching her creation into society (in fashionable drag, as Einar’s “sister”): Lili Elbe. At Lili’s first ball, he/she attracts a smitten suitor, Henrik. More swains follow, and, instead of receding discreetly into Einar’s landscape, Gerda supports and accompanies her husband on this long transition to live as a woman.

At a fast first glance, this relationship might seem foreign, if not downright scary and alienating, but there’s a universality in Lili’s stance that instantly attracted Hooper.

“All of us,” he points out, “have blocks between us and the best, or true, version of ourselves—whether it’s shyness, insecurity, addiction, depression or, like in The King’s Speech, stammering—but not to identify with the gender you’re assigned at birth is surely the most profound block and would cause you such great distress.

“Also, I liked the way the film shows that, at a time in the 1920s when there was no precursor to Lili’s journey—no language in the culture, no medical understanding of it—their incredible love opened up a space that made this transformation possible.”

Screenwriter Coxon, a British playwright whose Happy Now? made it to these shores at New York’s 59 East 59th Theatres in 2010,  was sent David Ebershoff’s 2000 debut novel by the producers 11 years ago to see if there was a movie in it. It was a well-researched but fictionalized account of Wegener becoming, in June 1931, the first man to undergo a sex-change operation. “Only the backstory had been heavily fictionalized,” she recalls. “When I looked at the main body of their relationship, a great deal of that was rooted in truth, so there was a very strong spine for me to work with.”

Much of her work went toward restoring the truth of the story. This was achieved with additional research, including the book about Elbe, Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, and an autobiography by Jan (born: James) Morris called Conundrum.

“What I found fascinating was the symbiosis in this marriage,” Coxon notes, “the way both of these people were working to enable the other, the kind of dance whereby Gerda sees Lili and, through her paintings, puts Lili out into the world. As a consequence of that, Lili is encouraged to manifest and really become herself. But, in the end, both pay a price. The way that they negotiate that moment where they realize that they love one another deeply but they cannot continue together in the same marital configuration anymore is something that I found extremely moving.”

The fact that this story is coming to market now—in the day of Caitlyn Jenner and Amazon’s “Transparent”series—completely flabbergasts Coxon. “This rising tide is remarkable. If you’d told me ten years ago when I was delivering the first draft that it would be released into this kind of climate, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

“We weren’t interested in making a film that preached to the choir, one that spoke to a tiny audience comfortable with these issues. That’s not who these two people were. They were out there on their own, and because this is a big mainstream film, it will have a reach and a penetration that another kind of film would not have.

“There is no doubt in my mind that, aside from being an incredibly emotionally satisfying experience for a wide demographic, it will also be seen by people who are in a situation not dissimilar to Lili, feeling alone and not having a word for it.”

Coxon credits Hooper with keeping the film on course and getting it out there to audiences. “He’s incredibly rigorous, and he’s absolutely messianic. It’s an extraordinary thing to work with someone so determined and so committed about a project. There had been a lot of ups and downs with this project over the previous decade, but there was never any risk of it slipping away once Tom came aboard.”

Prior to Hooper taking over, the title role of The Danish Girl was cast with a woman, even though Lili spends most of the film as a man. Nicole Kidman was initially attached, followed by a procession of other Oscar-winning actresses: Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and Rachel Weisz. (Uma Thurman also applied.)

“I was open to casting a woman or a man, but I had a very strong instinct about Eddie,” Hooper admits. “I’d worked with him first when he was a young 23-year-old actor on Elizabeth I. He played the Earl of Southampton rebelling against Queen Helen Mirren. It’s not a good idea to rebel against Helen Mirren, so he was put to death as a result. I remember shooting a scene with this kid actor where he gets the death sentence, and he was extraordinary. It was like, rather than watching an actor acting somebody getting a death sentence, you kind of felt, ‘Oh, my God! This is what it would be like for a young man to realize his life was already over.’ It was so emotionally raw, and Eddie was practically vibrating with the emotion of it. There and then, I kind of committed in my head to finding him a lead role one day.

“Then, of course, he was part of the wonderful ensemble of Les Miz, and his ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ remains a highlight. It’s that facility of Eddie to take an audience with him emotionally that I thought would be great for Lili. I wanted the audience to go every step of the journey and to understand emotionally what he was going through so the emergence of Lili would feel inevitable and necessary.”

Having set that bar, the next hurdle was the next-to-impossible task of locating a Gerda of comparable strength. “What was hard to find was an actress who could go head-to-head with Eddie in these great emotional two-handers, and I wanted an actress who would maybe be not only Eddie’s equal but push him to the best things.”

Somehow, in the process of making eight movies last year (one of which, Testament of War, is already earning her Best Actress Oscar buzz), Alicia Vikander found time to come in and audition. Hooper wasted no time screen-testing her with Redmayne in something “rather boringly titled Scene 57” (the morning after Lili’s flirtatious ball debut). “Alicia gave such an emotional performance I had tears in my eyes at the end,” the director freely confesses, “and Eddie turned around and said to me, ‘Well, there’s no great suspense about who you’re going to cast, Hooper.’” There wasn’t.

“There are only two times in my life where I’ve been moved in that way by an audition,” Hooper says. Of course, the other time was Anne Hathaway’s for Les Misérables—and she wound up winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

It is perhaps no accident, then, that Vikander is being talked up for the same Oscar category this year for this performance—although some pundits and tastemakers might argue that her role here is as on par and as large as Redmayne’s last screen wife, Felicity Jones, who earned a Best Actress nomination for returning the serve to his Oscar-winning performance of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

This Oscar argument Hooper will pass on, thank you very much. “I don’t want to comment on it, because the studio makes that decision. I don’t want to get involved, but I will say, in one sense, it’s the ultimate supporting role. Without the support of Gerda’s love, I don’t think Lili could have ever transitioned.” (And the spousal support that won supporting Oscars for 2001—Marcia Gay Harden’s to Ed Harris’ Pollock and Jim Broadbent’s to Judi Dench’s Iris—would roundly second that.)

What is clear is that Hooper wanted Vikander to do the role so much, he waited for her for five months. “I had to delay the start of the movie because she wanted to go off and do The Light Between Oceans. Her co-star, Michael Fassbender, had to hit a certain window because he had another film to go to, so, by God, I waited.

“I just thought she was so right for it. She has such a great heart, such generosity of spirit, such compassion—and I knew she would bring to Gerda this kind of strength that I wanted. What’s so clever about what she does—you never feel that Gerda is a victim, and that’s Alicia’s genius. Even in a supportive role, she’s always strong.”