It all started with falling in love with a great script
The Danish Girl is the remarkable love story inspired by the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, based on the book by David Ebershoff with a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables).
Does each film you work on change you and did this film change you at all?
I think it changed me in terms I’ve gone on a huge journey of understanding about trans experience and the transgender community. I first fell in love with the script when I hadn’t been on this journey so I think that’s been a very enriching and rewarding journey.
Let’s set the scene, let’s talk about the story of Lili and Gerda and how it came to you initially.
Well it all started with falling in love with a great script, I cannot tell you how rare it is to come across great scripts that haven’t been made, I mean there are years where I read 50, 60 scripts and struggled to find 1 that I really wanted to make. This probably remains as one of the best first draft scripts I’ve ever read and I fell in love with it. It made me cry and because it moved me so much I was drawn to making it. It’s a love story about a young couple, both artists living in Copenhagen in the 20s, who deal with the dawning realisation on the part of the husband that she’s a woman inside and it’s a portrait of a marriage going through this profound change, where love mediates the change throughout
It’s hard to imagine the courage that Lili showed to undergo that transition because we’re talking about almost 100 years ago aren’t we?
Yes, I was thinking that we’re at the Venice film festival which is in its 72nd year and this operation happened just before then, just before the Venice film festival started which gives you some sense of the time scale. I mean even making the movie was hard. It was hard to explain to people how dangerous the operations were because you can’t have a character saying it’s a dangerous operation, antibiotics haven’t been invented yet. But yes, it’s a world before these brilliant defences against infection were invented and so the risk of death was incredibly high and the surgery was pioneering and experimental, so I think what’s also come across in my 7 years living with this story is the incredible courage of Lili Elbe, and also you get some sense of how in pain she must have been living as Einar to take those risks to become her true self.
So is one of your challenges in making a film like this that you mustn’t impose modern perceptions with the story that you’re telling that’s almost 100 years old?
Absolutely, I remember one thing we talked about a lot which was that Lili sometimes talks about Einar and Lili as if they’re two different people and this comes from the memoir that Lili, published after her death where she talks about Lili and Einar in the third person. And the more I thought about it the more I thought, the word transgender doesn’t exist there’s no kind of language to support it so maybe she was making sense of it by saying I have a woman inside me yet am a man on the outside and these two selves are in this battle and the woman must come out and must be the winner because otherwise I’m going to not be able to keep living. That was interesting because I was aware that there was an instinct to change this language because it didn’t match a modern trans experience but in the end one had to respect the diaries of the actual person and think well that’s the language she found to talk about it so we should respect that.
We need to talk about your two leads, Eddie you’ve worked with before, why was he always your first choice?
Yes, from the first time I read the script I had a very strong instinct that Eddie was the right person to cast. I was very open to, many different routes but that instinct remained strong with me throughout the process. It’s a combination of having worked with him before – you know I worked with him when he was 22 years old on Elizabeth I where he was opposite Helen Mirren Jeremy Irons and gave the most astonishing performance in a scene where he was sentenced to death for rebelling against Helen Mirren. We then did Les Mis together where his performance with empty chairs empty tables, to me remains one of the highlights of that movie against some pretty great opposition. There’s something in Eddie that’s drawn to the feminine that I was intrigued by, you know he’s played female roles before like in Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night he played Viola, so I thought, he might be interested in going into that further and more comprehensively. I slipped him the script on the barricades of Les Mis at Pinewood Studios and like me he fell in love with the script
Alicia, I haven’t known for as many years as Eddie but I mean there was a succession of great movies she did, A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina, Ex Machina, and I think she’s one of the emerging greats. She’s got a huge career ahead of her but I love her energy I love her great big heart I love her passion and I love her for being Scandinavian and not uptight and British.