Vogue magazine did a feature on The Danish Girl for their October issue … and there are some beautiful portraits of Eddie & Alicia. Plus it is a beautiful article where Vogue speaks with Eddie, Jan Sewell (the makeup artist for the film), Tom Hooper and more.
In Tom Hooper’s highly anticipated The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne stars opposite Alicia Vikander as the artist turned transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.
The transformation starts with changes in the skin tone, soft pink on the upper cheeks, lipstick. The nose is a small challenge, but the peachy coloring is helpful, and the freckles are, too. Casual observers might see overpainting, or illusionism, or embellishment. To both the artist and the subject, though, the work is more akin to sculpture by relief: a technique of wearing away the well-known features of the male face to reveal the contours of a female countenance beneath.
It’s early Tuesday afternoon at London’s Elstree Studios, and, in a little dressing room just off the soundstage, Jan Sewell, a makeup artist with a chic white bob, is putting the final touches on Eddie Redmayne’s face. Redmayne and Sewell have worked together closely over the past few years—she exacted the slow, progressive changes that advanced Stephen Hawking’s ALS in The Theory of Everything, which earned Redmayne his first Academy, BAFTA, SAG, and Golden Globe awards this year—and they’ve developed what she calls “a complete shorthand.” Is the person who emerges from that wig too self-aware? Does this color distract from a delicate expression? The goal is to create a body that, working between the actual and the imagined, joins the actor’s form to a physique the character would know to be her own.
A few days earlier, in London, Redmayne finished shooting his last scenes for The Danish Girl, based on the 2000 historical novel by David Ebershoff. The movie was directed by Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech), and it follows the real-life transition of Lili Elbe, born as Einar Wegener in late–nineteenth century Denmark, as she undergoes some of the very first sex-reassignment surgeries. The stages of Lili’s transformation, though, were more than a performance alone could convey, so Sewell helped define them, with a light touch. “If I put a lot of makeup on, he would look like a man with makeup,” she says. “I reshaped his mouth by taking away the corners and giving him more of a feminine pout.”
Now, in the makeup room, Sewell is brushing out a bold red wig. Many transgender women have said they experienced a period of hyperfeminization when they first appeared publicly as female—“It’s your first moment to express yourself,” Redmayne says—and Sewell decided that Lili would wear the loud wig at first. (Later, as the character settles into womanhood, Redmayne’s wigs grow more naturalistic.) Now he wears a tomato-red lip, though that, too, will be subdued as Lili finds herself.
“Can I drink, Jan? Can I have a coffee?” Redmayne asks, staring at his reflection. He looks vacant and empty: This body-between-bodies is not his, and he has not yet entered into character.
“Yes, I’ll redo the lips, don’t worry—we can’t have you fainting.” She smiles wryly, then steps back for a moment, as if scrutinizing a canvas. Fussily, she works over the edges of the wig. “Just a little powder, and then you’re good.”
Ebershoff’s novel concerns art as much as gender: Both Einar and his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), were accomplished painters. He had found early success with his haunting, refined landscapes, and she, a portraitist, had studied under him at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Near the start of the movie, we see them working in their studio, she on her big, vivacious canvases and he on his small, controlled ones. Hurrying to finish a portrait of a young woman, Gerda asks Einar to pose as her female subject.
“Will you try on the stockings and shoes?”
“You will not tell anyone about this.”
The experience is, for Einar, more than a bizarre artistic task. He begins dressing as a woman often: first apparently in the spirit of creative support (Gerda’s portraits of Lili are her first great commercial success, allowing the couple to move to Paris) and later for self-realization. “What I read was an incredibly passionate love story about two artists,” Redmayne says; Vikander describes the film as “a love story about learning to love yourself.”
In France, Gerda is celebrated as a fashionable Art Nouveau painter. (In real life, she contributed work to early issues of Vogue.) Lili, now living as herself, abandons painting. In the film, she begins chastely courting a young man (played by Ben Whishaw); Gerda, for her part, grows close to one of Einar’s friends (Matthias Schoenaerts). Trying to realize her female body, Lili undergoes risky constructive surgeries without antibiotics. “She talks about her transition in terms of these two versions of herself—she needed to find a language at the time to say what it felt like,” Hooper says. In real life, Lili died, in her late 40s, of complications from her final operation.
Ebershoff, the author of two other acclaimed historical novels, is vice president and executive editor at Random House; he stumbled on Lili’s story while paging through a book on gender theory. “I remember thinking, Wait a minute—Lili Elbe is a pioneer, but I’ve never heard of her,” he says. “She was a woman who did something profoundly courageous and important, and yet when I first encountered her name, history had mostly forgotten her.”
The movie arrives in theaters this November, and the timing couldn’t be better. At a moment when the trans experience has its own powerful voices—Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Transparent, Tangerine, About Ray—the movie begins the long project of historicizing trans life, tracing the roots of its cultural heritage and celebrating its complexities. “I think it’s wonderful that, through her, there’s been a spotlight on a civil rights movement,” Redmayne says of Jenner. “But her story is a very specific one, and there are many trans women, particularly women of color, who have seen other extremes.”
Rising from the makeup chair now, Redmayne heads into the studio, where he is to be photographed as Lili. The hardest moment in the course of shooting The Danish Girl, he says, was stepping onto the set in female form and sensing the eyes of gaffers and electricians gauging the persuasiveness of his appearance. “It was a feeling that, apparently, women are substantially more used to,” he says. “That was incredibly nerve-racking, and yet it must be nothing like what it’s like for a trans woman the first time she goes out.”
On the soundstage, someone has put on a recording of Chopin to set the haute bohème mood. Big, umbrellaed photography lamps are sounding their two-tone report—bang-squeak! bang-squeak!—and the soundstage flashes with each crack. Hooper is standing by, an observer in jeans and a tidy oxford shirt; Redmayne is costumed in a lush green-velvet dress.
“For the character of Einar, we had to make an Edwardian, very austere and severe, person trapped in his body,” Paco Delgado, the film’s costume designer, explains. “Then, when Lili was coming to life, we had to start opening up the palette—it became warmer. We were very lucky because the twenties offered a very good shape if you had an androgynous body.” Using period fabrics, Delgado, the designer for Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, created some loose, questingly epicene suits to help define the phases of Lili’s transition.
Redmayne is tall, but as a woman in heels, he is even taller. For a moment, with the lights on him and the lens gaping, he looks uncertain. Sewell rushes forward and makes a small adjustment: She lets loose a couple of curls of the wig, so they descend onto his face. As she darts back out of view, Redmayne alights on the edge of the couch, brings a hand up to his ear, and gazes searchingly toward the camera. He is no longer recognizable as a 33-year-old man; suddenly, the flash strikes his face and the transformation is complete.
Three weeks into shooting for The Danish Girl, Redmayne flew to L.A. from London. The next evening, around 5:00 a.m. British time, he clambered onto the stage of the Dolby Theater in a midnight-blue Alexander McQueen tuxedo to accept the Oscar for Best Actor from Cate Blanchett. “I will promise you I will look after him!” he said of the trophy in a breathless baritone, half Alec Guinness, half Bob Cratchit. On Monday, he touched down back in London and went directly from the airport to the studio. “We had some decorations on his trailer,” Vikander says. “He went straight to the set and just did this killer scene. I was so amazed about how he was able to close everything off and get tunnel vision and go right back to his part in the way he did. He’s all about the work, that guy.”
Given the accolades that flowed from Redmayne’s metamorphosis as Stephen Hawking, it’s tempting to see Lili as a role seeking to follow on that success. And yet his involvement in The Danish Girl long predated his Hawking performance. Hooper had thought of Redmayne from the start—“There’s a certain gender fluidity about Eddie,” he says; “he has this extraordinary translucency, this way his emotion can come through”—and passed him the screenplay when they worked together on Les Misérables.
“I read it while I was busy singing Marius, trying to get a note out of my poky vocal cords,” Redmayne explains over coffee one morning. We are sitting at a table by the window in Terry’s Cafe, a small, old-style luncheonette—red-checkered oilcloth, Cumberland sausage and eggs—in London’s Southwark district, where Redmayne has lived for nine years. He’s a loyal customer, friendly with Terry’s son, Austin, who has quietly upscaled his father’s menu to keep pace with the area’s development. Even in person, Redmayne is boyish. His chestnut hair is tousled upward, and he’s dressed in a black denim jacket, ecru T-shirt, slip-on sneakers. He speaks not in a stream of thought but in braids, dropping one idea mid-sentence to begin another, twisting that around a third, then taking up the first strand once more.
Lili is not the first woman Redmayne has played. He went from female roles at Eton to his big break on the professional London stage, as Viola in Twelfth Night, in 2002: “a cisgender male playing a cisgender female playing a cisgender male!” But he found playing a trans woman in transition “completely different” than the cross-dressing of a Shakespeare comedy. “I was sort of astounded by my own ignorance,” he says. He undertook, along with the rest of the cast, a careful course of reading, starting from Man into Woman, a 1933 account of Lili’s life drawn from her papers (though it’s thought that Niels Hoyer, the editor, touched up the material). They read Jan Morris’s landmark memoir of transitioning, Conundrum (“a brilliant piece of writing—to my mind, it should be part of the established canon of great literature,” Hooper says), and works on gender theory. Redmayne made a special point of seeking the experiences of living trans people, too. “Across the board, all of the people from the trans community I’ve met have been so open with the idea that any question is a good one,” he says. “That sense of education is also what’s going on in the world at this moment.”
The research filtered up onto the screen. The changing chemistry between Lili and Gerda is the main delight of Hooper’s film, as Redmayne manages to go from an awkward, goose-necked man to a swanlike woman who is, at last, comfortable in her skin: “Tom allowed me freedom, so I could work out what angles worked, what angles didn’t. You’re not shooting chronologically. It’s a delicate thing.” Vikander, in perhaps her most astonishingly frank and intimate performance, makes Gerda as arresting a figure as Lili, and as brave a character, too. “I was sort of worried about finding someone who could match Eddie,” Hooper says. “Alicia was that person.”
After ordering our second coffees in paper cups (“Austin, can I borrow a spoon, mate?”), Redmayne and I set out along the gentle bend of Great Suffolk Street. “What I like about this neighborhood is that it’s so central—I can cycle into the West End when I’m doing theater—while at the same time it’s this extraordinary Dickensian part of London that had a lot of serious hits in the Blitz,” Redmayne says. “It has this strange mixture of old and new.”
Up Toulmin Street, he pauses to point out a brick primary school that’s in fact named after Charles Dickens. Nearby is the apartment where Redmayne was based throughout the early years of his career—a precocious stage ascent that carried him from The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, in 2004, to Richard II, even as he earned attention on the international screen for My Week with Marilyn. Today, Redmayne is near the front of a bevy of young British leading men (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Sturridge, Ben Whishaw, and on) captivating Hollywood and shining onstage. Redmayne is currently preparing to play “a magic zoologist” in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a screenplay by J. K. Rowling set in New York in the twenties—“I can’t really say anything about it,” he says archly as we round a corner—but he’s had a welcome respite since The Danish Girl wrapped, and time to spend with his wife, Hannah Bagshawe. It’s his first real experience of married home life since their wedding last December. “She’s amazing, Hannah, and has this wonderful mind,” he says. “She reads a lot of the work I’m doing and has a lot of insight into it.”
When he’s not savoring nuptial bliss, he paints, a hobby that recalls his time at Cambridge, where he read the history of art, writing his thesis on Yves Klein. “As you get older, you assume you get better, even though you don’t do it anymore,” he says. “So maybe twice a year, when I’m on holiday, I’ll sit and paint, and I think, I’ve definitely got better! When, in fact, no, I’ve got substantially worse.”
Yet visual art has never drifted far from his actor’s work. One of his favorite stage experiences, he says, was playing Mark Rothko’s assistant in Red, the 2009 play by John Logan for which Redmayne won a Tony. Lili and Gerda’s artistic relationship, in turn, accounted for a large part of his interest in The Danish Girl; the work of one of Redmayne’s favorite painters, the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, was hugely influential on Ebershoff as he was writing and, later, on Hooper and his production designer, Eve Stewart, as they worked out the austere blue-gray aesthetic of Einar and Gerda’s Danish apartment. But it was a photographic clue that unlocked the character. “The work of Lili when she was living as Einar was not particularly groundbreaking,” Redmayne says. “There’s this amazing photo of Einar wearing this really high starched collar. That was a sort of key for me. It was this exoskeleton.”
We’re wandering now through the Southwark streets, lined with brick flats and sleek office buildings. “Everything is under construction and looking so shit!” he says, sounding not entirely displeased. “What I love about this area is that it’s not an area that presents itself. It doesn’t thrust out of a facade. You sort of find it, slowly.”
Lili’s efforts to find herself carried her to consultations with the health professionals of the day, who diagnosed her as, variously, homosexual, schizophrenic, and confused. Today, as trans has become its own proud identity, we like to think that we were always so enlightened, but progress is new. When Ebershoff’s novel appeared, fifteen years ago, it was shelved, in one place, in the “erotica” section: A carefully researched account of one woman’s transition by an esteemed editor was thought too deviant for the literary-fiction shelves. “One of the things that’s helping change the culture are stories. Caitlyn Jenner’s story, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s story, Laverne Cox’s story, Renée Richards’s story, Chaz Bono’s story . . . the list grows almost every day,” Ebershoff says. “We cannot fully comprehend the positive influence of these stories. They land in the minds of people we will never know and touch them in ways we can never be made aware of.”
“People talk as if The Danish Girl is now an obvious film to make, which makes me laugh,” Hooper says. The screenplay, by Lucinda Coxon, circulated for years. (At various points, the adaptation was to star Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Charlize Theron.) In the early stages of Hooper’s involvement, studios were so squeamish about the movie that it was hard to secure any funding. “It began as a small passion project,” he says.
For him, though, as for his cast, the changing climate hasn’t meant the end of a cause. In the U.S., you can be fired in 31 states for being trans, Redmayne points out. “Through this film—through one life learned, and through this position of privilege in being able to talk to all these people—I hope I can be an advocate for trans issues, and an ally, in some way.” The Danish Girl is not a work of activism. But he hopes that it will offer a window onto the complex trans experience.
“In acting you have very little control or capacity for choice,” Redmayne says. “The only choice that I have had in this past couple of years—and really, it’s just happened—is ‘Is this a story that you’d like to be a part of?’ ” He pauses for a moment and then smiles. “Yeah.”