Playing a transgender woman gave Eddie Redmayne a taste of what it’s like to be judged, and even made him stress about being pretty enough.
The stares were enough to make him feel self-conscious when he first appeared on the set of “The Danish Girl” in a dress and full face of makeup.
The English actor stars as both landscape painter Einar Wegener — and the woman, Lili Elbe, that the artist transitioned to become in 1920s Copenhagen, an era when doctors branded such aspirations as a mental disorder.
“One of the most interesting things for me was my first day on the set as Lili Elbe and the gaze of the crew members — being looked at and being judged, it really made me nervous,” Redmayne, 33, tells the Daily News of the drama opening Nov. 27.
“Many of the trans women I met had described that feeling when they first went out of being judged, though of course for them it’s coupled with the fear of violence.
“There’s a moment in the film where Lili says, ‘Do you think I’m pretty enough?,’ and it was something that was sort of on my mind as well,” adds the delicate-featured actor, who played a female several times during his school years and professional career.
Redmayne, who accepted the Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” two weeks after he started filming as Lili, wanted to do justice to this pioneer in the transgender community.
The film now seems incredibly topical, but the love story between Lili, who was one of the first sexual reassignment surgery patients and her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), had faded into history before the 2000 David Ebershoff novel on which the movie is based was published.
“What struck me when I read the script is it’s almost a hundred years since Lili and Gerda’s story and what Lili has to deal with as far as discrimination and violence,” says Redmayne, “but there hasn’t been much progress in a hundred years.”
After years of marginalization, it’s a prominent pop culture topic right now: The comedy-drama series “Transparent” cleaned up at both the Emmy and Golden Globe awards, Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” put transgender actress Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner has hurdled criticism on and off TV.
But producers struggled for almost 15 years (with director and producer Tom Hooper on board for half that time) to raise the $15 million production budget that would probably just cover the catering on a big budget film like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“I find it incredible that in seven years, we’ve gone from people saying this film is hard to make and hard to finance to people saying this film is timely,” Hooper tells the News. “It certainly didn’t feel like a zeitgeist film seven years ago.”
For that whole time, though, Hooper knew exactly who he wanted to play Einar and Lili — the actor he first worked with 10 years ago on the British miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” Redmayne had a small part as a noble who was put to death for treason after a failed assassination plot on the titular Queen.
“I remember to this day filming that scene and the raw emotion that was provoked by this death sentence for his character, it was distressing,” says Hooper. “You say, ‘Oh my God, this person really is being sentenced to death, rather than a character pretending.’”
So when the pair worked together again on the 2012 musical drama film “Les Misérables,” Hooper made his pitch.
“I had just finished warbling on the barricades,” Redmayne says. “I came to lunch in my trailer and there was this slightly surreptitious envelope with a script in it.”
After reading Lucinda Coxon’s script, the actor fell in love with Lili.
“I thought it was the most beautiful and unique love story,” Redmayne recalls, “And I said to Tom, ‘Are you offering this to me? I’d love to do it.’
“But he was like, ‘It’s been 12 years since the script has been written, it most certainly won’t get made.’”
While waiting for investors to realize the importance of the project — which didn’t happen until Redmayne became more bankable with the award buzz surrounding “The Theory of Everything” — the duo didn’t remain idle. They spent much of the last three years interviewing transgender women about their experiences, including “The Matrix” filmmaker Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski and activist Cadence Valentine.
That intense preparation is the secret to Redmayne’s success. He accepts fewer roles and pushes for more time for research and training. In order to play ALS-stricken physicist Stephen Hawking for last year’s “The Theory of Everything,” for example, the actor spent several months with a vocal coach and a movement coach, and talking to Hawking and others with the disease.
To properly channel Lili, Redmayne practiced positioning his hands in the elegant poses that he noticed from the real-life Gerda’s paintings of her soul mate.
Even for his lead role in the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — the eagerly-awaited first installment of a “Harry Potter” franchise that should launch him onto Hollywood’s A-list — Redmayne showed the same intensity for his role as Newt Scamander, a wrangler of magical animals.
“I spent a lot of time at animal sanctuaries and meeting people whose job it is to track [animals] and do interesting things,” says Redmayne. “Hearing about their lives, it’s interesting, and who knows if any of it is relevant onscreen?”
All the preparation led to magic of a different kind on the set of “The Danish Girl.”
Vikander, 27, recalls the first time she saw her co-star in all his costumed and made-up glory as Lili, after she had already started camera tests with Redmayne as Einar. “I went to change my outfits and when I came back, I couldn’t find Eddie.
“And then this red-haired woman turned around and I was like…,” the Swedish starlet pauses, her eyes widening to recreate her shock. “The first thing [Redmayne] did was smile. It kind of affects you, that smile. It was such a Lili thing.”