Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper takes on his most challenging material yet in “The Danish Girl,” and he makes it look easy.
The movie, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, profiles Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the 1930s.
Hooper (of “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables” fame), thought Eddie Redmayne would be good for the part as early as 2008. He slipped the actor a copy of the script “on the barricades of ‘Les Miserables.’”
“He fell in love with it just as I had,” says the director, who spoke about the movie while in town for the 2015 Mill Valley Film Festival.
Redmayne wasn’t an unusual choice. given his experience playing women’s roles onstage, notably Viola in an acclaimed all-male London Globe production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
In “The Danish Girl,” Redmayne transforms from male painter Einar Wegener into a trans woman, beginning with an awkward stage, with Lili learning how to move and hold herself.
“He prepared for this for a year, and yet he’s not a method actor, so he didn’t want me to use ‘her.’ He didn’t want to be treated as a woman when he was off-camera. He wanted to be Eddie,” says Hooper, who adds, “Eddie would have this fear that he would be so in touch with his feminine side, that he wouldn’t be able to re-capture that early awakening.”
One of the movie’s themes is the “male gaze.” While many girls are more or less used to being visually assessed by men, Lili experiences it for the first time as an adult.
“The idea of being watched, and the camera as the watcher, were ideas I was playing with throughout. You can see it in Eddie’s performance,” Hooper says, “in reaction to the scrutiny of the male gaze, she goes through a phase in which she over-exaggerates her latent femininity.”
Hooper and Redmayne discussed everything, from keeping a chart of Lili’s transformation, to the style of her hair.
Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen tried something new as well.
“In ‘The King’s Speech,’ I tried to get away from beauty as much as possible, but here I felt I could allow beauty into the film,” says Hooper.
During Lili’s best moments, she is lit to appear very beautiful, but when things fall apart for her, Hooper explains, the lighting is harsher.
Hooper admits that he also went through a journey while working on “The Danish Girl.” He says, “Since making the film I’ve become very conscious that gender is constructed; it’s not as inherent as you think it is.”
IF YOU GO
The Danish Girl
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard
Written by Lucinda Coxon
Directed by Tom Hooper
Running time 2 hours