'The Danish Girl' director Tom Hooper: 'Love is a transformative space'
The acclaimed director talks about working with Eddie Redmayne to portray one trans woman's journey to find her true self.
2015 has been a year in which the profile of the transgender community has reached new heights of awareness and empathy in popular culture.
Hit TV shows like "Transparent" and "Orange is the New Black," as well as Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a trans woman, have brought trans issues to the forefront.
But long before this shift took place there were people trying to get a movie made about a couple in which one partner undergoes one of the first gender confirmation surgeries to be performed. It took the producers of "The Danish Girl" 15 years to bring it to screen.
The director Tom Hooper, who had directed "The King's Speech" and "Les Miserables," came on board seven years ago. So the fact that the film arrived in theaters this year was far from planned. Still, it has benefited from being "in the zeitgeist" says Hooper.
When Hooper joined The Frame, he talked about how "The Danish Girl" aligns thematically with his other movies, his approach to working with Eddie Redmayne and the transformative spaces of love and art.
How do you view "The Danish Girl" in relation to your previous movies?
I felt like it touched on a universal theme, which maybe I was exploring slightly in "The King's Speech" — we all have blocks between us and the best versions of ourselves, or the true version of ourselves, whether it's shyness, insecurity, anxiety, addiction, depression...but to not identify with the gender you're assigned at birth, I can't imagine a more profound block that a human can experience.
But you have to ask why this transition happened in the 1920s, when there was no roadmap for change, the word "transgender" didn't exist, the medical establishment pathologized this sense of self. And I think it's because of this extraordinary love between the couple — the love between the couple creates a space where transformation can happen. If you're a blocked soul, to be truly loved and seen by someone close to you is perhaps you're greatest chance to find your true self.
But Lili isn't the only person who is transformed over the course of the story. Gerta is transformed as an artist and as a wife, and she's transformed because Lili becomes, in many ways, her muse.
That's what makes the story so fascinating. Love is a transformative space, and the other key transformative space is art. At the beginning of the film, Gerta, played by Alicia Vikander, is an artist in search of a subject — she's in search of portrait commissions, and in one of the first scenes she's doing a portrait of the guy who manages the local department store. But you can tell she's frustrated, and even her husband Einar thinks she hasn't found her subject.
It's her observation of the latent femininity in Lili, when she's living as Einar, that starts to lead her on this journey of finding her subject, which I suppose is her husband's true feminine identity. So that fascination with the hidden self drives her art.
One thinks of gender fluidity in relation to Lili, but I think Gerta is also challenging gender stereotypes in the 1920s — here's a woman saying, "I have a right to be a professional artist, openly driven, openly ambitious," and all of this is quite radical for a woman in the 1920s. For centuries, it's been men who have defined what they want a woman's gender to involve, and the early 20th century was this extraordinary movement where women were starting to reclaim the construction of their own gender identity.
People who have seen Eddie Redmayne in his last film, "The Theory of Everything," know that he had a very unique relationship to his body — in the way he looked at his body, in the way his body betrayed him, and the way he positioned his body in the frame. As you're working with Eddie on "The Danish Girl," was there something he took away from "The Theory of Everything" that you were able to build upon in terms of how he uses his body as an actor?
I think the thing that "Theory of Everything" did with Eddie — because it was the only way he could do that transformation — was it forced him to be really inside his body and learn to use his body very thoroughly. I think he brought that knowledge to "The Danish Girl" in terms of us discussing the idea that, if Lili was always a woman and had had to put on the armor of masculinity, what does that mean physically?
What's it like to reawaken this long-suppressed, long-dormant femininity through the body, as well as through the mind? We talked a lot about this idea, not of a transformation but of a revealing — if Lili was always there, how do we create a sense that she's being uncovered, rather than that he's transforming from one thing to another thing.
And Eddie, from his meetings with trans women, some of the women talked about a period of hyper-feminization they'd go through — in order to reconnect with their femininity, they'd almost go too affected in their feminine body language, their clothes choices would become highly feminized, and they'd maybe wear too much makeup. Eddie talked about it as a kind of version of adolescence, where you're trying things out, and we built that arc into the story. Lili slightly overreaches at certain aspects of femininity, and then settles into a much simpler self at the end.