Eddie Redmayne was about to shoot the climactic battle sequence in Les Miserables — the part where the French Army fires cannonballs into the barricades to scatter the student revolutionaries — when director Tom Hooper calmly strolled across the battlefield and handed the young actor a large unmarked envelope.
“I think he said something simple like, ‘Read it,'” recalls Redmayne, 33, of that day in 2011. “Tom has a very gentle manner.”
The pages inside — the screenplay for The Danish Girl — had been circulating among filmmakers and actors in just this fashion for the better part of a decade. At moments over the years, there were even hopes that the film actually might get made — at one point, Nicole Kidman was signed for the lead — but something always went wrong. Financing fell through. Or talent dropped out. Or somebody got cold feet. “It was the subject matter,” says Lucinda Coxon, who wrote the script in the envelope. “It was considered commercial poison.”
Times change. And it’s hard to imagine a more hospitable moment than right now for a commercially viable movie based on the life of Lili Elbe, a Danish painter in the 1920s who — with the help of a supportive wife (played by Ex Machina and Man From U.N.C.L.E. newcomer Alicia Vikander) — became the first person in history to undergo a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Far from poison, the subject matter has reunited an award-winning director (before Les Miserables, Hooper won an Oscar for The King’s Speech) and an award-winning actor (after Les Miserables, Redmayne won one for The Theory of Everything) to finally bring to the screen the story of a transgender icon predating Caitlyn Jenner by nearly 100 years.
“I knew the script had a long, tortured history,” says Redmayne, who, in The Danish Girl, which will be released Nov. 27 by Focus Features, undergoes an even more extraordinary physical transformation than turning himself into Theory’s Stephen Hawking (in one sure-to-get-noticed scene in The Danish Girl, Redmayne stands naked in front of a full-length mirror, his genitalia tucked between his thighs). “But it’s a wonderful love story. It reframed my notion of love, that love is not about gender or bodies. It’s about souls. The minute I read it, I wanted to do it.”
Man Into Woman, Elbe’s 1933 memoir, is something of a sacred text in the transgender community. But the book that has been adapted for the screen isn’t Elbe’s; it’s David Ebershoff’s best-selling 2000 novel, The Danish Girl, a fictional interpretation of Elbe’s memoir. Producer Gail Mutrux happened to come across a review of the novel — “in November 1999,” she very specifically recalls, around the time she was working with Bill Condon on developing a script for the film that would become Kinsey — and optioned the film rights a few months later, the minute the book was published.
“It was such an idiosyncratic love story,” she explains of her attraction to the material. “What struck me was that his wife was willing to help him get what he needed, knowing their relationship would never be the same, that they were doing this together.”
Fifteen years ago, before shows like Transparent changed the culture and swept the Emmys, transgender people were something of a rarity on the screen. Aside from a few notable exceptions — like Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning turn in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry — they would pop up only occasionally as quirky best friends (John Lithgow in The World According to Garp) or, more commonly, as evil freaks (Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill, Ted Levine in The Silence of the Lambs). Not surprisingly, Mutrux had difficulty getting traction on a project that had a transgender trailblazer at its center. Even hiring a writer to adapt the novel proved problematic. “I had been going to all the usual places, but people were saying, ‘No, thank you,’ ” says Mutrux.
“I remember I was on the Tube, and they had just announced that Tom and Eddie were going to do this film,” recalls Vikander, who co-stars as Elbe’s wife. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s going to be a really great film.’ Then my agents called me two days later and told me I should read it.”
Eventually, a producer Mutrux was working with on Kinsey suggested Coxon, a British playwright who’d just written a Helena Bonham Carter-starring period piece called The Heart of Me. Coxon, intrigued by the material, took the job and turned in her first draft of The Danish Girl in 2004 — essentially the same draft that Hooper, a decade later, would end up shooting. But in the interim, she would spend years watching her script crash and burn over and over again, with one star after another dropping in and out of the movie. “It’s been a long road,” says Coxon, 53, with a sigh. “I’ve been around the block a couple of times.”
The road started in 2008, when Nicole Kidman signed on to produce and star — as both the female Elbe and Einar, the pre-op male character. Charlize Theron came aboard to play Gerda, Elbe’s wife, while Anand Tucker, the filmmaker who adapted Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, joined to direct. But by 2009, Tucker and Theron were out, replaced by Tomas Alfredson, director of the vampire cult hit Let the Right One In, and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Gerda role. Then, in 2010, Alfredson exited the movie (to make Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), with Lasse Hallstrom, director of The Cider House Rules, stepping in. Kidman still was onboard to play Elbe, but she was now on her third wife, as Rachel Weisz replaced the departing Paltrow. In 2011, Weisz left the film, followed almost immediately by Hallstrom, and the project finally sputtered to a full stop.
I didn’t want to make a film that was only about the pain,” says Hooper. “Where someone might watch and think, ‘God, becoming a trans woman for Lili was a painful thing from start to finish.’ I didn’t want the audience to feel sorry for her. I wanted people to understand the joy and release in the journey. It wasn’t a man transforming into a woman; it was a woman who had been living as a man.”
It was right about that time, though, that Hooper was passing notes to Redmayne on the set of Les Miserables. The 43-year-old British director first had encountered the script for The Danish Girl in 2008 — when his longtime casting director, Nina Gold, slipped him a copy during preproduction on The King’s Speech — and “fell in love” with the story. “It made me cry,” says Hooper. “That’s unusual.” Even as he went on to collect his King’s Speech Oscar and then direct Les Miserables, he never fully got Elbe out of his head. Redmayne, too, similarly was struck by the story. “I wanted to make it right away, right after Les Mis,” he says. “But Tom was like, ‘Calm down, these things take time”. Three years, to be precise, before Hooper finally finished shooting and cutting his behemoth Victor Hugo musical and officially signed on to The Danish Girl in 2014 (bringing Working Title producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner with him).
“I had the opportunity, after The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, of doing big commercial films,” says the director. “But I sort of felt this was an opportunity for me to make a passion project, and this was the passion project I wanted to make.” Coxon literally didn’t believe Hooper when he broke the news to her over coffee in London. “I’d sat with quite a lot of men who’d said, ‘Great news, I’m going to make the film,’ ” she says. “So when Tom told me, it took a while before I could let myself get excited. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you are. Let’s see what happens. Let’s wait and see.’ ”
While waiting for Hooper to finish up on Les Miserables, Redmayne went on to make two movies: the award-winning one about the astrophysicist and another (at 10 times the budget) that explored outer space less scientifically. But at least some good came out of Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ $176 million sci-fi dud in which Redmayne played an intergalactic baddie: Between takes the actor got transgender tutoring from no less an authority than Lana Wachowski. “She talked in depth and wonderful detail about [Elbe’s] art and also extraordinary things about that period. How architecture had gotten more feminine with Art Nouveau, how the notions of gender were beginning to change in the 1920s, with women’s clothing becoming more boyish and haircuts getting shorter. She was just so articulate on so many subjects.”
Hooper and Redmayne on the set. The two had collaborated even before Les Miserables. “We worked together when he was 22,” says the director. “He played a young rebel opposite Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth [in the TV miniseries Elizabeth]. His character was sentenced to death, and it really was like watching someone being sentenced. He was so emotionally raw. I wanted to work with him again.” Says Redmayne of his director, “He sees everything.”
Shooting in Denmark was set for early 2015, but first Redmayne had to find the right look for his character. Makeup designer Jan Sewell, who’d worked with Redmayne on Theory, gave him dozens of wigs to try on, but it wasn’t until he tried on the fiery red one that the character started to take solid form. When a publicity shot of Redmayne in all his female splendor was uploaded to the Internet in February, it instantly went viral. But the full impact of his transformation, says co-star Vikander, only could be felt in person. “This red-headed woman came around the corner,” she says of her first encounter with Redmayne in his Elbe attire, “and it took me a full five minutes — for real — before I knew that it was Eddie.”
For Redmayne, playing a transgender woman was in its own way a transformative experience. “It was a very vulnerable feeling,” he says. “You’re being judged wherever you go by crew and castmembers. You’re scrutinized.” That was never more true than while filming that soon-to-be-buzzed-about scene in which Redmayne strips naked and admires himself in front of a mirror. “People think actors are always wanting to take their clothes off for the camera, like, ‘I’m ready to get naked!’ ” he says. “But it’s not true. It was as uncomfortable an experience for me as it would be for anybody.”
To make the scene a little less nerve-wracking, Hooper promised the star something directors almost never offer their actors — final cut. He assured Redmayne that he would get to see the footage before anyone else and would have veto power over his tucked-in full-frontal scene. “I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with it,” says Hooper. “He was.”