The director gives insights on transgender rights, casting decisions and tearful moments.
There’s no doubt that the last few years have marked a change in transgender awareness, and Tom Hooper’s latest film couldn’t be more timely. In “The Danish Girl,” the Academy Award winning director (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Misérables”) brings the inspiring story of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener to the screen, Lili one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery, and Gerda her supportive partner. Set in 1920s Copenhagen and Paris, the film stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, both nominated for Golden Globes for their performances. We sat down with Hooper at the Hay-Adams Hotel when he was in Washington recently to chat about the film he’s called his passion project.
Washington Life: You were here last night for a Champions of Change event at the White House?
Tom Hooper: Yes, I was in the White House yesterday during the day and it was amazing. It’s personally funny for me because the first time I spent in the White House was in a White House I built rather than the real one- we built it for my HBO series “John Adams.” And there was just something amazing about being there when these nine LGBT artists and activists were being honored and you could tell that none of these people ever thought there would come a day when they would be welcomed into the President’s house and by a president who’s the first president to ever use the word transgender in a speech and to be asked to screen “The Danish Girl” and to be there with Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Soloway screening “Transparent.” It was amazing. It was one of things you had to pinch yourself it was so exciting and a bit surreal and amazing.
WL: That event encourages LGBT Americans to tell their stories. Why do you think it’s so important to share the story of Lili and Gerda?
TH: I think, first and foremost, it’s a beautiful story, an extraordinary story. It’s a love story of an amazingly courageous couple so firstly, it’s one of the great stories that hadn’t been told. I felt very lucky that I got to tell it but secondly, I think that there’s been an extraordinary change in the culture in just the seven years that I’ve been involved. In late 2008 when I fell in love with this amazing script, it was considered a hard film to finance and difficult to make. People were saying, ‘It’s too risky, Tom, don’t take this risk,’ and now everyone says it’s obviously timely and that’s because just in the last two or three years– because of “Transparent,” because of Laverne Cox in “Orange is the New Black,” because of Caitlin Jenner sharing her story– there’s been this sort of tipping point now for transgender stories and I think — what I hope — is that that there will be a continuation of people telling these stories [which] will ultimately end up in shifting attitudes and shifting legislation so that people going through this feel protected living in the United States in terms of healthcare, in terms of employment discrimination, and most importantly, in a reduction in acts of violence against trans people which are still at a shocking level. So there’s lots to be optimistic about but there’s still clearly a long way to go.
WL: What do you say to people who say you should have cast a transgender actor in the role of Lili?
TH: I think the community is right to want more representation and opportunities for trans actors in a sense that I’m not sure there is an equality of opportunity for a trans actor to roles as a cisgender. We went out into the community in London where we based the film and met all the trans actors and actresses we could and two of them ended up in the film in small roles playing cisgender actors. It was great that Eddie and Alicia had people on set who could give them further advice and insight but casting Eddie came out of a long working relationship. I worked with him when he was 22 years old on “Elizabeth I” with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons for HBO and he played a young rebel who tries to overthrow Queen Helen Mirren. Obviously he got sentenced to death because you shouldn’t rebel against Helen Mirren and he did the most astonishing performance in the scene where he’s sentenced to death that it was like watching someone be sentenced to death. He was so emotionally raw and almost like emotionally translucent. I vowed then and there to find a lead role for him. It was on the barricades of “Les Miserables” that I handed him the script for “The Danish Girl” in an unmarked brown paper envelope. He fell in love with it overnight and came back and said if we ever get to make it, I’m in. I said, hold on hold on it may not be that quick! I suppose Eddie’s special in that he has this ability to get emotionally inside characters but also communicate that to the audience and I think the great thing he’s done in this is that step for step beat for beat you’re with Lili. Lili’s never othered by Eddie Redmayne’s performance. You’re always very present with her and then there’s something about Eddie that’s quite drawn to the feminine. He played the girls parts in school plays. His first professional job was playing Viola in “Twelfth Night” so he had a body of work of playing women already which is very unusual.
WL: What about Alicia Vikander? She and Eddie had great chemistry together.
TH: They had an amazing chemistry. Well you know, once you cast Eddie Redmayne, it’s quite intimidating finding someone to act opposite him who could go head to head at the same level. I was aware of Alicia Vikander from “Anna Karenina” and “A Royal Affair” and “Ex Machina.” My casting director thought she was a great choice so she came in to do a screen test and we did the kind of excitingly titled “Scene 56” which is the scene, you know in the film where Lili kisses Henrick and the morning after, Gerda comes in and confronts her. Well, in this screen test Alicia did the scene and it was so moving that by the end of the first take, I had tears in my eyes and Eddie turned around to me and said, ‘Oh Hooper, no great surprise who you’re gonna cast now.’ I was like, “No, no, I’m still objective, I’m fine.’ So she did an extraordinary screen test and she’s just got such a great heart and is a very kind person, fiercely bright, but also brings a kind of Scandinavian energy and emotional openness to the role which was great given that the film was set around two Danish artists.
WL: Speaking of tears in your eyes, I cried a lot during this movie. It was very emotional.
TH: Really, what moved you?
WL: For me, it was really the love story and how Gerda stuck with Lili. Was making the film an emotional experience for you and what is your reaction now when you watch it?
TH: I went to the premiere in LA at the Westwood Village Theatre which is one of the classic old Hollywood cinemas and actually the theatre had its premiere the year that our movie ends. So we’re sitting in a room that took us right back to that moment in time and the premiere was a film called “A Free Soul” as in setting a soul free, which seemed rather appropriate given our film’s about setting a soul free. I got almost to the end and thought, I’m not gonna cry, I’ve seen this film hundreds of times, and then in the last scene- boom…Oh God, I got caught up again, I got emotional. But definitely your readers need to bring a box of kleenex or tissues if they can.
WL: I’ll definitely mention that in the piece.
TH: But I think it’s interesting, as you say, that people are getting very moved by the love story and also this theme of Gerda standing by Lili. And I think that’s the true nature of love, that you’re there for your partner when they’re going through tough times.
WL: Did you take any liberties with the book to better impart the message of the film or was it as close to the story as you could get?
TH: The book I think is more fictionalized than the film because in the novel David Ebershoff reinvented Gerda as Greta and she’s a Californian…and we felt we wanted her to be more like the real artist and I think in the novel he kind of invents the art in a different way and we wanted to use the real art more as a basis, so we did a lot to bring it more back to the real story. I think the real Gerda went off with an Italian diplomat just before Lili’s death. The marriage lasted three years and it failed and he took all her money and I didn’t feel that it was any competition to the love story. There was no doubt that the love of her life was Lili.
WL: So you’ve been directing since you were 13? Is there a moment that you can pinpoint when you figured out that this was your passion?
TH: I fell in love with it very decisively. Like a lot of people, it all comes down to a brilliant teacher and I had a teacher at school who taught acting and drama and English. I fell in love with acting. I then noticed I wasn’t getting the lead part in school plays, I was in the chorus, and I thought- well if I can’t get the lead role in a school of 300, I probably should give up acting as a dream since I’m probably not good enough. So I started to notice what he did as the director. I started to notice this whole world behind the scenes and I picked up at the library a book on film and TV production, read it overnight and that was it. I knew that was my life. I announced it to my mum and dad and of course they didn’t believe it because you know I passionately said I wanted to be a helicopter pilot and I wanted to be a scuba diver and I said I wanted to be a park ranger at a national park so they were like, well this is the next, but it was clear. And for me it’s funny because I have a direct through line to the twelve-year-old self who fell in love with it and I still feel very connected to that twelve-year-old because he was right–I did want to do it for the rest of my life.
WL: Besides this movie, what’s the best film you’ve seen this year?
TH: When people ask me that, I always go blank, but the most recent one I saw was the new Bond film which I actually really liked. It’s very different from this but it’s kind of a love story.