You might reasonably figure that being a reedy Brit, freckled by way of Jackson Pollock and crowned with a ginger mop would limit a young actor’s choice in film roles, but Eddie Redmayne, poised to join the rarefied ranks of Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy with back-to-back acting Oscar nods, is perfectly fine defying your expectations each and every time he appears onscreen.
Less austere than Michael Fassbender, less combustibly street-smart than James McAvoy, less jock and jocular than Chris Pratt, to pluck but three other male stars in their 30s for compare, the 34-year old Redmayne could be well described as a chameleon, a latter-day hero with a thousand faces.
In last winter’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne’s face transforms, before our very eyes, from a hero to a heroine, the film – based on David Ebershoff’s bestselling book – telling the true story of fin de siècle Lili Elbe, who became a century ago the first known individual to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It is for Redmayne’s bold, compassionate performance that the actor may receive his second Oscar, chasing his brilliant turn as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
Beyond his impeccable taste in screen roles (save, perhaps, the interplanetary hokum of The Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending), Redmayne’s Polaris as one of his generation’s finest actors seems cribbed from master thespian Jack Nicholson, who once advised rookie performers to “just let the wardrobe do the acting.” Possessed of a certain sartorial spunk, Redmayne, recently named British GQ’s Best-Dressed Man, clearly knows his knickers from his chokers, his gabardine from his spectacles, his musket from his maquillage. In Theory of Everything, Redmayne transformed from the young, able-bodied Hawking into the physically decimated lion of science, a truly stunning metamorphosis the actor believes resulted from his five months of intense reading of astrophysics and studying of Hawking’s videotaped appearances so that “all the physical elements of the performances were so embedded and just second nature.” Even in the universally panned Jupiter, Redmayne – chomping every bit of scenery in sight as Balem Abrasax, a high-ranking alien with designs on ruling the galaxy – cuts a dashing, fearsome figure, decked out in a black and gold cape, billowing trousers, and a set of abs that might send Hugh Jackman running to Weight Watchers.
But it is in The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables), that Redmayne gives his peers in the Best Actor category a real run for their money – and he does it in high heels. The key to discovering and portraying such diverse extremes of humanity (and the infinite faces that go along with it) is, Redmayne believes, a question of curiosity and compassion. “(The Danish Girl is) about identity and, similar to Theory of Everything I suppose, it examines the fact that we have but one life on this planet,” Redmayne says. “That’s a lovely starting point for me as an actor: the question of what will we – or can we – do with this lot of years with which we’re blessed? More than my other films, The Danish Girl is about the gigantic risks involved in being true to one’s self.”
Thank goodness Redmayne – regardless of his wardrobe or visage – is always keen to roll the dice on such characters.
Before David Ebershoff’s book and certainly before your film, virtually no one knew who Lili Elbe was. Even in the riotous conversations surrounding Caitlyn Jenner, Elbe’s name had no cultural traction, really, until that first photograph of you onset was published. Why was Lili Elbe such an important person?
What's extraordinary about Lili is that in an age in which there were no precedents for what she was going through, no predecessors, no one who had cleared the path before her, she dared to be true to herself. That is, I think, one of the most heroic things a human being can do, and also, it’s often one of the most difficult things a human being can do. In the 1920s, there were no transgender women that Lili was aware of, but she had the bravery and the courage to pursue living a life authentic.
Which is never as easy to do as it is to say, right?
You’re exactly right. I find it really interesting that we hear people go, "Just be yourself," and it sounds like the easiest thing in the world to do. "Just be yourself!" And yet it's not easy at all. Particularly for Lili, it was a huge, huge battle, which she undertook with great courage and then she became herself.
We all need someone in our corner, so to speak, and Lili Elbe had a formidable ally in Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander.
“Formidable” is a perfect word for Gerda. Living in the early 20th century, Gerda was an artist, she worked independently, she had ambitions, she had drive at a time in which those things were perhaps frowned upon for women. She had great love for Lili, who was then living as a man named Einar Wegener. One of the extraordinary things about this story for me is the profundity of not only their love, but love itself. What an extraordinary thing it can be, love, how it will not defined by gender, by sexuality, by race, by religion, by anything. It's something else. It’s something other. We talk and sing and fight about love all the time, but I’ve come to see that it’s not really anything we’ll ever be able to articulate or capture; love is about the soul, it’s about our very core. And I think The Danish Girl is incredibly unique and bold and beautiful in that it recognizes these things about love, and ends becoming a very singular love story in the process.
However radical or brave it was for Caitlyn Jenner to step into the light last year, Lili’s story took place more than a century ago. What did you learn about her struggles in that era and how she came to the decisions that she did?
When I was preparing to play Lili, all of the trans-women I met described how they had known that they were, from the very first moment they can remember – like the age of 3 or 4 years old – assigned the wrong gender at birth. One of the interesting things for me was this drawing we found, the most extraordinary drawing, of Lili when she was living as Einar with this long, starched collar and this tight, tailored, very male suit, and it's almost as if she and society had constructed this male exoskeleton, which she then had to somehow unravel, a cocoon almost for the beautiful creature she was beneath all of that.
And it’s only by chance that Einar is called upon to release her true identity.
That’s right, the catalyst for Lili's emergence was a moment in which Gerda, who was painting portraits at the time, was working on a painting of a fairly well known ballerina who, one day, couldn’t make the appointment for her sitting. Gerda did not want to fall behind on the painting, and asked Lili – who was then living as Einar – to put on stockings and ladies’ shoes in order that she could paint the detail. It’s quite remarkable. For someone who had repressed themselves for so many years, who had concocted this exoskeleton, this armor, this disguise to be suddenly set free, I really do think that’s so remarkable.
In the film, there is this exquisite sequence in the ballroom, perfectly played, masterfully directed, where Lili first presents herself to the world as a woman. Tell me about the work that went into that.
There is such a combination of fear and danger and excitement and joy in that sequence; it’s really the kind of stuff every actor hope he’ll one day be able to play. Throughout that sequence, I really chose to see Einar/Lili’s approach as that of a game. A playfulness. She has been living as a man for a very long time. She has been wearing these high, starched collars. She has been in this sort of exoskeleton of maleness, of masculinity. She is beginning at last to have the environment in which she can learn – or relearn – her femininity, so she's watching all of the other women in the ballroom. She is studying these women, learning from them, copying them. She is finding out how she can discover and embrace and exist inside her own femininity. But also, under all of this, there are these incredibly high stakes. You’ve got to remember, and how quickly we forget, that what Lili did, she did in a period of history where women themselves got very little respect, and a man who was becoming a woman, there possibly were not many worse things a man could do. That layered the entire sequence – the entire film, really – with a lot of fear and danger.
The film has connected deeply with audiences around the world, just as Ebershoff’s book did a few years ago. What is it that you, as an actor and storyteller, hope a mainstream audience might take from The Danish Girl?
Lili's story is a very unique one. Truthfully, one of the things I learned while preparing to play her is that there is no single trans story; everyone’s story is different. Of course the stories are different; every single one of us is different. But I suppose one of the things that really touched me about this story is this notion of being yourself, one of the simplest and sometimes most impossible things in the world to do. Lili’s courage, it’s dumbfounding to me – and inspiring. The question of what it is to live an authentic life, that’s a complicated one. I’m not sure I can articulate any of the answers I found by playing Lili, but I feel like I most certainly found them. I hope, then, that every one who sees The Danish Girl might be galvanized themselves to lead more authentic lives. How much lovelier would the world be then?