Eddie Redmayne is not the type of movie star whose electricity courses through you the second he walks into a room — or, in this case, the intimate courtyard of a downtown Manhattan hotel on an unseasonably warm fall day. He’s the type who drills into your consciousness with his large eyes the moment he courteously shakes your hand, with a smile that says, We’re just two humans, you and I, except I happen to have an Oscar.
“In London, I still go on the Tube,” Redmayne says when I ask him how becoming famous worldwide after the success of Les Misérables and The Theory of Everything has changed his life. “Occasionally people stop and ask for photos, but they don’t disrupt.”
It’s hard to tell whether this is literally true or he’s being protective of his fans. What’s more apparent is Redmayne’s solicitousness, the gentlemanly way he opens the door for me as we move from the courtyard to an adjacent drawing room. The space is appointed in Edwardian-inspired burgundy and beige decor, a blend of patchwork-upholstered couches and floral plush chairs. It’s appropriate for a conversation about a film set in the beginning of the last century.
We move to a couch overstuffed with pillows, which Redmayne clears away so the two of us can talk over morning coffee. I lean forward to take a closer look at those eyes, which he deployed to great effect when playing a transgender woman in his upcoming movie The Danish Girl, a David Ebershoff novel adapted by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Tom Hooper, who directed Redmayne in Les Mis. That woman, the Danish painter Lili Elbe, was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery in 1930. Throughout multiple scenes in which Redmayne portrays Lili’s various stages of self-recognition — as she moves from fascination with women’s clothes to a deep conviction in her womanhood — Redmayne’s eyes are filled with wonder and fear, ever on the verge of tears.
In life and out of character, Redmayne’s eyes communicate sincerity and an amiable readiness to do what’s asked of him. He steadily drops his formality, relaxes his muscles, and settles into an even pose on the couch, both feet on the ground, hands cupped together on his lap. There’s a neutrality to Redmayne, the way his boyish build isn’t overly masculine; his features shift back and forth between strength and delicacy. His ability to embody femininity allowed Hooper to envision him for The Danish Girl.
“I look like my mum,” Redmayne admits without any hint of embarrassment. “I’ve played women since I was a kid and I’ve always enjoyed it.”
Though he became a global movie star by playing straight men, as Marius in Les Mis in 2012 and in his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, a full catalog of Redmayne’s roles reveals many gender-bending and queer parts. At his exclusive boarding school Eton in South East England, where he was in the same class as Prince William, Redmayne played fish-out-of-water ingenue Adela Quested as a teenager, in a stage adaptation of A Passage to India. He also played the bisexual, fishnet-wearing emcee in a 2001 production of Cabaret at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
So it’s not surprising that Redmayne also played a woman in his first professional role. While still an art history major in undergrad, he was handpicked by renowned theater actor and director Mark Rylance to play Viola in a traditional Elizabethan all-male Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night in 2002. His performance immediately thrust Redmayne into the limelight as a bona fide actor. Independent critic Paul Taylor notoriously commented: “I think that Eddie Redmayne (the undergraduate from Trinity College, Cambridge who is scandalously persuasive as Viola) would bring out the bisexual in any man.”
These witty, ironic turns may have given Redmayne some preparation to play Lili, but there are clear differences between her and his previous roles. One of the most searing moments in The Danish Girl occurs when a man who Lili believes is attracted to her as a woman suddenly calls her by her birth name, revealing that he’s attracted to her as a man dressed in women’s clothes. As Lili recoils from the man’s arms, it’s at this moment that she discovers for herself how her commitment to being Lili extends beyond playing dress-up. It’s the sort of realization that goes far beyond any of the gender-bending that Redmayne has explored before.
“The difference is trans experience,” Redmayne emphasizes, “and learning about it from trans people.”
To prepare for Lili, Redmayne relied in part on books and pictures. Apart from Ebershoff’s novel, there was Elbe’s posthumously published memoir, Man Into Woman, which Redmayne examined for clues into her character. There were also photographs of Lili and paintings by her wife, Gerda Wegener, which he describes as “super-stylized and quite mannered.” But Redmayne also made sure to consult with living transgender women from various generations, to get both emotional and physical pointers on how to play the part.
Jumping up from the couch, Redmayne shows me how one of the women he consulted with would look in the mirror before leaving the house every morning and sling a backpack over one shoulder — here he mimes putting on an invisible backpack, glances at me over his shoulder, and juts out his hip — before testing her stance, “to find curves that she didn't have in her body.” This influence is evident in Redmayne’s performance, as there are several scenes in The Danish Girl where Lili looks in mirrors in various outfits and stages of dress, trying to find her womanhood in her posture — not as a form of imitation, but as a way of being.
There were even times when Redmayne’s research exposed divergences between The Danish Girl’s script and the lived experiences of trans women he heard from. “What a lot of the women I met told me about were the disastrous failures of the first time they were going out [dressed in women’s clothes],” Redmayne confides, “but the script demanded that an audience at moments — and the public — believe Lili instantly in her femininity.”
In the movie, Lili first discovers her fascination with womanhood when her wife, Gerda, asks her to stand in for a female model in one of Gerda’s paintings. But as Lili’s interest grows, she decides to find women’s clothes for herself and go to a party with Gerda, who introduces her as her husband’s cousin from out of town. Many of the men at the party are instantly fascinated with the beautiful yet shy woman, and there is no hint in the movie that anyone suspects Lili to be the same person as Gerda’s husband.
Redmayne indicates that he took steps to reflect trans experience more realistically with the movie’s makeup and hair artist Jan Sewell. “I don't know what you think of the early stages of transition, of hyper-feminization or of trying too much makeup on,” Redmayne says, politely acknowledging my experience as a trans woman, as he does throughout our interaction, “but one of the things we came up with — because I look nothing like Lili, or Lili when she was known as Einar — working with Jan Sewell, the wig that she wears to begin with was quite strong.” This overly theatrical flourish during Lili’s first public appearance in women’s clothes was how Redmayne was able to play Lili as being instantly convincing as a woman, while still reflecting the common experience of trans women taking time to figure out how to occupy their new gender roles.
This concern for “passing” — the degree to which a trans woman can convincingly appear to others as cisgender in public — is a substantial and complicated one for Redmayne, which reflects his discussions with the trans women he consulted. He describes what a trans woman told him about how passing creates divisions among trans women. “She would be with a friend of hers who does not blend at all,” Redmayne says, “and she would get worried about her association even though she hated herself for feeling that.”
Yet it’s also clear as Redmayne and I continue to talk that his concern does not just have to do with the trans women he met, or whether The Danish Girl accurately reflects trans experience. It’s also his own self-consciousness about being believable as Lili, both in the movie and in life (he interacted with the film crew in women’s clothes, and tabloid pictures were taken of him while on set).
“One of the things that I felt constantly scrutinized by was, am I passing? And then I was also constantly frustrated with that term because it's not about — in some ways it was maybe to begin about [Lili’s] passing in some ways, but then I hope by the end it's not, it's just about her being who she is,” Redmayne says, overlapping his own feelings with those of the character he plays. “I certainly felt the scrutiny and judgment of the people around me about how I was looking.”
It’s hard to tell whether this self-consciousness is about Redmayne wanting to create a convincing performance as an actor, or “not fucking it up” when it comes to convincingly and accurately portraying a trans woman’s experience. The two goals are perhaps one and the same. When I ask about his own relationship to gender, Redmayne is noncommittal.
“If gender is on a spectrum, where one finds oneself is completely unique,” he says, shifting back and forth between thoughtfully putting a hand on his chin and gesturing in explanation. “I also think it is wherever we are born that you are influenced by where you are, [and by] what your circumstances are as well. So I think it's very difficult to know, also particularly as an actor, when your job is to go into different versions of gender.” He cites the range of his roles, from Viola to the World War I soldier Stephen Wraysford in the 2012 BBC miniseries Birdsong, who Redmayne describes as a very broken but very male figure. “So what's interesting is that you don't really know about your own...the specifics of your own.”
Regardless of specifics, he presents himself to the world as a thirtysomething male actor who’s married to a woman, public relations executive Hannah Bagshawe, and lives in London. I ask him whether he’ll ever play someone more like himself. “I don’t know if I’d be very good at it,” he demurs, then explains that part of what allows him to act effectively is creating a separation between his own nervous self and the character he’s playing. “There's something scary about acting always, because basically you do all this work in a vacuum and then suddenly there's a lot of money spent making a film and there's suddenly a camera here!” — Redmayne thrusts out his palm and stops a couple of inches from my face — “Going, right? What are you gonna do?”
Impulsively, I ask him if I can see his right hand after he pulls it back into his lap. He presents it to me, and I take it with my left hand, briefly feeling his surprisingly soft palm with my fingers. Then I move my hand from under his and put his palm against mine, so that our hands are mirror images of each other. People often tell me I have unusually small hands, but Redmayne’s hand is not much bigger, his fingers thin and delicate. I explain that trans women often compare hands early in transition, to see whether they can pass easily as cisgender.
“It's the biggest tell,” I say. “Hands and feet.”
“Really? Hands and feet,” he replies pensively.
Redmayne continues to talk about the trans women he met in preparation for the role — how open they were, what he learned from them, and how he incorporated lessons into his part. “Every single woman I met, bar none, would pretty much start the conversation going, ‘There is no question I'm not willing to answer,’ in an attempt to educate me,” he says. “The idea of upsetting them or not doing a good enough job is the thing that has fueled the work that I did.”
Yet there is also a significant faction of the transgender community that bristles over how, once again, a cisgender man is playing a trans character in a big, Oscar-courting movie. This tradition has a long history dating back to Jaye Davidson’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Crying Game, to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. Many trans leaders and activists are calling for these plum roles to go to transgender people, who are becoming increasingly present in Hollywood.
“There's been a huge history of cisgender success on the back of trans stories, which is something I'm deeply aware of,” Redmayne says. “My take on it, I suppose, was that I do think actors should be able to play anything.”
He cites the casting of transgender actress Rebecca Root in the small part of Lili’s nurse in The Danish Girl as a small example of progress. “But at the same point,” Redmayne continues, “I also realize there are so few trans parts and so many brilliant trans actors and actresses that I understand [the backlash] — not only understand it, but absolutely see the anger.”
Redmayne envisions a future where more compelling trans stories will be told by trans people, both in front of and behind the camera. He cites the upcoming Jen Richards–penned web series Her Story — which stars Richards and another trans actress, Angelica Ross — as a promising example of trans lives depicted onscreen by trans people. “I've got to say I think she's pretty extraordinary,” Redmayne says of Richards. “It is a tipping point and it is changing.”
He also cites the importance of training as a means for trans people to gain more chances to play both cis and trans roles. “There is a course in London, which I went to, for trans people being trained, and it's a grassroots thing,” he says. “It’s not only giving people enough opportunity but also encouraging people to train.”
But some trans people aren’t only concerned with the lack of professional opportunities for trans actors — they also fear that an ignorant public will equate trans women with men dressed in drag if they keep seeing cisgender actors playing these roles.
Contemplating this concern, Redmayne’s mood turns solemn. “I just hope we get to a point in the world in which the acknowledgement that wherever you are on the spectrum and whoever you want to be is validity enough,” he says, “that one doesn't have to look a certain way or pass in any sense of the word.”
Redmayne continues: “There's no way that [The Danish Girl], this performance, is ever going to please everyone; that's the nature, I suppose, of what we do. I do just hope within a political sphere, if it continues this conversation, and I mean that conversation and debate and dialogue, and forces people to understand and educate themselves, particularly in the cisgender community, enough to be able to have a point of view — then that's, I hope, only a good thing.”
Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for The Crying Game. A previous version of this article stated that he won the Oscar for it.