When film producer and Emerson professor Linda Reisman read David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl in 2003, she knew she wanted to see it on the big screen. More than a decade later, she’s helped make that dream a reality: The book inspired by the life of artist Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo a sex reassignment surgery, has been adapted into a film starring Eddie Redmayne. We chatted with Reisman about the film, which hits local theaters this month and is already garnering Oscar buzz.
What were some things that were important to you in making this film? I think that we all wanted to really respectfully represent issues around the transgender process. And the actors did a tremendous amount of research, as did the director. We all did. The thing about The Danish Girl is that, at its core, it’s a love story. And it’s a story of a marriage that disintegrates, but also asks the question: How far do you go for those that you deeply love? And how does love change for someone? I think that the integrity of those questions was very important to all of us.
Did you initially have anyone in mind for certain roles? For a long time Nicole Kidman was attached to the project, and she wanted Einar. And at different times we had different actresses attached for Gerda. We had Charlize Theron at one point, we had Gwyneth Paltrow, we had Rachel Weisz. But honestly, when [director] Tom Hooper originally read the script, I think in 2008, he immediately thought of Eddie Redmayne, who he had worked with on Elizabeth I, before they did Les Mis together. And when a director so assuredly has an actor who he knows can really portray that role and all the complexities and dimensions required of it, it’s impossible to suggest other actors. So from the moment that I heard he wanted Eddie Redmayne, I thought, my God, he’ll be amazing. And this was before he shot The Theory of Everything.
There was some pushback from the transgender community about a cis male being cast as Einar. What’s your response to that? I think we all feel very strongly that Hollywood needs to step it up here, with casting transgender actors in a variety of roles. … But secondly I would say that from the moment Tom Hooper read the script he had a particular actor in mind, and the truth is that Einar is in three quarters of the movie maybe, and Lili is maybe a quarter. And it’s a very complex question, who can sustain the dimension of this character and this kind of transformation? And the reality of getting a movie like this made—which was not expensive at all, by Hollywood standards—by a studio, it requires a strong ability to be able to distribute and sell internationally. We have to have actors that have an international box-office presence. And that’s a harsh reality of having a movie like this made. I think that Eddie Redmayne has been so sensitive to this issue, has researched, has spent a lot of time with transgender actresses and people in the trans community, and has very eloquently been able to have that conversation. But I think being able to be part of this conversation at a national level only means that there will be more conversation.
Any advice for a young person hoping to break into the film industry? You have to have a story, something you want to say, and very passionately be able to persevere and stand by that vision. And what I always say to my students is “Be nice to the assistants!” Because the assistants are the people who are going to be running the studio one day.