Is Eddie Redmayne Playing a Trans Woman a Problem?

by Michael Arbeiter

In a perfect world, the casting of a film adaptation of David Ebershoff’s book The Danish Girl — the semi-fictionalized story of the first recorded transgender woman to have sex reassignment surgery — would be an uncomplicated issue. A perfect world would be one in which society had a full understanding of transgender people and the issues they face, and in which transgender people themselves are cast in these roles. But in the here and now, Eddie Redmayne is playing the role of Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, and it's causing controversy.

On Monday, Redmayne spoke with E! about his upcoming role in the developing Tom Hooper film, describing his psychological preparation for his performance as Lili Elbe: "I have put on dresses and wigs and makeup," Redmayne said. "I'm beginning to embark on that and trying to find out who she is." Taken out of context, Redmayne’s remark sounds more reductive than it may have come across in conversation. That said, Jezebel’s Kat Callahan highlighted some valid concerns about Redmayne’s methods for embodying Elbe.

Callahan’s primary position is that Redmayne’s process, or at least the description thereof, indicates that there is one experience of being transgender — an experience that involves dresses and wigs and makeup. And though the identities of many transgender women may skew femme, that is hardly representative of all trans women. Transgender women can present themselves in any number of ways.

Questions persist, not only regarding Redmayne and his grasp of the subject matter, but regarding the casting of a cisgender man to carry out such a role in the first place. Similar controversy surrounded the Danish Girl movie back in the early days of its development, when Lasse Hallstrom was in charge and stars like Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Gwyneth Paltrow were considered for casting. Why is a cisgender male cast to play this character when there are likely hundreds of qualified and talented transgender actresses who would gladly take on the role, and bring unique perspective and experience to it?

Redmayne's turn as Elbe will require a transformation — and, if the praise of his role as Stephen Hawking in biopic The Theory of Everything, is any indication, he is capable of wholly embodying an unfamiliar character. So, while he is not perhaps the ideal candidate for a role in The Danish Girl, he is at least a strategic one. Actors who play the title role in a biopic are often subject to major criticism, and if he can gain praise for playing a character like Stephen Hawking, then perhaps the public, the critics, and the Oscar committee are already on his side.

The choice of Redmayne may also be a strategic play for box-office success as well as critical support. Casting a big name in a movie ups its chances of performing in theaters, and the prospect of seeing someone like Redmayne undergo such a transformation may be doubly enticing. The more people who see the movie, the more people will be informed of Lile Elbe's story. Though ideally a transgender actress would play the role of a transgender woman, perhaps the casting of Redmayne gets this story in front of more eyeballs — and that could do big things for public understanding and acceptance of transgender people.

Images: Focus Features (2)