Fresh off winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Redmayne starred in “The Danish Girl” as Lili Elbe, a painter who in the early 1930s became one of the first trans women to undergo gender confirmation surgery. The film, directed by Tom Hooper, earned widespread acclaim for Redmayne and co-star Alicia Vikander, both performances nominated for Oscars. (Vikander went on to win.)
But a number of critics took issue with the story’s historical inaccuracies and overall framing; in a piece for Vulture titled “Enough With the Queer and Trans Films That Are Actually About Straight People,” Kyle Buchanan wrote that “The Danish Girl” seemed more concerned with the journey of Vikander’s character, Lili’s wife, Gerda, who was granted more screen time as well.
Redmayne’s casting also attracted backlash for being yet another instance of a cisgender, heterosexual man taking on a role that could have gone to a trans actress. (The Amazon series “Transparent,” in which Jeffrey Tambor played a trans woman, premiered the year before the film’s release.) While promoting the project in an interview with IndieWire, Redmayne acknowledged that “there has been years of cisgender success on the back of trans stories.”
“I hope there’s a day when there are more trans actors and trans actresses playing trans parts, but also cisgender parts,” he said. “And I hope — as an actor one hopes — that one should be able to play any sort of part if one plays it with a sense of integrity and responsibility.”
While looking back on his career for a 2018 GQ interview, Redmayne noted that Hooper had struggled to finance “The Danish Girl” before he signed on as Lili. Redmayne’s proven success with “The Theory of Everything” earned potential financiers’ trust. But by the time of the interview, Redmayne considered it all to have been a “complicated experience,” given that he agreed with some of the eventual backlash to his playing a trans woman.
“I learned a lot and I met extraordinary people,” he said, “and I still haven’t necessarily reconciled whether it was the right thing to do.”
Last year, the actor spoke out after author J.K. Rowling doubled down on her anti-trans views, suggesting on Twitter that evolving discussions of gender identity deny the notion of biological sex. Redmayne, who stars in the film franchise adaptation of Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts,” said he disagreed with her. He wrote in a statement that “respect for transgender people remains a cultural imperative, and over the years I have been trying to constantly educate myself.”
“Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid,” he continued. “I would never want to speak on behalf of the community but I do know that my dear transgender friends and colleagues are tired of this constant questioning of their identities, which all too often results in violence and abuse.”
A few months later, Redmayne, while still disagreeing with Rowling, likened the “vitriol” she received online to “equally disgusting” harassment of trans people online and in real life.
The Sunday Times reporter didn’t ask Redmayne about his response to Rowling’s tweets — or the comparison made soon afterward — but did mention that “The Danish Girl” would not have been made without him.
“The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table,” Redmayne said. “There must be a levelling, otherwise we are going to carry on having these debates.”