Alicia Vikander on the love story that is “The Danish Girl”

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The Danish Girl has struggled to find its footing in Hollywood for more than a decade. Throughout the last 12 years, actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman have been attached to the leading roles, and different directors have come and gone. At certain points, it felt like the adaptation of David Ebershoff‘s novel fictionalizing the first ever transgender woman to under go gender reassignment surgery might never come to fruition. That it’s finally releasing in the U.S. this Thanksgiving weekend feels like a bit of a relief, and something to be grateful for.

Gweneth and Nicole are award-winning actresses that would have done fine in the role of Gerda Wegener, but watching Alicia Vikander play the artist and supportive wife to Lili Elbe is a huge part of the reason The Danish Girl was worth the wait. The 27-year-old Swedish actress is magnetizing, the kind of performer who is both classic and modern at the same time. 

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When we meet Gerda, she is a portrait painter living in 1920s Copenhagen with her more celebrated landscape artist husband, Einar (played by Eddie Redmayne). Their lives change when when Gerda asks Einar to pose in women’s stockings and ballet flats so she can finish a portrait of her friend, a dancer named Ula (Amber Heard). From the moment Einar feels the feminine fabrics on their skin, a transformation takes place, and their true self, Lili, begins to emerge. As Lili explores her ability to dress and be how she wants, Gerda struggles to be supportive while also holding onto the person she fell in love with. The relationship is sometimes threatened, but Gerda stays strong in her unconditional love for Lili.

“When I read the script the first time, it was a bit of a relish because I didn’t know that it was so much about a love story between Gerda and Lili, a story about them,” Alicia said during an interview in London’s Claridge’s Hotel earlier this month.

In person, Alicia is just as elegant as she is on screen. It’s no surprise that she has a background as a professional dancer before she began acting as a teenager. Christened a rising star for her ability to steal scenes from the likes of Kit Harrington and Keira Knightley, she starred in Guy Ritchie‘s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Ex-Machina earlier this year before premiering The Danish Girl at the Venice International Film Festival and making its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Oscar buzz has been surrounding both the film and Alicia since.

On screen, Alicia and Eddie are an incredible pair. In real life, Gerda and Lili stayed connected despite their inevitable dissolution of marriage (two women could not be married during that time), and Gerda’s paintings of Lili continued to make her a favorite in the art world. Later, Gerda went on to paint lesbian erotica and female-focused works.

In Paradise: the latest arrival causes scandal among the other already set down in the previous centuries. Illustration by Gerda Wegener (1889-1940) for the amusing newspaper 'The Sourire'. France, Paris 1925.(Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).
Illustration by Gerda Wegener (1889-1940) for the amusing newspaper ‘The Sourire’. France, Paris 1925. Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

“If you look at her art, she’s a very ahead of her time woman,” Alicia said. “It really comes out in her art, and all the photographs of Lili and Gerda—they didn’t have Instagram, but for being in the 1920s, they took a lot of photographs. They are all very theatrical and big. She was an artist, but she was also a working woman in the 1920s. That was extremely rare. I was just as impressed for Lil as Einar to be with a wife who is working.”

Perhaps it’s Gerda’s progressiveness that helps her to not only acknowledge Lili’s existence, but encourage it. The reality is that changes of any kind can shake even the strongest of marriages, and it takes a certain kind of person to not make their partner’s transition some kind of personal attack on their own identity.

“The interesting thing when you’re making a film like this,” Alicia said, “I’ve talked with amazing people from the transgender community and, prepping for Gerda, a lot of people who have been friends or family members or loved ones, partners to people who have transitioned—every single story’s different. But what it comes down to, and what I was drawn to in this film, is the unconditional love that kind of transcends any exterior looks. It’s that thing she fell in love with: Lili. It’s always different, but I think, in this case, I always—when I watch the film, it feels like Gerda had probably been one of those people who had probably stood by and been there, and she was until the end, really.”

Although the film moves away from the novel as the novel did from the true story (which was told in Man into Woman: The First Sex Change), The Danish Girl maintains the central ideas and characteristics of the couple at its center. Gerda and Lili move from husband and wife to uncharted territory. And though their sexual relationship seems to fall by the wayside, Alicia said it’s the deep emotion they hold for one another that had her enthralled. 

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“Everything’s turned upside down and they’re trying to find their relationship, new grounds for whatever they have. [Gerda] also let her frustration out because she’s afraid of losing the person she loves and she can’t even express with, ‘I want my husband back,'” Alicia said, referencing a scene in which Lili misses one of Gerda’s big art openings, leading to a passionate argument in their Parisian flat. “Still knowing that deep inside, she discovered Lili through her paintings there before the discussions came up. It’s kind of there, but that doesn’t mean the fear of not having the person you love will miss that intimate relationship, that that’s not there. I love the complexity of all those things coming together and both of them having to stand up for themselves, show their love, feeling embarrassed that their hurting each other but they can’t help it. In the end, they are just really the most affectionate about it.”

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