In The Danish Girl, Amber Heard plays a ballet dancer based on a real life woman who had already gone through one significant change for the sake of fiction. In David Ebershoff‘s novel from which the film is based, the author took the real life Danish actress Anna Larsen and made her into the heavy-set opera singer Anna Fonsmark.
“[Director] Tom [Hooper] asked me, when I met with him about this movie, he asked if I could sing and I said, ‘Mm, I don’t think so. Yeah, no,'” Amber said during an interview in London earlier this month. “He said, ‘She’s an opera singer, but we were thinking about maybe doing something else with her.’ I said, ‘I can’t sing opera, that’s for sure!’ And he said, ‘No, that’s OK, that’s OK. It’s fine—we’re just going to make her a ballet dancer. We were thinking about that anyway.'”
Photo by JB Lacroix/Getty Images
As Ulla, Amber is integral to the story as a friend to Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander) and her husband Einar, who eventually becomes Lili (Eddie Redmayne), the first transgender woman to ever undergo gender reassignment surgery. It is when Ulla cancels a portrait session with Gerda that that Einar is asked to sit in her place, wearing the stockings and slippers that first stirs an awakening for Einar. And when Ulla shows up unexpectedly, she hands Einar a bouquet of flowers and christens her Lili.
“I loved being liberated from the narrow confines of the cultural context, the prejudice,” Amber said regarding her character’s immediate acceptance and embracing of Lili. “Being able to transcend the expected prejudice and see somebody—your friend, for instance—for the person, the human being that they are, and not being limited—that’s always a good thing, when you’re looking at a character. If they’re not limited, you have a lot more freedom. And in this case Ulla is all freedom. She’s all spirit. And what she care about is the human, not the superficial. And also she’s a progressive person who might seem—she was certainly ahead of her time then, but she’s—we take for granted now how interesting that friendship must have been and how special of a human being she must have been to be able to do that.”
Amber also loved how Ulla was “part of the new bohemians” of the 1920s. When Ulla is not performing around Europe, she is attending parties with forward-thinking contemporaries like Gerda and Lili.
“I like that she was a representative of that because it was a very special and unique time in our history where all of these fantastic creative forces coalesced into one genesis of what would later become an incredibly rich and giving movement in art and creativity and culture of fashion, movies, film,” Amber said. “And we got to have so much fun being these kind of people; creative people.”
Alicia and Eddie were already attached to their roles by the time Amber received The Danish Girl, and she was thrilled at the opportunity to be a part of such a “special” project.
“Lucinda [Coxon] had written a script that had all of these very subtle and yet organic nuances in the subtext and in the dialogue, and I thought that this person clearly was interested in capturing humanity,” Amber said. “Not all stories are about the human spirit and I felt like without the plot being a factor, you pick that up right away, whether a writer or a storyteller is interested in actually exposing an element of the human spirit.”
As an out actress, Amber has been a voice for equality and LGBT rights through her participation in the Self-Evident Truths campaign and in interviews when she’s continually asked about her sexual identity. (She’s dated women and men, and is currently married to Johnny Depp.) So it’s not a surprise that she’d want to align herself with the message of The Danish Girl, which is very much about the kind of self-acceptance that will hopefully lead to more societal acceptance.
“The fact it is coming out is indicative of—or is proof, rather—of our culture being ready for this conversation and us being, as a society, being interested in these stories, interested in asking these questions, interested in redefining some previously held notions and long-standing standards,” Amber said. “We’re, as a society, clearly ready to talk about it and we’re interested in it. And I think it’s about time because it’s not an accident this story took place over 100 years ago; it’s not an accident that most people have never heard about Lili, who is this incredibly, extraordinary pioneer. And yet we haven’t heard about [her]. There’s reasons for that, and this largely marginalized and forgotten or suppressed community is finally coming to light. We’re finally ready to shine light on this and it’s long time coming.
Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images
“And we still have clearly a long way to go,” she continued. “But the one way, clearly, we will achieve any sort of change in a positive direction is accepting people for who they are and looking beyond superficial means to judge people instead of falling prey to our prejudices and our tribal instincts towards fear or whatever. The only way we’re going to get over that is by being familiarized with it; is by being exposed to it. I’ve said this before, but education is the anecdote to prejudice. I think this is how we’re gonna do it.”
It’s clear that Amber is passionate about the kind of conversations The Danish Girl will inspire, and how timely the story of Lili and Gerda remains.
“I think it’s getting harder and harder to hate. You always want to be on the right side of history,” Amber said. “And also history—look at what history does to absolve people that choose to stand up for the dignity of the human spirit and human life. It’s not like history looks back on those people in an unfair or negative way the way it does for, say, people who stand up for bigotry or hatred. You don’t have to look back far in history to see that.”
Outside of LGBT equality, Amber also shared her thoughts on the lack of opportunities for women in film. She added her voice to the chorus of women actors, writers, producers and filmmakers who have been pushing for change in a very public way as of late.
“Go see a movie right now and go see the majority of compelling speaking roles there are,” Amber said. “The narrow options, the very narrow, limited options you have as a woman are to play and to these pedantic and overplayed stereotypes that are limited and you have very little, little choice and so there’s very few parts and obviously because there are few parts, there’s fierce competition, and anything that’s led by a woman is not financeable typically so those movies are typically under-financed, under-budgeted, completely under-made.”
Amber, who has worked largely on projects with male directors, wants to see more women filmmakers for a “more balanced perspective … across the board.”
“We’re way behind,” she said. “Way behind in this supposedly progressive or possibly progressive medium. The system is so broken in regards to this issue that it takes not just actresses and actors noticing it, it takes more than audiences [saying] ‘Hey, I actually will show up to go see a movie led by a female cast or that’s focused on the female life or elements of a female perspective.’ It takes way more than that. It also takes the studio system to be tired of this old played out formulaic approach to making movies. They’ve gotta be interested in changing. The financiers—the system of financing movies has to change. It’s all across the board broken. But we’re just antiquated and need to catch up. I think it’s slowly changing.”
While Amber is the kind of actor/activist who is not happy with the state of the industry or the place of minorities in the world, she seems optimistic that our sameness will inevitably overpower our differences.
“I think as we become an increasingly connected global community, it becomes harder and harder to rely on old prejudices and old kind of superficial tribalistic ways to define you as opposed to me; a way to delineate you [from] me,” she said. “I think we see each other now as ever more so part of a global community. … I think it’s easier and easier for us to see ourselves as related, as humans.”
Perhaps a bit of idealistic typecasting on behalf of The Danish Girl, but in the best of ways.
The Danish Girl opens in select theaters on November 27th.