Eddie Redmayne was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in The Danish Girl, but now he is having second thoughts about the role he took on. Redmayne played the part of Lili Elbe, a Danish illustrator who is remembered as one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Highly experimental at the time, the procedure eventually led to Elbe’s death, aged only 48.
Now, Redmayne has said he was wrong to play the part he did:
‘I made that film with the best intentions, but I think it was a mistake.’Eddie Redmayne
Why? Redmayne’s response was opaque:
‘The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table. There must be a levelling, otherwise we are going to carry on having these debates.’Eddie Redmayne
If Redmayne won’t name the debate, I will: should actors who are not trans play characters who are trans? It is a simple question. But while Redmayne probably thinks he is being thoughtful towards trans people in suggesting he wouldn’t take a similar role again, I’m not convinced.
A year before Redmayne starred in The Danish Girl, he played Stephen Hawking in another biographical romantic drama, The Theory of Everything. Was it OK for a physicist to be portrayed by someone who is not a physicist?
As a trans physicist I fail to see the distinction between these two films, unless an assumption is being made that trans people are somehow distinct from the rest of humanity. We are normal human beings much the same as everyone else, and I campaign for our right to live in society in much the same way as everyone else.
Elbe’s life was remarkable, and a similar story to my own, just three generations earlier. Elbe was married – like me – and transitioned in mid-life – like me. Now, of course, we have the NHS and three generations of experience to look back on; Elbe went to Germany to be treated by doctors who were experimenting with techniques that had never been tried before.
Redmayne portrayed the character sympathetically and his performance was lauded. But others – who thought that a trans actor should have played the role – were not impressed. Redmayne should ignore these voices of dissent. His performance brought Elbe to life in a way that a lesser actor (or actress) would have struggled to emulate.
So Redmayne should not worry about upsetting the trans lobby; they will never be satisfied. Instead what matters is his superb performance of a Danish illustrator who died too young, and helped a wider audience to understand the humanity of a character who was trans, but so much more than that. Redmayne should be proud rather than ashamed of playing Lili Elbe.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 22 November 2021: Eddie Redmayne shouldn’t regret playing a trans character.