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Sebastián Lelio on how he found the star of A Fantastic Woman

The director originally brought Daniela Vega in as an advisor on how to engage with trans stories, but she ended up starring in his intimate, Oscar-nominated feature

Sebastián Lelio’s Oscar-nominated, Berlinale-winning A Fantastic Woman is a compelling tale of endurance, love, loss, and resistance, driven by a stand-out debut performance from Chilean actor Daniela Vega. The performance has already made history, with Vega becoming one of two trans people to be nominated for this year’s Academy Awards – the other being trans filmmaker Yance Ford, who is nominated for Strong Island.

When Marina suddenly loses Orlando, her lover and friend 20 years her senior, her identity as a transwoman sees her ostracised from the family, shut out of Orlando’s funeral, and targeted with suspicion and contempt by the authorities. Pushing back against a community that views her existence as an aberration and a perversion, Orlando’s death reawakens an instinctive drive in Marina to assert herself as a complex, strong, and fantastic woman.

Soaked in luminous visuals and peppered with elegant, surrealist flights of fancy, the film recalls the very best work of Pedro Almodóvar. At once richly beautiful and powerfully moving, A Fantastic Woman is an urgent call for compassion towards a community that faces bigotry and hostility on a daily basis. Ahead of the film’s release nationwide on March 2, we sat down with director Sebastián Lelio to talk about his inspirations for the film, why Daniela was originally incredulous about the role, and why he’s drawn to stories about forbidden love.

What inspired the story?

Sebastián Lelio: We were playing around with the question: “What would happen if the person you loved, died in your arms?” That’s the worst place for that person to die, because for some reason you become the unwanted one, the rejected one. But it wasn’t quite enough, it wasn’t inspiring enough, so we kept working and then the idea of this situation happening to a transgender woman appeared. When that idea occurred it felt like electricity, like a shock, because it was very moving, very contemporary, and full of dangers. That was maybe the best of all signs. There are so many traps you can fall into, politically, artistically – it’s a minefield. So, it was a good sign. But then I had only that...that intuition.

I felt a need to meet transgender women in Santiago. I didn’t know any transgender women in Santiago (as I live in Berlin) and to make a long story short I met Daniela. I wasn’t looking for an actress, I was looking to get rid of my ignorance. I didn’t even know if I wanted to make the film yet. You gather inspiration and if it’s not enough, you move on. But then when I met her we became friends, I loved her immediately, and then I asked her, would you be a friend of the project? Can I call you when I want, and can you talk to me about your life? And she said yes! After that meeting, after seeing how beautiful, strange, challenging, amazing, funny, witty, political, and graceful she was, I was like, you know what? I want to make this film. And then very soon after that, after talking to Daniela for hours and hours on Skype, I realised I could make a transgenre film about a transgender character, and that was like ‘CLACK!’ this is enough! When we had the first draft, I realised, Daniela is Marina! Our beloved advisor is the star. So that’s how it happened.

“After that meeting, after seeing how beautiful, strange, challenging, amazing, funny, witty, political, and graceful she was, I was like, you know what? I want to make this film” – Sebastián Lelio

And she said you were crazy when you told her you wanted to cast her?

Sebastián Lelio: She told me “Are you nuts!? What are you thinking? I don’t even know how to drive? You want me to sing opera! I need to lose weight!” I was like, you will learn! It was like My Fair Lady, we had 10 trainers for everything. The mythology says she went partying for three days and then came back, and with great dignity she called me and accepted.

As you were developing the film and the script, were there specific moments from Daniela’s past, or from the other women you met, which informed the story?

Sebastián Lelio: Not directly, because the film is a fiction, it’s inhabiting a different cinematic territory, but there are a lot of things that came from our conversations. The way in which the microaggressions operate – sometimes not so micro – when they address her as a ‘he’, that kind of thing. But it’s not biographical at all. Of course, the fact that Marina sings comes from Daniela, because she’s a singer, but in general it’s a very fictional character and they are very different people. We needed to create an enigmatic character in order for the game of projections to work, so you can fill the mystery that she is with your own projections, fantasties, fears and desires.

I thought it was particularly moving to tell a story about a transwoman, which as you say is fictional, but to cast a Daniela as the lead. A Fantastic Woman bridges both fictional and real worlds…

Sebastián Lelio: That’s why the film is a transfilm, it’s one thing and then becomes something else, it’s genre-fluid. What you are talking about is precisely one of the most important dimensions of the movie. Despite all of these fictional games, the flirting with genres – it’s a romantic film, a ghost story, a funeral film, a character study – at the centre is someone very real. A real transgender woman that has a body that carries a history, and the camera knows that. It makes the resonances infinitely more complex.

“There are a lot of things that came from our conversations. The way in which the microaggressions operate – sometimes not so micro – when they address her as a ‘he’, that kind of thing” – Sebastián Lelio

Some of the characters almost look like mirror images of one another, and there are several scenes where Marina is reflected in mirrors. What was your reason for that?

Sebastián Lelio: That happened quite organically, it was a gradual process. Part of the game of the film is that you are a spectator, watching these secondary characters judge this woman who is an enigma. They don’t reveal anything about her, they just reveal themselves, she remains a mystery. Sometimes here and there in the film, Marina looks straight into the lens, straight at you to ask “What do you see? Where are you standing? What are you projecting on me?” It’s a game of projections and reflections, in that sense, mirrors felt natural as a way of increasing that tension.

There’s also a moment where, having been belittled by her lover’s family, the police and medical staff, Marina switches gender roles. It feels like a powerful act of transgression...

Sebastián Lelio: The paradox with that scene, is that for her to be disguised she has to be naked. That’s such a strange and mysterious paradox, no?

Both A Fantastic Woman and Obedience explore loves that are labelled forbidden or illegitimate by others. What is it that draws you to these stories?

Sebastián Lelio: I don’t know, I think in Gloria it's the same. An aged woman who has access to pleasure? That’s frowned upon. I don’t know, I’m just moved by these characters, I feel on their side and I want to see them fall and stand up again. I want to make these portraits that are an examination and an exaltation. When you love someone, you can see every detail, the way he or she moves their hands or blinks. Only you can see it, because you have learned how to look at that person. I think that’s how I would like to film my characters. In such an intimate way that the spectator can feel a proximity, the proximity of someone that is loved.