Original-Cin Q&A: Chilean Oscar nom, LGBT-themed A Fantastic Woman

Foreign-language Oscar-nominee A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica) garnered immediate attention when it debuted early last year at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. The movie won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay and the Teddy Award, given to films with a LGBT theme..

Directed by Chilean Sebastián Lelio,  A Fantastic Woman tells the story of Marina, a transgender woman played by Daniela Vega, (a real-life transgender) who is in a loving relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a man who is much older than her.

When he unexpectedly dies, she is put in the position of having to tell his immediate family - people who we soon find out do not trust her and want absolutely nothing to do with her. All Marina wants is to be herself and as we find out throughout the film she does everything she can to prove that she is truly, a fantastic woman.

The charismatic Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman

The charismatic Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman

Original Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with Director Sebastián Lelio and star Daniela Vega during the Toronto International Film Festival.

Original Cin - Congratulations on this unique and extraordinary movie. Instead of calling it, A Fantastic Woman, you could have just called it, A Fantastic Movie! Did you think about that?

Sebastián Lelio (laughs) "Well, um no , not really … but thank you for saying that.  Actually there are a couple of movie titles from the seventies that had the word woman in it like A Woman Under the Influence and The Unmarried Woman and I just loved that seventies touch, so that’s how I came up with the title."

OC: Ever since the movie debuted it’s been getting such positive attention and so many accolades. What do you think it is about this film that is touching people and making them take notice?

SL: "I think that we are going through a human crisis. It seems that in the center of the public discussion, the problem of who we are is at the core of every political problem. Whether it relates to individuals or relationships and if they are 'legitimate.' Who has the authority to declare that and why?

A Fantastic Woman director Sebastián Lelio

A Fantastic Woman director Sebastián Lelio

"Even though this is not a ‘cause’ film I think it resonates with that zeitgeist, with that moment we are going through as a species.  It’s not only about what is going on in Chile, this resonates with what is going in the world.  In the States, Brexit, the immigration crisis, everything that is fragile and menaced, I believe the film resonates with that.'

OC: How did the idea for the film come about?

SL: Me and my co-writer (Gonzalo Maza) had the idea of, ‘What if the person you love dies in your arms, and your arms is the worst place to die because you are the unwanted one?’ So you would have to inform the family, you would  have to let everyone know and no one would want you there. 

So that seemed like a good premise for a film. But then we started to explore the possibilities and decide who exactly that unwanted person could be and why.  We were at a crossroads, because when we thought that maybe the lead character should be transgender, we had to stop writing for a while. I needed to do some research, because I didn't have any transgender friends, I didn’t know any transgender people, I wasn’t living in Chile at the time so I was a detached from what was going on."

OC: Where did you begin with your research?

SL: "It was surprisingly easy. I was introduced to a number of transgenders who immediately said to me, 'You must meet Daniela Vega! She is fantastic, she sings, she acts…'"

OC: She does it all.

SL: "Yes, as it turned out she did do it all. So I called her and it was really funny when I introduced myself I said, ‘Hi, I am Sebastian Leilo.’  And she said, ‘Uh okay.’ She had no idea why on earth I would be calling her. So, I explained and asked if if we could meet in person to talk, and that I wanted to get together right away.  So we met, and for me that was a milestone in the process. I saw her and I was like, ‘WOW!’ We spoke for about two hours."

Daniela Vega: “Oh yeah, I spoke a lot.  I literally could not stop talking. Once someone asks me to talk about myself, I can’t stop.” (laughs)

OC: What an amazing opportunity for you Daniela, to not only play this character but to be in such a beautiful film with a transgender person as the lead character.

DV: “For me to decide to work with Sebastian was a gift. I understood that taking on the role could mean a big change for me in my career. I had only acted in one small film (2014's The Guest) and I knew that taking on this role would also be a process of artistic discovery. And what I loved is that Sebastian incorporated abilities that I had into the film, like my acting and singing. This being only my second cinematic role I can definitely say it was the most difficult thing I've had to do in my life.”

OC: In what way?

DV: “Mainly I felt a lot of responsibility to not only get the acting right but also to represent a transgender character on the big screen. It was a huge challenge for me.”

OC: You have been getting such rave reviews for this role. There’s even been awards talk.  Do you even think about this kind of thing or did you when you took on the role?

DV (Laughs nervously) “To be honest, I am really trying to take all of this step by step. I am enjoying my visits to film festivals and getting the opportunity to discuss the film, making people aware of not just the film but of transgenders. If I can shed any light on the topic, then this is what makes me happy. My take on everything is evolving, it’s been quite overwhelming so to even discuss Oscars at this point is not something I can even focus on.”

OC: Sebastian, what surprised you most about Daniella when you began working with her?

SL: “When I met her I loved the fact that she could be so witty and political and extremely graceful at the same time. There was levity in the way she  could handle the heavier subjects  and that is something so beautiful in a person.  I really admire that quality. And as for portraying this character - because after all the character is fictional – (I love) the fact that Daniella is a Renaissance person who sings, acts, writes and is a great communicator 

“I think all of those qualities made their way into the script and her performance. When we started to work on the film, Daniella was helping us as a sort of consultant/friend.  She was sharing her experiences, (although) we were writing something that wasn't related to her life. But during the process of writing, we realized that, after meeting her, we were not going to make this movie without a transgender actor.

“That was the first gift I received by meeting her. Then, as I was writing, I kept thinking, ‘Wow - this is Daniella! it has to be her.’ So by the end of that process, and when the first draft was finished, we sent it to her  and the rest followed.”

OC: It’s not just a film about being transgender, it’s really about acceptance of anyone. It could have been a story about a man who died who was Catholic and was married to a Jew, it really just encompasses so many levels.  What kind of response have you received so far of acceptance, or people maybe opening their eyes  to not being so judgmental. Have you had that kind of response?

SL: “We have. The film is about the limits of  empathy and that is the crisis we are going through right now. As a human species.  What are the limits of our loyalties?  What constitutes family?  Is it our class? Our race? Is it our nation?  We are all floating on this planet and we need to  learn how to live together.

“Will the guy with the crazy yellow hairstyle send a missile to the guy with the new wave hairstyle?  So it’s a super crazy political moment,  and I think the film resonates  because it explores the limits of empathy. And in that sense, I think the film worked  because in general, people connected with that. 

“By the end of the film it invites the secondary characters to connect with her, step in her shows and be on her side. That  type of empathy might potentially be something new for some spectators,”

OC: Daniella, what was the most difficult part of shooting this film for you?

DC:  “It was to understand that I would be working with one of the biggest  filmmakers in my country, Chile.  It meant that I had to give myself completely to the role. And it was more than learning the script or doing a scene or even learning to drive. It meant that the character Marina would be with me for a while, that the role would take over my body and that I would have to put my all into it. 

“It was a 100 percent commitment on my part  and committing to all of the emotional layers that are unveiled during the film in a character that is ultimately a very strong protagonist. After Orlando passes away early on in the movie, the camera primarily focuses on Marina and never goes away. And that carried a lot of weight for me. I had to take on that responsibility wholeheartedly and embrace everything that went with playing Marina and what happens to her.  Some scenes were more difficult than others but really the whole film was all encompassing.”

Read our review of A Fantastic Woman