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Before director Sebastián Lelio knew her name, Daniela Vega was already hard at work preparing to lead his next movie by simple virtue of her existence.
“I was fascinated by her complexity,” the Chilean filmmaker says of meeting the 28-year-old transgender actress, who initially boarded the foreign language Oscar nominee A Fantastic Woman (in theaters Feb. 2) as an LGBT cultural advisor. At the time, Lelio’s story was fresh from a revision: The plot originally followed a cisgender lead, but evolved into a romantic drama/thriller/musical hybrid inspired by the emotional diversity of a trans woman, Marina, grappling with the sudden death of her lover, Orlando, and the scorn of his cissexist family. Lelio knew he needed a performer with the dynamism to match his ambitious concept, which couples Marina’s journey of self-affirmation with whimsical asides inspired by Buster Keaton’s stunts and Michael Jackson’s choreography.
“The script began absorbing things from Daniela, and I realized she was the one. She was Marina!” he explains, noting that her wit and personal politics inspired him to punctuate the film with genre-defying moments that convey Marina’s starry-eyed vision of herself. “She was mind-blowing in ways that pushed our relationship, and that pushed the boundaries of what the film could be.”
Thus, Vega reframed Lelio’s vision for the film, as did her willingness to bring her own experience to the screen. “The mission of the movie is to make sure our emotions are reconnected, because [we’re often] silenced,” Vega says of how her feature debut represents the global trans community. “Art is key to unlocking those doors of [understanding.]”
The story is not without obstacles, as Marina clashes with Orlando’s ex-wife and son, who seek to erase her from the kindred narrative as if her existence were a stain on the family legacy. They callously misgender her, liken her to a dog, ban her from Orlando’s funeral, and assault her—harsh realities of transphobia Vega has lived. “I also experienced violence against me,” she says, noting her truth informed Marina’s. “There’s diversity in terms of skin color, and the same is true when it comes to experiences. … You have the ability to use your experience to act, to create moments that aren’t necessarily scripted.”
The end goal, Vega says, became “to make sure people ask questions, not to provide them with answers. It’s to make them reflect.” Perhaps the best place to start is in the conflict of visibility Lelio explores: We see the woman, but have we earned the right to feel her struggle?
“We’re going through a dark period, from white to black,” Vega explains, stressing the vitality of Marina’s resistance to adversity, which conjures empathy in an age where LGBT rights are under fire. “We can get to a brighter place [with] more color. That’s what we’re working toward.”
A Fantastic Woman enters limited release For EW’s full Q&A with Vega and Lelio, click here.