Nominee Q&A

'A Fantastic Woman' Transgender Star Reveals How She Landed Her Breakout Role

Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Actress Daniela Vega worked with Sebastian Lelio, director of Chile's foreign-language Oscar nominee, as he was writing the script, but he hadn't even considered her for the role — and she hadn't asked — until he had an epiphany late in the process.

Daniela Vega doesn’t have a soapbox. She’s not looking to be the face of a movement. But fairly or unfairly, the transgender breakout star of Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman whose partner dies, leaving her alone to face his bigoted family and an intolerant world, is now front and center in the conversation about the lives and rights of trans people.

In Vega’s position, a less self-assured individual would be fresh meat for the grinder of the culture wars, not to mention sudden fame. But she’s taking it in stride. “I feel that I’m really an actress. I don’t feel like I’m a symbol of anything — I’m not an activist,” she says. “I truly appreciate that I’m getting a lot of love from the public, from everybody, from the media. But I respect those people Who are activists, who are committed to changing the world and to having an impact from a legislative standpoint when it comes to the LGBT community. But me, myself, I feel that I am an actress and that’s my role.”

Just a few short years ago, Vega was working in a hair salon in Santiago, singing opera and acting in local theater on the side. But that all changed when a mutual friend introduced her to director Sebastian Lelio, who was researching the transgender community for a potential film.

They met for coffee, and “after that conversation, I knew I wanted to make the film,” recalls Lelio. “And I knew I was not going to make it without a transgender actress.”

Vega became a “cultural adviser and friend,” says Lelio, and he started writing. They spoke often, discussing her experiences as a transgender woman in Chile. But they never talked about the script or any potential role for Vega, who had done only one tiny indie film.

“She was very elegant in never asking if I was thinking about her, and I wasn’t,” says Lelio. “That’s the strange beauty of it, that somehow because of this relationship with her, we were trying to create a polymorphic device, a narrative device that was as complex and as beautiful as her.”

Then Lelio had an epiphany: Perhaps he could make a movie that wasn’t just a thriller or a character study or a ghost story — that, like Vega, was all the more compelling for not being so easily defined. Perhaps he could “make a transgenre film about a transgender character.”

As he and co-writer Gonzalo Maza neared the end of the writing process, Lelio realized that Vega should play the role of protagonist Marina Vidal. “It was clear: Why on earth would I look for anyone else but Dani?” says Lelio. “She’s a force of nature. She’s brilliant.”

So he sent Vega a draft of the script and offered her the part. The actress says she didn’t hesitate: “I wanted to do it right there and then.”

Fast-forward to today, and both Vega and Woman have won numerous awards. Vega’s remarkable performance has made her a known quantity in the international film community, and she’ll be in the audience at the Dolby Theatre on March 4.

“I’ve been following respectfully her own process,” says Lelio. “She’s under a lot of pressure and attention. She receives notes from people that are going through a crisis, they need help. I’ve been following her with admiration, and she’s dealing with everything with such grace.”

Because of Woman, says Vega, “I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world, to connect with so many people from different countries and cultures. I guess one of the things I realized is that out there in the world, there is a lot more springtime than wintertime, which is something beautiful. That’s the message that I want to send.”

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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