Daniela Vega: “Anyone can connect with Marina”

Daniela Vega, star of Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman became the first openly transgender woman to present an Oscar – she tells Alistair Harkness how she landed her starring role

We’re going to follow the film wherever it takes us,” says Daniela Vega, the star of Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman. Sebastián Lelio’s acclaimed film has been generating buzz since it debuted on the festival circuit last year – following the story of Marina Vidal, a young transgender singer and waitress forced to contend with her partner Orlando’s transphobic relatives following his sudden death. It’s a film that shows how society invalidates Marina as a person, and 28-year-old Vega — in her first major film role – really makes it special. Last week, she became the first openly transgender person to present an award at the Oscars.

The Big Issue: How did you get involved with A Fantastic Woman?

Daniela Vega: Sebastián was doing research about what is means to be a transgender woman. A common friend recommended we meet. We went for coffee and it felt like we were already very close friends. He invited me to become part of his research, but just as a consultant.

So there was no promise of the role?

No, because I didn’t even know he was writing a film. I only knew he was doing some research. It could have been for a book, a documentary, or just for the sake of research. Our conversation carried on for two years. Then he sent a script to my home and told me to read it carefully. The first 50 or 60 pages were about Orlando, but then he dies. It was only when I finished the script that I realised the lead protagonist was Marina, who is similar to me. I phoned Sebastián and asked him what he was doing. He said: “I want you to be me my lead actress.” I told him: “I think you’re mad!”

You’d been acting for a while. Was it strange to suddenly be presented with something tailor-made for you?

She sings opera, she has an opera teacher who’s very close to her, and she’s a very strong woman, so that led me to understand that all the conversations we were having had led Sebastián to create this script. But it’s not my life. He used characteristics from my experiences, but what was created on set was something new.

Art is a magic tool that connects different people from all backgrounds and different realities together

The film isn’t about Marina coming to terms with who she is, it’s more about her demanding the basic respect and rights she’s being denied.

Anyone can connect with Marina. That was the most important thing. We’ve all been rejected, we’ve all been discriminated against (or have discriminated against others), we’ve all fallen in love and we will all die. That generates a communication bridge between the film and the audience. Maybe you don’t identify yourself with Marina, but maybe you do with Orlando, so that translates the film into a universal experience.

But do you hope it might also be instructive for people who don’t understand the prejudices people in the transgender community endure?

Art is a magic tool that connects different people from all backgrounds and different realities together. So it’s a good way to communicate and establish a dialogue. But the film isn’t trying to answer questions. It’s trying to ask questions.

After films like Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica and shows like Transparent, do you feel there’s more acceptance of transgender stories and issues in popular culture?

Art always questions what we see and feel before politics. It helps us see that diversity, not just in relation to the trans community, has existed from day one. And that makes me believe in human beings and makes me think we’re on the right path.

What was your path into acting and performing?

I started singing because one of my grandmothers is blind and she taught me to put images to sound. After I transitioned, I started acting because I was depressed. A friend who’s an actor was trying to get me to come out of that state, so he asked me to accompany him to the theatre to sing. I said no several times, but one day I just went for it. That’s how it all started.

A Fantastic Woman is in cinemas now