Eddie Redmayne opens up to PEOPLE about his extensive education into the transgender community

By Michael Miller
Updated December 24, 2015 12:15 PM
Peter Hapak

Behind Eddie Redmayne’s critically-acclaimed performance as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, are the real-life transgender men and women who shared their personal stories with the actor as he prepared for his role.

In fact, the words from one transgender friend became his mantra throughout filming: “She told me that when she was transitioning, she would have given everything and anything to live her life authentically,” he says.

Redmayne first learned about Elbe and the movie when director Tom Hooper gave him the Danish Girl script while the two worked together on 2012’s Les Misérables.

“The lovely thing was I had years to prep,” he explains. “When you know it’s coming up, you organize your life to give the best.”

During that time, Redmayne worked with transgender director Lana Wachowksi, and was able to get her advice on researching Lili. “When I was making Jupiter Ascending with Lana Wachowski, I mentioned Lili and Gerda’s (Elbe’s wife, played by Alicia Vikander) story to her, and she spoke so passionately about Gerda’s art and [Lili’s autobiography] Man Into Woman, which was published after her death. ”

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He says the advice he received from members of the transgender community ranged from practical to inspirational.

“There were surface things some of the women would say,” he recalls. “April Ashley, an elder trans woman in England said, when I was talking to her about my voice, ‘Don’t go up in pitch. Find the femininity in your own voice.'”

One of the keys to understanding Elbe, he says, was “this idea that Lili was born Lili. Society and her notion of what was right in that period meant she had a forced masculinity.” When Elbe first began to transition, “there was almost an affectation to her femininity. Some of the trans women I spoke to talked about this phase of hyper-feminization, when you’re wearing too much makeup or clothes that are too feminine.”

Eddie Redmayne on Conversation Surrounding Trans Community: ‘It’s a Civil Rights Movement’

“The whole process for me was a mammoth education,” Redmayne says, noting that, “In some ways the statistics speak for themselves: 41% of all trans people have considered suicide.” He adds, “The cost that trans people go through just to be themselves involves such bravery and courage.”

While Redmayne acknowledges that 2015 has been a great year of progress for the trans community with the success of public figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, he is also mindful of how far society has yet to progress. “You can be fired in 31 states for being trans,” he points out. “It’s been nearly 100 years since Lili and Gerda’s story and still this is where we are.”