What’s most memorable about the new film from Chile, A Fantastic Woman, which was just nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film, is its star, Daniela Vega. In the film, which is directed and co-written by Sebastian Lelio, Vega plays Marina, a young singer and transgender woman whose life is upended when her middle-aged boyfriend suddenly dies. Marina faces the kinds of mistreatment that trans people encounter all the time—but in the extreme. She has to deal with suspicious police and her dead lover’s brutal family members, yet Vega infuses Marina with a quiet resilience and humanity.
Vega, 28, recently joined Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, which is now a Slate podcast, and they spoke with the help of an interpreter, Kika Child. (A link to the audio of their interview follows this excerpt.)
Kurt Andersen: So I like this movie very much—it’s plausible, beautiful, occasionally disturbing. Is some of the abuse your character, Marina, experiences similar to what you’ve faced as a trans woman?
Daniela Vega: I would say that no one in this world can say that they’ve never been bullied or have violence against them. So yes, I’ve been discriminated as many other people too, but I’ve had the luck of always being supported by my family, my close friends, and my circle. That’s why the violence or discrimination that I’ve had to live with has been more from the state, from the universities, from institutions that don’t allow me to move. And that’s complex because I had been wanting to get into the arts for a very long time but I hadn’t been able to do it in that way.
So Sebastian Lelio essentially wrote this character around you. It’s custom made for you as an actress. How do you prepare to do that role? I mean that’s different than a normal acting job?
In order to create the role to bring it on I got myself wed with Marina in every way. So the first thing I did, because Santiago is very big, was going to the places where Marina lived and observed the colors of the neighborhood. Started creating her history and how she moved around in these places. The backstory. When the casting was closed and when I knew whom I was going to work with and who was Orlando going to be played by—
Orlando being your boyfriend/companion/husband.
We went for dinner many times we went to bars. We were trying to—
As though you were on a date?
Profesionalmente hablando …
Oh yes yes.
So that I could know how to look at him, where to put my hand. You have to recognize the other as someone that you could possibly fall in love with. Marina is in fact very in love with Orlando.
You’ve acted for almost a decade but for a decade before that you’d been singing opera, since you were a child. How did that come about?
I started singing opera because my grandmother was blind and she taught me how to see sound. So she would say close your eyes and put an image to the radio and imagine that you’re singing in the middle of the stage and the audience is not looking at you. And I started imitating that and I learned that music helped me ignore the voices of the kids the other kids who would bully me in school.
And you’re actually singing in the film. To me, without that, the movie would be much less good. But thanks to you, the movie is great!
In the movie, even when you’re put in these terrible situations, you act in this kind of understated way. You could have gone bigger and wilder. What did Sebastian Lelio direct you to do? Did he say to keep it keep it, don’t don’t overdo it, or was that just the way you performed?
In order to create this character, what I did was to put one layer on top of the other so that these emotional layers would look like a stairway. So then what I did was diffuse the borders of these emotional layers so that one would be after the other. So instead of seeing these emotions as a stairwell I delivered them as a ramp.
Like a feather falling, not like a steel ball.
As we’ve said there are some rough scenes of anti-trans bigotry in this film. Do you think it’s a pretty fair representation of the way life for trans people is—at least in a big cosmopolitan city like Santiago?
That’s the reality Marina lives. But we should also say that there’s many Orlandos in life which means that there’s many men who are willing to fall in love with a trans woman and that’s very nice because it allows families to diversify and therefore people can live with some more freedom. But of course the societies that lack these these laws to protect this identity need to have the tools to build a more hopeful future.
Is this film as people see it one of those tools?
The tools are given really by the state. What the movie can do is ask you, what you are doing with your empathy ask you what would you do if you were in this situation? And ask you, how do you live love and how do you deal with a limit?
And in the end what I would like to take away at the end of this interview is to ask ourselves, what are we doing with the time that belongs to us today? And what are we going to leave for future generations? Are we going to leave them only buildings, cars? Or are we going to create more empathetic, more diverse societies more open to diversity?
Listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the interview with Vega as the first segment in the show, and subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts.
Studio 360 is a Peabody Award–winning show from Public Radio International.