Guest of Honor

Alicia Vikander’s Carefully-Drawn Performance, in ‘The Danish Girl’

The two-time Golden Globe nominee digs into what she learned about the transgender community from working on the film and reveals why she won't play Pictionary with you anytime soon.

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Swedish actress Alicia Vikander poses for photographers on the red carpet as she arrives for the Premiere of "Testament of Youth" in central London on January 5, 2015. (Photo Credit: ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Alicia Vikander was just nominated for two Golden Globe awards. One for playing a cyborg in the sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” and the second for a film that opens nationwide this week: “The Danish Girl.”

In the film, she plays the real-life artist Gerda Wegener. At the turn of the century, she rose to prominence with paintings of a mysterious woman… who turned out to be Gerda’s husband Einar dressed in women’s clothing. Einar was, in fact, the transgender woman Lili and later underwent the first gender reassignment surgery ever.

Here’s a clip, in which Gerda remembers her first date with Einar:

When Rico spoke with Alicia, he mentioned some consider Gerda the Lady Gaga of her day.

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Alicia Vikander: Really?

Rico Gagliano: Yeah.

Alicia Vikander: In what way? Tell me.

Rico Gagliano: She’s an artist. She’s a boundary breaker.

Alicia Vikander: Yeah. She’s a very ahead of our time, I guess.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, she questions gender through art. Tell me a little bit about what you learned about Gerda. What was the most surprising to you?

Alicia Vikander: Well, the amount of information that you can find it sometimes difficult. And there was also quite a lot of ambiguity in the information that we found. Some of it was actually not correct.

It seems like it’s been a bit of a political. You know, you would think that this story — because they were such pioneers and it’s so remarkable — but it has been a bit forgotten. One thing that has survived is, of course, her quite extreme and provocative — for that time — art. She was also a working woman in the 1920s…

Alicia Vikander stars as Gerda Wegener in "The Danish Girl." Photo Credit: Focus Features
Alicia Vikander stars as Gerda Wegener in “The Danish Girl.” Photo Credit: Focus Features

Rico Gagliano: …Which is crazy.

Alicia Vikander: Yeah. And then the fact that she actually stayed with Lili through transitioning. It’s quite remarkable to know that these two people lived in a time when there was no reference. Or it was even illegal to be able to speak up. They almost put Lili in jail, at one point, in Copenhagen.

Rico Gagliano: Do you have some idea of what gave Gerda the stomach or the fortitude to actually do this at a time when it was just unheard of?

Alicia Vikander: I do think that an artist… to be able to be free in your art you need to have an open mind, I guess. And you’re also interested in things that will take you on experiences, or make you think. So I definitely think that art encourages openness.

Rico Gagliano: It’s true. The first half hour of the movie, really, is almost as much about the openness of artists as it is anything, because, your character — I thought the movie would be about her being shocked that the man she thought she’d married might actually be a transgender woman. But she’s actually almost turned on by the process at first, and really a catalyst for it.

Alicia Vikander: Yes. I think actually when you went back… all the photographs that we found about these two women was quite extraordinary. I mean, two women, very playful when it comes to clothes and outfits. And the way they pose together, it seems really much like they were artistic women.

Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe, in "The Danish Girl." Photo Credit: Focus Features
Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe, in “The Danish Girl.” Photo Credit: Focus Features

Rico Gagliano: The press kit through this movie comes with a glossary of terms to help people like me talk about the transgender community. And I have to say, it gets complicated.

For instance, I — as someone who has a male physiognomy and feels emotionally and mentally male — in a transgender context, I’m not just call a man, but a cisgender man.

Alicia Vikander: Yes.

Rico Gagliano: Was there a learning curve even talking about these issues on the set?

Alicia Vikander: I was like you, there. Above anything, this film has been so educational.

Yesterday we were– Tom and I and the film was invited to join Champions of Change of the White House yesterday. And to see, first of all, we have a president in the United States who is the first president to ever use the word transgender and to acknowledge that. I was quite moved.

And I’m happy to see that, actually, over the last few months just doing press, I’ve realized that in the same way that I now feel extremely comfortable talking about it, which I was afraid… ’cause you were maybe afraid of stepping on toes…

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, yeah.

Alicia Vikander: …Or making a wrong stake. And it’s been interesting to see that journalist that I’ve met have changed their vocabulary as well.

Rico Gagliano: I would be remiss not to talk about the movie “Ex Machina.” Which I think, like a lot of Americans, that was the first film I saw you in. Very different role. Gerda is this passionate woman. She wears her heart on her sleeve. In “Ex Machina,” you play a cyborg who shows almost no emotion, and when she does, we’re not even sure she means it.

I suspect that you’re more like Gerda [laughs]. So…

Alicia Vikander: It’s interesting though, cause… going back to that, I mentioned that I went to this event at the White House yesterday. A lot of the trans women that I met had seen “Ex Machina” and thought that was one of the most relatable films

Rico Gagliano: What?!?

Alicia Vikander: …That they had seen because of how she, in the end, kind of puts on her skin and transforms into the being that she wants to be, that she feels that she is inside.

Rico Gagliano: That’s true. She’s a robot and she puts on a human skin and steps out into the world as who she really is.

Alicia Vikander: Yeah. I just thought that’s just interesting. ‘Cause as soon as they brought it up, I kind of… immediately, I was like, “Wow! Yeah. Yes! I can totally see that!”

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina Universal Pictures International
Alicia Vikander in “Ex Machina.” Photo Credit: Universal Pictures International

Rico Gagliano: I’m gonna move on to our two standard questions. We ask these to everybody. And the first of them is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question shouldn’t we ask you?

Alicia Vikander: If I want to play Pictionary. I’m really bad at it. I’m very good at playing cards though.

Rico Gagliano: Oh poker and stuff?

Alicia Vikander: Yeah. Gin rummy.

Rico Gagliano: Oh no. You’re a ringer? [Alicia laughs.] You’re gonna take everyone’s cash? So basically, we should challenge you to Pictionary if we want to keep our wallets?

Alicia Vikander: Hmmm, yeah. I might walk out then. I’m one of those people who draws a straight line and then I just point at it wanting everybody to understand what it is.

Rico Gagliano: “What are you talking about? It’s a donkey!”

Here’s our second question: tell us something we don’t know.

Alicia Vikander: Now the first thing that came to my head, because we were [talking about] playing cards… this is so silly, but I actually carry around with me a pack of cards wherever I go.

Rico Gagliano: Are you actually a con man?

Alicia Vikander: [Laughs.] Yeah, we have a game night.

Rico Gagliano: Well I’m not coming to your game night! I’ll be like a pauper by the time it’s over! Tell me, who is the celebrity that you have most taken for the most cash?

Alicia Vikander: I should, but we normally don’t play with money. But, now when you reminded me, I did a film called “A Royal Affair” a couple of years ago…

Rico Gagliano: Oh yeah, with the actor Mads Mikkelsen.

Alicia Vikander: …And Mads Mikkelsen, he’s such a, like, a boy carries who around his football everywhere, and really likes to play cards.

Rico Gagliano: Oh yeah.

Alicia Vikander: So I did learn how to play poker on that film, which I never had done. And the first game, we were like 14 players, so the pot was quite big. And I took them home — and I hope he’s not listening to this program — but oh my God! He was like pissed for three days! Like really… he was like acting like he wasn’t.

Rico Gagliano: You don’t wanna– that guy has played Hannibal Lecter and Le Chiffre in James Bond. He doesn’t seem like a man that you want to get on the wrong side of [Alicia laughs]. That might not have been a good move.