Meet Daniela Vega, the Trans Star of Oscar Front-runner A Fantastic Woman

It’s fitting that the film that gives Daniela Vega her debut is called A Fantastic Woman, since the 28-year-old Chilean actress is so talented herself. In the Sebastián Lelio–directed feature, which is thought by many to be the Oscar front-runner for Best Foreign Language Film, Vega plays Marina, a trans nightclub singer whose life is turned upside down after her older boyfriend dies. It’s quite the introduction to Vega, who brings glamour and verve to Marina’s more triumphant moments but is just as skilled at forging an intimate connection with the camera during the scenes where Marina is dismissed by a society that doesn’t know how to categorize her. “Every single one of us could be Marina,” Vega told me through a translator when we sat down together at the end of last year. “We can all find a part of ourselves in her.”

Take me back to the beginning of this journey. Since the film has been all over the world now, what was it like for you on the day of its very first premiere at the Berlin Film Festival?
I have this amazing and beautiful memory of the first time the movie was being watched, when we were able for the first time to show it to the rest of the world. I was able to share this amazing work that allows me to connect to other people. I’ve been basically going to festivals for an entire year, and at every single one of them, it’s been like an explosion of love coming from the audience. In Chile and all the places I’ve been visiting, I feel so much love from people. And a lot of respect and empathy towards the character.

Is everyone in Chile rooting for you?
In Chile and in other places, people recognize me, and everything I’ve been able to pick up from this experience is people caring about me.

Do people assume you’re exactly like your character in ways that you actually aren’t?
I think it happens to every single actor who’s in a movie or a major television series. People tend to think that’s your life when you’re playing a role.

So how are you different from Marina?
She’s a lot more elegant than me.

That’s a lie, Daniela.
No way! I mean, I dress elegantly, but that’s the clothes that I pick. I’m not elegant like she is. And she can endure a lot more pain than I can.

When you would finish work at the end of the day, was it easy to leave that pain behind?
There are certain exercises that you can do to let go of the emotions you create when you play a certain role. Breathing techniques. So after shooting the scene in the doctor’s office [where Marina has a dehumanizing experience], maybe you go do something where you can laugh. The most important thing when you’re shooting difficult scenes is that you have a supportive team who will buck you up emotionally.

And you found that from Sebastián, your director?
There was a mutual collaboration between what he wanted and what I was able to give to bring that character to life. In this relationship we have as a director and actress, there is a lot of trust in each other. The process of creating the movie took a really long time, and during this time, I came to the realization that I could trust Sebastián in every aspect, both professionally and in my day-to-day business.

So what were you able to give to Marina?
My contribution to the character was bringing the most natural part of myself to her, something that has never been seen before in a movie. It’s a lot more genuine or authentic, for instance that an African-American plays the role of an African-American in a movie than a white person painting his or her body to re-create a character that is going to be an African-American. The same thing goes for [a trans actress] playing this character, Marina.

When did you first see the movie all put together?
I first watched it in Santiago. It was like when you get an unexpected gift from someone, and you’re like, “Is this real?” When you’re making a movie, you’re really making three movies: There’s the process of script writing, the process of filming, and then sharing that movie with everyone else. There could also be a fourth process, if you want to think of it that way, which is editing the movie. They get to select the scenes and how they want to cut it, and when you get to watch the movie, you see how they’ve put the whole thing together in this amazing art piece.

So was Marina still familiar to you, when you saw her up on the screen?
It’s like living with another person: You know the person, but you really don’t.

Pedro Almodóvar has had trans characters in his films for the last few decades. What did it mean to you when you first encountered them?
Almodóvar’s actresses, particularly Antonia San Juan and Bibiana Fernández, they were my icons! I really didn’t know any other transgender actresses other than those. I mean, I had already seen The Crying Game, but that situation was different because it wasn’t actually a transgender individual playing the role of a transgender person. It was a cisgender person, [Jaye Davidson], playing that role. And then when I started watching Almodóvar’s movies, that’s when I developed a keen interest in movies.

Have you heard from him at all? I read you would love to be in one of his films.
The movie has been playing in theaters in Spain, but I don’t know if he’s watched it. If he has watched it, I hope he lets me know!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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