Oscars: ‘A Fantastic Woman’ Director Sebastián Lelio on Why Casting a Transgender Actress Was Essential

The Chilean filmmaker explained the "surprising" effects of casting transgender star Daniela Vega in his groundbreaking Oscar winner.
Sebastian Lelio, Nicolas Saavedra, Daniela Vega, Alejandro Goic, Pablo Larrain. Sebastian Lelio, foreground center, and Nicolas Saavedra, from back left, Daniela Vega, Alejandro Goic, and Pablo Larrain accept the award for best foreign language film for "A Fantastic Woman" at the Oscars, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles90th Academy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018
Allison Williams
90th Annual Academy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018
Saoirse Ronan
90th Annual Academy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018
Laura Louie and Woody Harrelson90th Annual Academy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon
90th Annual Academy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018
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When Sebastián Lelio’s Best Foreign Language Film winner “A Fantastic Woman” snagged the Chilean filmmaker his first Oscar win at the 90th annual awards ceremony, it came with another pair of groundbreaking bits of Academy Awards trivia: it was the country’s first win in the category, and it was also the first Oscar-winning film to feature a trans storyline with a trans actor as its lead.

Lelio’s film features Daniela Vega in the lead role, as young transgender woman Marina who’s forced to contend with her lover’s hostile family after his sudden death, and the filmmaker called his actress “the inspiration for this movie” when he accepted his win. Earlier in the evening, Vega became the first openly transgender person to ever present an award the Oscars.

Backstage after his win, Lelio was asked about his casting of Vega, who was originally on board as an LGBTQ advisor before Lelio decided to cast her in the part. “Well, casting is an art, and if you’re interested in people like I am, casting is essential,” he said.

He continued, “I think the presence of Daniela brought something, a quality to a story that add a layer of complexity and beauty that, I think in this case, a cisgender actor would have not been capable of bringing. She transitioned like 14 years ago in a country like Chile when there was no information about it. She was a pioneer, and she carries that history, and the camera announced that.”

Lelio even admitted that he was surprised by the reaction to the casting, and how it added to the depth and importance of the film.

“I never thought that it was going to be that important in the sense of how the film is perceived,” Lelio said. “I’ve been very surprised and happy to realize that that became one of the most important artistic gestures of the movie, and if it can contribute to keep opening the limits of what’s possible, keep expanding the horizons of our thinking, [that’s] so welcome.”

As Vega told IndieWire last year, her connection with the filmmaker was instant. ”We fell in love immediately. We were both talking about very varied things and very intimate. [It was] just like a movie within another movie.”

When Lelio asked her to star in the film after a year of working together on it, Vega couldn’t help but celebrate: “So I took my purse and I partied for three days,” she said. “And when the hangover was gone, we started working.”

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