Text and Photos: Roberto Quintero, Latin Stock
Daniela Vega is the new face of Latin American cinema. The Chilean-born actress, who is transgender, has captivated film critics and the public around the world, thanks to her incredible performance as the lead character in the film A Fantastic Woman. Since it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won a Silver Bear for best screenplay, the film by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio has become a true cinematic phenomenon, garnering the most important film awards in the world, including a Goya for the Best Ibero-American Film and an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
In the movie, Daniela plays Marina Vidal, a young transsexual who must confront the sudden death of her partner, Orlando, who was twenty years her senior. Despite the pain of her loss, family members of the deceased prevent her from mourning in peace and make her the target of their rebukes, prejudices, and violence.
At first, the role was not intended for Daniela. In 2014, Lelio consulted with Daniela on the topic of transgendered people’s lives for his new film. At that time, Vega, who was 24 years old, was working as a hairdresser in a beauty salon and studying classical opera singing. And although she had acted in a play and a movie, she had little experience in front of the cameras. The moment they met, however, the relationship between the director and his then-advisor clicked. In the process of developing the script, Lelio realized that Daniela should play the lead character of A Fantastic Woman. The rest is history.
We took advantage of Daniela’s appearance at the International Film Festival of Panama to talk with her and learn more about her life and what it was like to play such an important role in such a successful film.
How did the desire for acting appear in your life? Have you always had it, or did it take you by surprise?
I started singing opera and ended up acting in an attempt to understand myself. Performing was a kind of therapy for me. I made my gender transition fifteen years ago, when I was fourteen years old. At that time, it was just you against the world but I told myself, “I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to pay whatever costs to try to be happy.” It was then that I decided to be an artist. And not to win awards or appear on magazine covers; I decided to be an artist to try to survive. That’s why I say that I am proudly trans and that’s why I weave together the political with the artistic. I believe that future generations aren’t going to have the same struggles I had, but my career as an artist began with trying to understand myself at a time when I was very lost in a cloud of uncertainty. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me; I didn’t know how to grow or how to approach my life and art represented a kind of antidote to the dark place where I was.
What was your greatest challenge in building the character Marina Vidal in A Fantastic Woman?
I would say that the main challenge was working with the director and the rest of the team. I had only been in one film before and I was virtually unknown in the world of international cinema. Sebastián Lelio gave me the opportunity to work with him and I accepted his challenge to embrace the film and make it turn out well. That was what mattered most to me. There were particular scenes that, of course, were more difficult than others, but the bulk of the work was to generate a film that, from the beginning to the end, would resonate with audiences.
Did playing a leading role scare you?
No, I am scared of death and nothing else.
Beyond the film’s success, what was its impact in Chile?
The film has generated a lot of reflection on how we approach the trans reality and how, by opening doors and opportunities to all communities, we can build a better society. I don’t think the film intends to deliver propaganda or political rhetoric. What it does is question everything: What are the limits of empathy? What kind of love can be conquered? What types of bodies can we inhabit? And when these questions are asked, the viewer has the chance to answer them. That is the invitation we are offering to the audience.
And by proposing precisely this reflection, A Fantastic Woman has become a very political movie.
Art is political. Art does not try to escape or evade political action. As a tool for questioning, art engages our critical thinking abilities to create new realities. I don’t consider myself an activist because I’m not. Activists are in Congress, tracking the laws and questioning legislators. With this film there are some gestures that can be interpreted as activism, but in reality, the bulk of my work has more to do with art than activism.
Fifteen years ago, when one thought of Latin American cinema, they talked about México, Argentina, and Brazil. Suddenly Chilean cinema has arrived with great force and some really good films. Why do you think is this is?
I would say that it’s the hunger to create because we don’t have a film industry. We have determined artists looking for national and international funding to make movies that address different topics, but there is no film industry in Chile. The determination artists have to create works have led some people to mortgage their houses to make a movie. This is very different from approaching an established producer and saying, “I have this film, please finance it.” In Chile you need a lot of help to be able to make a movie.
The film won numerous awards throughout the world. How does it feel to be in a movie that won an Oscar?
At first, it was a lot of pressure, because it’s not a magic trick that you go “poof” and it happens. There is a lot of work done ahead of time. We screen the film in many parts of the world and we spend time with people. I think the most beautiful part of this process was understanding that humans need to connect with other humans. We need the company of others to be able to reflect on what is happening to us. I believe that everything that we have won, from the premier in Berlin up to the Oscars, was the result of great affection; through love, we have connected with all the audiences of the world. In Spanish, English, German, French, Polish, Swedish, and Italian, no matter the language, there is always a spirit of communication between human beings. So, for me, having been part of this entire process is an unexpected gift, and I am so grateful.