Andreja Pejic has been a top model for some eight years now, but the 27-year-old has only recently been able to claim her career as her own. Even as the Bosnian-born model's androgynous looks helped distinguish her, for years (and even before her transition) Pejic continued to be mentioned in the same breath as Lea T and other trans models. And maybe that's recent history not to be repeated as Pejic makes her next breakthrough into acting, in the big screen adaptation of The Girl in the Spider's Web, in theaters Friday.
Following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the second filmic installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series replaces Rooney Mara with Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander, and Pejic as her casual love interest. The role is at once groundbreaking—Pejic might very well be the first trans actor to play a cis role in a major studio movie—and, in Pejic's mind, perhaps besides the point. "It's good to break new ground," she says. "But at the end of the day, I want to base myself on the things that I do, rather than the things I was born as." Here, before her New York red carpet premiere, Pejic opens up about how she jumped directly onto the big screen (and into bed) with Claire Foy.
So, when did you suddenly become an actress?
I've actually been taking classes for years now—I just don’t like to talk about things before they’re a reality. And I guess I enjoy keeping people on their toes and surprising them. [Laughs.] I feel like I’ve done that a few times in my career. It came up at the beginning of my modeling career, but I only really started it when I was at a very low point in my life. I'd just finished my transition and was going through a public transition, sort of trying to get my career back on track. But I was also sort of going broke, and feeling like a lot of loyal people—and the industry, though that changed in time—had turned their backs on me. In a way, taking those classes saved my life. I’m not going say it was like therapy, because it probably shouldn’t replace real therapy, but it just really helped me find myself again—especially who I was before I started this career, because you get lost in this world, with the glitz and glamour and all that.
How did you get your big break?
The casting director, Carmen Cuba, thought I might be good for the role, so she contacted my agency. I knew I had to bring some sort of sensuality to the audition tape, because it was a very sexy role—the audition scene was actually much more explicit than the version in the film. In the end, I wore my bra and got my best friend to help me, but I only had 30 minutes to nail it since he was so hungover from the night before. I guess the director and producer liked it, though, because they booked me. My manager actually first gave the director, Fede Álvarez, a call because he didn't know who I was; she said something like, ‘Do you guys realize the social weight of this? Because this is a cis role, and she is who she is and what she represents, and it’s kind of a big deal if you cast her.’ And he just said, ‘I really liked the audition tape.’ [Laughs.] It actually was really nice to have it just be about my work, without all of the other things getting into it.
I had a similar gut reaction. Those other things are historically important of course, but seem rather besides the point.
Yeah, I don’t think it’s the most important part in all of this. I feel like there are other things to talk about. I mean, I was filming with Claire Foy! [Laughs.] Yes, the fact that I can't think of any other instances of an openly trans actor playing a cis role in Hollywood makes it, to an extent, important at this time. It's good to break new ground. But at the end of the day, I want to base myself on the things that I do, rather than the things I was born as. I want to keep working really hard and prove myself through work rather than politics. And I'd love to play a boy; I'd love to play a girl—as long as there's more to their character than just their gender. Sometimes I'd even audition for trans roles and people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re not trans enough,’ and it was like, how do you even know? For me, the roles can't be one-dimensional, which is what they have been up until now.
Was that part of why you wanted this to be your first feature?
I was obsessed with the Millennium series as a kid, and that’s the crazy part: I was this nerdy kid that always went to the library to read, because I didn’t have any friends. But I loved complex characters like Lisbeth: she's a heroine but not completely good and just and pure, and she's not looking for you to love her and adore her. She followed her own path, and as a child, women like her were the ones who inspired me to get through life. But apart from that, just to work with Claire is such an honor. I watched The Crown with my mum over the holidays, and her performance was so great. Even though I knew that I had the part, I was like, I can’t believe I’m going to be in bed with this woman! With the Queen!
It must have also felt like an honor to be her only onscreen partner, then.
Yeah, it did. [Laughs.] You know, for me, coming from the world of fashion, nudity is a very pure, beautiful thing. I’m the opposite of puritanical, and I think that’s the way most people in fashion are. I’m very comfortable with my body. That being said, toning down that scene a bit definitely made it a little less intimidating. And it might have been for the best for me, seeing as it was my first film. [Laughs.]
Were you still at all intimidated on set?
I was a bit intimidated to chat with Claire, but she was so down to earth. She told me where she was from, and I was like, Oh, a Manchester girl! I guess you don’t expect that from the Queen. She wanted to know about my story, so we got dinner, and then she always stayed with me during my scenes when she could have gotten a replacement, which was a big help. Just seeing her eyes and how she works was really informative—though it can still be very intimidating to keep eye contact with her. I just am completely honored and hope to keep being friends with her.
I know, right? It’s cute.
What about your scene with Lakeith Stanfield?
Lakeith is amazing. I love him. We did the first scene, and then we went to Berghain over the weekend and had a great night. [Laughs.] I probably shouldn't have done that before my next scene, because I was so good for two months, not even having wine. But he has great energy and he’s hilarious—I think there’s a connection between us, which is of course helpful when you work together. The whole thing was just quite an experience. Half the film was shot at the Babelsberg Studio in Berlin, which has so much history; it's where Marlene Dietrich used make all of her films, so I was going crazy and gagging at every corner. [Laughs.]
Well, you haven't mentioned it yet, but I don't know how you didn't go crazy when you did a music video with David Bowie.
Oh, I felt like I could die, because what else do you do after that? I think that was five years ago, and that really was the coolest thing I could have done in my life. I didn’t even know what the casting was for, because my agent told me it was top secret, and then I was like, Oh my god. I mean, David Bowie! There’s no other David Bowie. And he was super sweet when they flew me to L.A. to meet him and Tilda Swinton, who I was bowing down to, like, Queen mother!
We just talked about the ‘80s club kid scene, like the Blitz and Studio 54, and glam rock, things like that. And then we did a scene where I had to get on top of him and kiss him. The whole film is about the negative influence that celebrities have on the population, and I played a demon whose role was basically snare and manipulate him and his wife, Tilda, into going crazy. So, yeah—at one point, I was basically crawling on top of him in this latex lingerie with massive claws, laying a kiss on him. And then I had to do that, like, 10 more times while being like, Oh my god, this is David Bowie! [Laughs.] But it was genius, and he was not pretentious in any way, just super chill, super professional. And super supportive: obviously he had an acting background and knew what he was doing, so he gave me some positive reinforcement. That helped with being a nervous wreck from having to, you know, crawl on top of David Bowie in 10-inch heels.
After all that, do you plan to keep on modeling?
I don’t know. I’m an actress now. [Laughs.] No, look: it’s still something amazing that I believe in and would love to do, and I think that the two complement each other. Fashion has taught me so many lessons; it really has. It put me through hell, too, but it puts everyone through hell. You're a teenager thrown into this tough, grownup world and you have to learn how to swim, or basically how to be social and glamorous and a canvas for creativity. There are some great people and some horrible people, but it's where I met a lot of my friends like Stella Maxwell, who I've stayed in touch with since we were both 19 and hugging for warmth on a set that was supposed to be summer. She came along to the New York premiere, which was definitely less stressful than the world premiere in Rome. That one was my first and such a spectacle, so I was a bit tipsy—and then, well, drunk—and the movie was kind of a blur. But this time was much more chill: I got to actually pay attention.