On Sunday night at the Golden Globes, A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's contender for best foreign language film, did not win its category. But during its festival and awards season run so far, it's achieved another goal: to shine a light on the isolated, often desolate lives of women, especially transgender women—which its star, the newcomer Daniela Vega, happens to be. In the film, Vega plays Marina Vidal, a waitress by day and lounge singer by night (Vega, who mined her own life for her character's, is also a singer). Her life is thrown into turmoil after the death of her much older lover, Orlando. Treated like a criminal by the authorities and harassed by Orlando’s family, Marina must both cope with his death and figure out her life without him at the same time. There has been much chatter that Vega might be the first trans actor to be nominated for an Oscar—and she really could—but even if that doesn't come to pass, Vega has already become a talent to watch.
What was your first job as an actress?
Well, I started acting seven years [ago] in the cinema. [My first film] was a Chilean movie named The Guest was my first acting, and my first lead character in the cinema. I started to sing opera at eight years old. And then when I grew up, I decided to be an actress; I don't know. I’m not sure if I decide to be an actress. I take the way of my life, and [at] some point, I discover that I want to be an actress.
And did you have a moment where it came to you?
I think it’s more complex than this. I think it’s about my own transition. It’s about looking for answers. It’s about trying to survive to my own life and to the others’ life. And I think the arts work for me as an answer, as a key for the future.
Do you find that you act when you sing?
I think the most different situation when you’re singing, it’s you have to [evoke] emotions to the people with your voice, not with your gestures. And when you’re acting, you have to translate your emotion in [gestures]. So for that reason I think it’s very different.
A Fantastic Woman is somewhat autobiographical?
The movie, it’s about a young girl and an old man, they fall in love and [live] together. And one night he died and [his] family decide to separate [from] my character the funeral and all the rituals about death. And my character was very confused and lost in life, in that moment. And it’s a movie about love, death, and—
And courage, right. She’s a person and she know that—and defend that.
Which is very brave. She has a lot of odds against her.
Yeah, I agree. And maybe she’s love and vitality, you know. She has no vitality because she’s young. She has vitality because she know the time is gone. She fights against the moralism and against the old ideas about gender, about love, about life I think.
So how did the film come to you?
Well, in the beginning, the director was searching for the transgender people in Santiago. A friend in common told to him we have to meet; he called me one day and asked me if I want to meet him. And in the beginning, I was only a consultant. He was only looking for real stories about transgender people in Santiago, and then he discover that I can do the lead role. So he talked to me and asked me if I want to do that, and I said yes.
That must have been a big moment for you, right?
Yeah. I remember perfectly that situation. It was in my home at night, and I received the script. I read the script. I called him in Berlin because he live [there]. And I said, “You are completely crazy.” And he said, “No, I completely sure. You can do that.” And I thought, “Okay, okay.” And I take go to the party for three days, and then we start to work on the movie.
And what was the scariest part to you?
Scary? Oh, life is scary now. I think art, it’s not scary situation. Art, it’s a lovely situation. So for me, walking on the streets sometimes is scary, but singing and acting, it’s funny.
The scene in the police station, how hard was that for you to do?
Whoa. It was very difficult to do because I was naked. And well, to be naked it’s very normal and common and natural of course. But when you are naked because somebody is pushing you to say something, you know what I mean, it’s unfair, I think. And some people have the power to [do that] to somebody and say, “Take your clothes off.” “Why?” “Well, because I’m the law, because I’m the police.” And I think that's not fair.
And it’s humiliating.
Yes. And it’s very common, especially for the transgender community around the world.
Were many of your stories that you told as a consultant incorporated into the film?
The movie, it’s about a big question. The movie, it’s about what we are doing with our empathy, what we are doing with our love, what we are doing in this moment in this little piece of the story, and what are you doing to fix the past and build a better future for the next generations.
So I’m going to ask some fun questions: What was your favorite birthday? Do you have a particular event on your birthday?
Yes, I always make a private party with no cellphones, no photos. I have no photos in my birthdays. And with a lot of beer and friends.
And do you do that every year?
Every year. I celebrate every year. [Laughs.] But I’m 28 now, and I put my energy in my job. So if I want to sing in the next day [Laughs.], I have to take a rest.
Do you still sing opera?
In the shower?