One of the most talked-about performances at the Toronto Film Festival was that of Daniela Vega, a 28-year-old Chilean actress who stars in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Vega happens to be transgender, as is her character, and she is already generating buzz for potentially being the first transgender actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. (On Gold Derby, the awards prediction site that aggregates critical consensus, Vega is inching close to the Top Ten.)
“It’s in the air,” she said, making air quotes and laughing. Sitting across from Vega in a sparse ballroom at Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel, she is in pearls, a black dress, and cat-eye glasses. She already exudes the composure and attitude of an old Hollywood star, until the subject of red carpets arises. Then, she broke into a childlike grin and began to speak excitedly in Spanish.
A Fantastic Woman tells the story of Marina Vidal, a waitress by day and a lounge singer by night, whose life is thrown into turmoil upon the death of her much older lover, Orlando. Treated like a criminal by the authorities and harassed by Orlando’s family, Marina must cope with grief while asserting her rights and forging a new way forward without him. The film is a confident love letter to female isolation and empowerment through a trans lens, with flights of cinematic splendor that lift the story out of the maudlin and into something sublime. Throughout, Vega embodies Marina with an air of self-possession and grit that absorbs us into her experience, while maintaining, with a few exceptions, an emotional reserve. Her stoicism is, at times, louder than her tears. Her control of the material and her restraint as an actress are remarkable for a first-timer. As Vega explained it, it’s all about loving the challenge.
Is it true you are a trained opera singer?
Yes, since I was eight. It’s my real voice in the film. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was blind. She taught me to listen to music, to the television, to the birds and the trees and the sound of water. She taught me to listen even though I could see. I find a lot of poetry in that, and it ended with me opening my ears to both sound and to music but also recognizing the most important thing to hear is silence. Like that song, “Enjoy the Silence”—that made real sense to me when I was growing up. I seek out hard things. I tried to imitate other singers. It was a self-discovery for me to move from imitating others to me growing to sing in my own voice. The opera was difficult and it felt like a personal conquest.
Did you always want to act?
I always wanted to be an artist. I always knew that I wanted to paint, or dance, or sing, or act, or write. I found out that I can’t dance or paint [Laughs.], but I am singing, acting, and writing.
How did you meet Sebastián and come to win the lead role in A Fantastic Woman?
Sebastián was looking for information about what it’s like to live as a trans person in Chile. At that point I didn’t know what [the movie] was about, except maybe that it was about a fantastic woman! A person we both know recommended that he reach out to me. He asked to meet and there was an immediate trust and affection between us. He lived in Berlin at the time and I lived in Chile, so we e-mailed and we Skyped. When we saw each other, we spent time together and had a great time. When he sent me the script for A Fantastic Woman that’s when I realized he wanted me for the role.
The character of Marina is so finely realized, and it’s a performance that feels very lived-in. She has a strong sense of resilience. Did you create a backstory for her?
I did create a backstory for her. I incorporated a lot of resilience into her. When I discovered that I was a woman and I wanted to share it with the people around me and with the world, I discovered that women have an enormous capacity for resilience. The story of Marina and Orlando, of Marina and her sister, and her passion—a combination of waitressing by day and singing in the club by night—had to have an added element of resilience or else she would have fallen apart in those situations. I gave her a sense of endurance and courage so that she would stay strong and stay dignified.
Did you relate to any of the situations Marina is confronted by in the film?
In the past, when I was in school, I experienced violence. And also as an adult, after transitioning and while looking for work, I have also experienced violence. Art saved my life.
What was it like to see the finished film, and to take it to Berlin and Toronto?
It’s a lot of fun. How can it not be fun?! (Laughs.) I feel like I’m playing. I feel like a diva from the ‘40s. I have a lot of fun with makeup and hair. I think that creating art comes from a very deep, poetic, and contemplative place, and then the presentation process is such a frivolous one. That said, the combination of the two is very fun. I take very seriously the creation process, but I take the red carpet, the dresses with the trains, the hair, and the makeup very lightly.
But now people are saying that you could be nominated for an Academy Award. Do you feel pressure?
“People are saying!” [Laughs.] People are saying… Imagine how it would feel to feel that the world wants to bestow you with the greatest honor an actor can experience. I would never have thought I would experience this. I thought I might act in a movie, or sing in an opera, wear a dress with a train, or climb a mountain, but to imagine this—and this talk in the air isn’t in Santiago. It’s the world over. It’s a dream for which I’m very proud and very thankful, but we’re not there yet.
What sort of roles are you hoping to play now that A Fantastic Woman has put you on the map?
I’ve acted in a much smaller film recently, in which I play a cisgender woman. I would like to play a mother or a pregnant woman. My body of work can expand because I like challenges. I think I could play male roles. I don’t limit myself.
Is there anybody you would like to work with next?