Director Sebastián Lelio met his muse outside a beauty salon in Chile, where the burgeoning actress and singer was doing makeup and hair for brides to help pay the bills. He had traveled there to ask Daniela Vega, who would become the star of his of Oscar-nominated film, a question: What is it like to be a transgender woman in Santiago these days?
Lelio recalls Vega answering this, in part, by showing him something once they sat down together at a nearby cafe. “I’ll never forget this,” says Lelio, whose feature, A Fantastic Woman, is one of five up for best foreign language film. “She opened her purse and took out her ID, with her old masculine identity on it, because the state of Chile doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the existence of transgender people…. I was just in awe.”
Both the director and the star say that A Fantastic Woman is not a political film, even if it is having a political impact. The success of the film has catapulted Vega to stardom in Chile, where she recently called for reform to the country’s laws while sharing a stage with the outgoing president — and where the film is still showing in theaters, more than a year after it become a darling on the festival circuit. The actress will also be making history when the ceremony airs on March 4, with Vega becoming the first openly transgender person to present an Academy Award.
“I feel a lot of love from everybody,” Vega, 28, tells TIME on a phone call from Chile, speaking through an interpreter. “If there is any problem, I would say there is a social problem. It’s about the lack of action on the part of the politicians when it comes to transgender rights.”
The film’s nomination is trailblazing too, because the lead role is not only a transgender character but one being played by a transgender actress. Viewers may recall that non-transgender actors have been feted for playing such roles in recent years (See: Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club or Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl). Those casting choices, advocates say, are by no means wrong, but they can reaffirm the stereotype that transgender women are nothing more than men in costume.
“It’s rare to have this kind of thing come along,” says Nick Adams, who works at LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD. When Vega is out promoting the film, “she is still a woman, which is who transgender women are,” he says. “They are not just women when they’re on screen.”
The story of A Fantastic Woman is one about grief and shock, exploring the question of what happens to a person when their lover dies just moments after they were in a tender embrace. Lelio initially planned on telling this tale through a cisgender heterosexual couple, but the moment he and his script co-writer Gonzalo Maza hit on the notion of the woman being transgender, the project took on a new dimension, presenting a challenge to the filmmakers and the viewers.