TORONTO >> In a pivotal scene early in Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl," the 1920s Copenhagen painter Einar Wegener, as played by Eddie Redmayne, sits in for a portrait his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) is painting of a ballerina. Breathlessly caressing the stockings and slippers, something stirs in Einar.
It's a moment that cues a coming transformation: Einar will gradually become a woman, finally undergoing one of the earliest known sex reassignment surgeries. Einar becomes Lili Elbe, a celebrated trans pioneer.
"I didn't want it to be an epiphany," says Redmayne of the scene. "It felt like she had been born, and society and herself had encased herself in this masculine exoskeleton. The important thing for me was the film should see that unraveling."
Redmayne, the best-actor Oscar winner earlier this year for his Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," has proven to be an immaculately technical actor and an expert of metamorphosis. A year after charting Hawking's physical degeneration, his conversion from Einar to Lili in "The Danish Girl" — at Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington — again has the 33-year-old British actor being hailed as a likely Academy Award nominee.
It's the third film together for Hooper ("The King's Speech") and Redmayne, who had a small part in the director's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (2007) where the queen sentences him to death. "I remember in that moment thinking: I need to find a leading role for Eddie," Hooper says.
It was while filming 2012's "Les Misérables," in which Redmayne played the tender revolutionary Marius, that the two began plotting "The Danish Girl," based on David Ebershoff's novel of the true-life events. On the film's Paris barracks, Hooper slipped Redmayne Lucinda Coxon's script.
"Tom just said: Will you have a read of this?" Redmayne says.
It was the first role Redmayne was offered without an audition. When Redmayne and Hooper convened earlier this year for an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was also their first time sitting together for an interview. At times, their combined Britishness made for extreme humility.
"The dream to get to play interesting and in both those cases extraordinary people, it does not come along," says Redmayne of Hawking and Elbe. "And I also have no question: I don't think it will come along again. I realize that I've been very lucky in a couple years to play two formidable people."
Reviews for "The Danish Girl," painterly and stately, have singled out Redmayne's performance, which caps what the actor calls a "head-spinning" period in his life. He wed Hanna Bagshawe last December, and, two days after winning the Oscar, was back on set making "The Danish Girl," still groggy from the partying.
"My instinct was Eddie from the beginning," Hooper says. "I was truly open to any route. I know in a previous incarnation there had been talk of a woman playing the role, which is also equally valid because you're saying Lili is a woman underneath."
Some, though, have questioned casting a man as a transgender woman. Sean Baker's "Tangerine," released earlier this year, by contrast, has drawn raves for its transgender actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.
"There's something in Ed that's drawn to the feminine, maybe," says Hooper of Redmayne, who also played Viola in a stage production of "Twelfth Night." "In the movie, Lili presents as Einar for two-thirds of it and the transition is quite late, so that also fed into my thinking."
"The Danish Girl" is nevertheless an outlier. Earlier this year, the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism studied the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 and found zero transgender characters.
"There is a serious problem not only in our industry but within many industries of trans men and trans women and discrimination in the workplace," Redmayne says. "In the United States, you can be fired in 32 states for being trans."
"When I first thought of doing the movie, it was considered a hard film to finance," Hooper says. "I must admit there were people around me who were happy to tell me I shouldn't do the film. And now people see it as an obvious film to have done, and I think that's indicative of a wonderful shift that's begun to happen in the culture where trans stories have become more acceptable."
Redmayne did extensive research and met with many generations of transgender people to understand Lili better.
"I was incredibly ignorant at the time. It was several years of meeting people from the trans community and educating myself on Lili," Redmayne says. "To be comfortable in your own skin is a term that's thrown around, but it's actually incredibly complicated."
As played by Redmayne, Lili's gradual revelation is a knotty mix of emotions — an increasingly confident awakening where a swelling rapture overpowers apprehension.
"The key balancing act of directing the film was balancing shame and joy, balancing this idea that the transition was both a release into anxiety and a release from anxiety," Hooper says. "It was terribly important to me that we could always feel through Eddie's performance of Lili the promise of the happiness that lay in committing to the journey."