Chilean actress Daniela Vega’s breakout performance in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica), as a transgender woman dealing with the aftermath of her boyfriend’s death in a conservative society, is fantastically restrained. Indeed, that’s how Vega describes her character, Marina.
Yet restraint is about the last thing the 28-year-old actress has in common with Marina. In fact, an outspoken self-assurance is at least part of what’s guiding her ascent to international renown.
A quiet child growing up in Santiago Province’s San Miguel, Vega literally found her voice singing in her school’s choir. (And, in fact, Marina sings opera, and a sensual version of Héctor Lavoe’s salsa classic “Periódico de Ayer,” in A Fantastic Woman.) But the performing arts took a temporary backseat to Vega’s other life priorities. “I discovered I had vocal potential and was always intrigued by the idea of singing on a stage, but as I started growing up, transitioning became the absolute protagonist in my life,” she says. “There were many long years when I was trying to discover how to communicate what I was going to become, because from a very young age, I knew I was trans.”
Years later, the adult Vega was invited by a friend to audit an acting class. During one lesson—never one to keep mum—she went up to the professor and shared her thoughts on a student’s performance she considered subpar. In response she was challenged to learn the part and present her own ideal take a week later. She delivered, and was asked to return. “I went to that class for over a year and half, and in the process I met actors, actresses, playwrights, and other people in the Chilean art scene,” she recalls. She got her first stage role soon after, and eventually an offer to appear in Mauricio López’s 2014 film The Guest (La Visita), her first onscreen appearance.
Then Lelio (who had won acclaim for Gloria in 2013) came knocking. Coffee in Santiago sparked a bona fide friendship. “We realized that we had many things in common—our shared love for cinema, our worldviews, a moral code” says Vega. “I went home thinking I wanted to chat more with him.”
“He conceives women as worthy of portraying—and being a woman is the most beautiful thing that could have ever happened to me,” Vega says. Lelio’s Gloria, starring a stupendous Paulina Garcia, and his next, the English–language drama Disobedience with Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, are proof of his penchant for exquisitely rendered female characters. “Marina is a resilient woman—like all the ones I know.”
At first, the actress served as a sounding board to ensure the authenticity of the trans experience depicted in the screenplay Lelio was developing with cowriter Gonzalo Masa. Once it was completed, he surprised her by telling her the lead role was hers.
Vega dug deep to play Marina, whether in a dialogue scene in which Marina endures degrading assumptions, or a tense kidnapping scene. The actress bent her own painful memories into sources of strength. “I was a victim of violence in school, and I could understand how to use that darkness and transform it into art.”
Although she doesn’t consider her work activism, strictly speaking, Vega abides by the philosophy that all art is a political statement. The only reference she had for a transgender actress was Spanish star Bibiana Fernandez, a Pedro Almodóvar favorite. (Working with Almodóvar is one of Vega’s career dreams.) Vega believes that the mere presence of transgender stories in media is not as important as the underlying messages the images carry. “Creating visibility is a part of the task, but it’s not the task. The task is to dignify, and before dignity comes rebellion,” she says, emphatically.
She recently shot a comedy in which she played a cisgender woman for the first time, a move that felt entirely natural for her as an actress, but—she discovered—raised a few eyebrows. Doubts about the ability of trans actors to play cisgender characters is a “vice,” Vega says. “My body is available for any type of character—but those characters have to first be offered to me.”
Her striking turn as Marina, with all its subdued rage and magical realism, has landed Daniela Vega’s name on the lips of Oscar pundits, who see her having a shot at becoming the first transgender woman ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. If Oscar calls, Vega will answer enthusiastically, though she is not waiting by the phone. “One doesn’t work for awards. One works to be part of time, to leave a mark, a legacy. I work so that the day I die I can be remembered—but not for awards.”
Throughout A Fantastic Woman, Marina walks with the unflinching confidence of someone who doesn’t owe the world any explanations. In that regard, performer and creation do align. When Marina announces, “My name is Marina Vidal—do you have a problem with that?” Daniela Vega is speaking for both of them. MM
A Fantastic Woman opened in theaters November 17, photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.