“My transition was imperative to the preservation of my sanity and to my health well-being,” says British actress Rebecca Root, who has found recognition in the U.S. with a bit part in The Danish Girl. “Before I transitioned, I was double-acting, if that makes sense. I was acting being a guy, and I was employed as a professional actor, as a guy acting as a guy. Does that make sense? It was actually exhausting.”
Her part in the film is small, taking just a day to shoot. The transgender actress plays a cisgender (nontrans) nurse who cares for Redmayne’s character, Copenhagen painter Einar Wegener, at the hospital where Wegener is to undergo groundbreaking but rudimentary and frightening gender-confirmation surgery.
In hailing the star of The Danish Girl, Root lets us in on her suspicion that his Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated performance as Lili might be “the last great trans role to be portrayed — as far as we know — by a cisgender actor.”
Root chooses her words carefully as she explains why she says “as far as we know” in describing Redmayne. “When I was living in the male role, very few people knew that I was trans. And if I had played a role like Lili Elbe [the name by which Wegener goes post-transition], while otherwise presenting as male, there well may have been people up in arms about ‘Why is “he” playing this part?’ without them fully knowing my interior truth.”
Redmayne himself addressed this issue with the BBC, telling an interviewer that the role “absolutely made me look at the notion of my own gender.” The actor said he has learned that gender is not just two things and more of a spectrum. “Where one falls on that spectrum is entirely unique to who you are,” he said.
That prompted the BBC interviewer to ask, “Where do you fall on that spectrum?”
Redmayne had a moment of apparent unease and then blurted out, smiling, “I’m not going to tell you that! I’m going to keep that to myself.”
Root is one of the few trans actors in the history of motion pictures to be cast in a cisgender role. Root follows in the footsteps of Candis Cayne (Elementary), Trace Lysette (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and Caroline Cossey, a.k.a. Tula (For Your Eyes Only). Cossey, who was not out during the filming, was outed by a British tabloid following its release. Lysette told The Advocate last year she had stayed in the closet from 2008 until 2013 for fear of being “clocked,” or discovered as being trans.
“I’ve certainly encountered prejudice,” Root tells The Advocate. “An awful lot of people do get upset if they ‘clock’ that I’m trans. As someone kind of in the public eye, I’m maybe a bit more noticeable than I was before. But we’re really quite protected in the U.K. in terms of employment law. There is still prejudice and discrimination." Root, however, finds comfort that victims are supported by both British law and law enforcement.
She says the kind of ostracization that’s happened in Texas and Florida, where trans women have been accused of being male sexual predators for simply using the bathroom matching their gender identity, just doesn’t exist in her country. “Maybe someone ’tutting’ at you in the women’s restroom, as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’” is as far as it goes, she says. She adds that if she ever visits the U.S., she’d like to “make a big thing about using the women’s restrooms and see what happens.”
Root, 46, benefited from the U.K.’s government-funded National Health Service, which covered all her transition costs.
“I first sought medical assistance around the age of 27 or 28,” she says. “I was with a long-term partner with whom I’d had a six- or seven-year relationship. Although that was heartbreaking and I loved her very much, and we’re still great friends, being newly single gave me the liberty, if you like, to actually seek help.”
She legally changed her name in 2003, and as is standard there, was required to wait before undergoing gender-confirmation surgery a few years later.
“The NHS makes you wait two years. The whole process, from when I first asked for help to when I was discharged, [was] seven or eight years, maybe? It felt like being on a road,” Root laughs, “but it's OK.”
Root notes that she’s only recently been discussing her transition publicly, due to the attention she’s received of late. “When I transitioned I just wanted to get on with living. There is sort of an anticlimax, like ‘Well, now what?’ You just get on with life!”
Root is single. “Oh, I’ve had my fingers burned on several occasions, I’ve got scars all over me. And so I don’t date. I’m not seeking to be in a relationship.” She describes herself as “polysexual,” and says although she’s not actively seeking love, she would be open to a relationship if one were to happen, with a variety of potential partners.
“Cis men, cis women, trans women, trans men, that opens up the field quite considerably,“ she says. “I’m more interested in the person.”
Root, a British citizen of Irish descent, says while she didn’t see herself as being duplicitous before she transitioned, “I think it’s kind of why I really never broke through as a male actor. I was just exhausted. They could see that I wasn’t being truthful in my work. Not that I wasn’t a good actor, but there was something that was holding me back.”
With Root’s star finally rising, she is proud to share that she is “blessed” to have total acceptance from family and friends. She knows from her experience as a voice coach to trans people that this can be a rare thing. “I’m very aware I’m a very lucky girl,” she concedes.
In her 25 years of acting, 2015 was her busiest, with the crowning achievement being her starring in six episodes of a groundbreaking comedy series, Boy Meets Girl, about a woman who “finds love across the transgender age gap.” The BBC confirmed Tuesday that it's green-lit a second season of the hit TV show.
“I know it’s like winning the lottery,” says Root, “but somebody has to win the lottery, and in that case I’ve won the lottery several times over.”
Watch a video from Focus Features about Root's role in The Danish Girl, below.