Three weeks after the Oscars ceremony that saw Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman take home Best Foreign Language Film, the movie’s breakthrough star and inspiration Daniela Vega isn’t letting the attention sweep her off her firmly grounded feet.
While her agent’s phone is surely ringing off the hook, and Lelio insists she’s become something of an instant celebrity at home, Vega remains resolutely humble. “I am a very calm person,” she says over the phone from Santiago, with the help of a translator, “I don’t really fear the future. Whatever it has in store for me, I welcome it.”
There’s something in this measured, pragmatic response that recalls Marina, her character in A Fantastic Woman. Facing down transphobia from establishment figures including doctors and the police, as well as from the family of her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) after he dies unexpectedly, she’s evicted from the apartment they shared together and stripped of her car in the film’s opening act.
Despite these demeaning injustices, Marina holds her head high and focuses on two simple goals: locating lost tickets for a holiday Orlando had planned for them for her birthday; and reclaiming their beloved dog, Diabla.
Vega initially came on board as a consultant, working with Lelio not on the script as such, more aiding the director to understand her life as a trans woman living in Chile’s capital city, informing an authentic voice. “I wasn’t looking for an actress back then, I was looking for clarity, and to examine if I really wanted to make the film or not,” Lelio told SBS Movies. “Somewhere towards the end of the writing process, I realised that she was the one.”
Lelio offered Vega the part by posting her the screenplay about a year after they started working together. “It was a huge surprise for me,” Vega recalls. “I didn’t even really know that a movie was going to be made out of it. I couldn’t believe it when Sebastián asked me to be part of it. I feel a lot of love that I have been given this opportunity to play Marina.”
Creating the film together was a whirlwind that has continued to whistle loud. Accruing a plethora of prizes from its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival last year to awards season in Los Angeles this month, where A Fantastic Woman scooped an Independent Spirit Award on its way to the Oscars, Vega says it’s been an amazing validation.
“The Oscars were the culmination of a beautiful journey where human beings – you know, the entire cast, crew and production team – have put themselves at the service of other human beings, and I am very, very grateful,” she says.
Vega is the anchor of truth at the core of A Fantastic Woman’s occasionally dreamlike fantasy. Sweeping onto the Oscars stage in a hot pink chiffon gown designed by Maria Lucia Hohan and matched with diamond and emerald pendant earrings from Chopard, she was involved in two history-making moments that night.
Sharing in Chile’s first Oscars win in the Foreign Film category, she also became the first trans person to present at the award ceremony. Introducing original song nominee Sufjan Stevens’ performance of ‘Mystery of Love’ from Call Me By Your Name, Vega compelled the audience to pause and soak up this glorious confluence in queer movie progress.
“Thank you so much for this moment,” Vega said on the night. “I want to invite you to open your hearts and your feelings to feel the reality, to feel love. Can you feel it?”
In a year of tumult, it was a clarion call. “I feel extremely flattered, not just by the attention of the Academy and viewers, but also by the fact that I am a seen as a symbol now for the trans community,” she tells SBS Movies. “And above all that, my speech was a dedication, it was a dedication to women all over the world, you know, especially in a very important year when a lot of people raised their voices. I’m very hopeful that things are going to get better in the future.”
If others see her as a beacon now, Vega’s trademark modesty keeps that expectation in check. “I don’t really think of myself as a symbol, or someone iconic. I’m just a hard-working person and I’m going to continue doing that.”
Amidst all the celebrity hubbub of Oscars night, Vega and Lelio headed upstairs a for a few celebratory drinks at the Dolby Theatre after party before scooting back to her hotel to join family for an intimate get together. “It was a very beautiful, joyful time,” she says.
And now that she’s back home in Santiago, her idea of a perfect night is pretty simple too. “I love to relax and have a few beers with family and friends. It’s all about good company.”
Watch 'A Fantastic Woman'
Wednesday 3 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Friday 5 March, 3:20am on SBS World Movies
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim