A transgender Chilean actress has turned in one of the most buzzed-about performances of the year and some are hoping she could be the first trans actor to land an Oscar nomination.
Daniela Vega, 28, stars in Sebastian Lelio's A Fantastic Woman. She plays Marina, a transgender woman whose partner (Francisco Reyes) dies, after which Marina is subjected to harsh treatment by the family of her deceased lover and by police investing the death.
Chile has selected the film as its Academy Awards submission this year. But the bigger spotlight may be on whether Vega's breakout performance — one of stirring strength and compassion — could make Oscar history. Reviewing the movie at its Berlin Film Festival premiere, Variety called her performance "a multi-layered, emotionally polymorphous feat of acting," that deserves "so much more than political praise."
While several transgender musicians have been Oscar-nominated, no trans performer has ever earned an acting nod.
"It's too early to talk about that, to think about it. I have lots of festivals to attend, lots of dresses to wear," Vega said with a grin in an interview. "The Oscars are a little bit beyond the timeline I'm thinking about right now. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Vega and A Fantastic Woman will not have an easy road to the Oscars. Performances in foreign-language films rarely break into the acting categories, and this year, like most, the field of potential contenders boasts plenty of heavyweight, bigger-name performers like Meryl Streep (The Post) and Jessica Chastain (Molly's Game).
But Vega has two things going for her: the depth of her performance and the possibility of a long-awaited Oscar landmark. Such a result could have great meaning for a trans community that President Donald Trump recently banned from entering the military.
"If we broaden our gaze, it will be more interesting, more beautiful. If we can make more diverse colors, people, stories, it will be interesting," Vega said. "Uniforms are for the military and the police, not for our thinking."
Hollywood has far from shied away from telling transgender stories, but the industry has come under increasing criticism for not casting them in high-profile parts. Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) have taken home awards, and movies like 2015's The Danish Girl, with Eddie Redmayne, and 2005's Transamerica, with Felicity Huffman, have garnered nominations.
While those films and the Amazon series Transparent have been widely applauded, pressure has mounted urging producers to cast trans actors for trans parts. Progress has instead come in smaller, offbeat productions like Sean Baker's Tangerine, the much-lauded 2015 film Baker shot with iPhones. It starred a pair of transgender performers, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Taylor last year won an Independent Spirit Award for her performance.
"There is very beautiful transgender talent," Taylor said, accepting the supporting actress award. "You better get out there and put it in your movie."
Transgender people have been nominated in other Oscar categories. The composer Angela Morley received two nods, for 1974's The Little Prince and 1976's The Slipper and the Rose.
Most recently, singer Anohni, formerly known as Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, became the first transgendered performer ever nominated. She collaborated with J. Ralph on the nominated song Manta Ray for the documentary Racing Extinction. But when the category's other nominees — Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, the Weeknd — were given performing slots during the 2016 broadcast, Anohni was not, and she opted to boycott the ceremony.
In a fiery essay announcing her refusal to attend, Anohni declared: "They are going to try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart by waving flags for identity politics and fake moral issues."
Whether Vega — and Oscar voters — can change history won't be decided for months. Sony Picture Classics, which has guided performers to dozens of Academy Award nominations, will release the film on Nov. 17. For now, Vega is soaking up her moment.
"It's like living a dream," said Vega. "It's like a film in a film."