For ten years, director Lukas Dhont has worked to bring the real-life story of a transgender ballerina to the big screen. He first heard about the story of the young girl, whose name is Nora in real life, when he was 18. Now, almost a decade later, Girl is the winner of best first film at Cannes as well as the Queer Palm. It will also be Belgium’s entry in the Academy Award category for best foreign language film.
The film follows Lara (Victor Polster), who studies ballet at a prestigious Belgian academy while simultaneously navigating her medical transition. In an interview with INTO, the film’s lead actors Arieh Worthalter and Victor Polster spoke about playing father and daughter while Dhont spoke about the film’s genderless casting process, his fascination with adolescence and the criticism of his film for casting a cisgender actor in a transgender role.
Victor and Arieh, a lot of the film’s most emotional scenes are when you two are having father-daughter talks. What went into having that parent-child bond between you as actors?
Victor Polster (Lara): Arieh came to my house before filming and also with [Milo, Lara’s younger brother in the film] to have something special between us and I don’t know, otherwise it was really natural, the relationship that we have. And to make it even bigger, they came and we cooked together and we tried to have the family spirit. But otherwise, it happened really naturally.
Arieh Worthalter (Mathias, Lara’s father): There was a kind of trust inherent in the relationship immediately. As he said, I had to cook for them several times, him and Milo. And we went mini-golfing, stuff like that. We went bowling, spent some time together. I rarely had such a beautiful and simple relationship with someone on set. It was natural all the time. A lot of improvisation, a lot of ideas being exchanged all the time. And a general trust on set, that was everyone’s model.
There was a sense that you understood that Lara had a lot of secrets and as a parent you’re trying to connect with your child and trying to get them to talk to you. I thought that was so well done, that process of you trying to get your child to talk to you.
AW: I’m not a parent, but I think that actually helped, because when I listen to my friends — and I’m a godfather and all that. I listen to my friends talk about parenthood and there not being any textbook to it. I was just in the dark and when you add to that the fact that you have a transgender child in a society that doesn’t understand it, there’s even less of a textbook to that and how you deal with the outside world, which is what Mathias had to deal with. We didn’t see it in the film, but he had to deal with the constant anxiety that his child is going to hit walls, is going to meet people that want to hurt her. That kinda became, I just trusted in that. I had to constantly listen to Victor, constantly be with him every single second. You have to be aware of what your kid is busy with — their fears, their troubles — so you can feel when something is not all right.
What the show Transparent does is show that when you transition it affects the whole family, and so Mathias, you can see how the transition is affecting him over time, as well. I was wondering if you could talk about how you approached the role of seeing a father whose daughter is transitioning, especially a father whose wife has died and is no longer in the picture.
AW: Well, I think these are two distinct things, preparing. It takes time. But from the get go, Mathias was not — he was supporting his daughter. That’s all. All the anxieties and doubts that go with it are very important. There’s the real father that I listen to a lot — from Nora, you know the girl the movie’s based on — was always talking about some kind of mourning of having lost a son and it was important for him to do it, to understand it.
And what I found beautiful in that story is that he was transitioning, too, towards something else. He was accepting everything his daughter was going through and every choice his daughter was making — up until she would put her health in jeopardy. That was the limit: physical or mental health or emotional. But that was very important for me, to work on an individual, more than the idea of “how do you play a father?” Because it’s like — “Well, how do you play an astronaut?” You have to find real things for you, real topics and things you can build on and that was for me the most important part. What kind of individual is he? What does he believe in? And that is all shaped by the relationship he has with his daughter.
Did you both get to work with Nora during the making of the film, and Nora’s family?
VP: No, she came on set and when I had dance repetitions, she came to watch and so we could talk. We never talked about how she did it [speaks French].
AW: They never really talked about how she felt with the others. And how the others felt being with her.
VP: [speaks French].
AW: She was very present on set and during rehearsals, so that really helped — to have someone around who believed in what Victor was doing and could say if it was on the right path or not, if it was right. [At this point, Arieh asks Victor about working Nora in French.] Lukas never told him …
As Arieh mentions Lukas’s name, the film’s director Lukas Dhont walked in and sat down for the rest of the interview.
I was just asking about having Nora on set to guide the film and what was it like having her there to consult on the film.
Lukas Dhont: Well, my relationship with Nora goes back to 2009, because when I first read about her I was 18 years old and I was still in the closet and I read about a 15 year old that wanted to become a ballerina but was assigned male at birth. And who just chose herself, her own dreams, her own ambition above anything else. And for me that was a very heroic thing. So for me as a human being, she became a sort of example of choosing yourself. So I contacted her and in the beginning she didn’t really want to collaborate on a professional level because she didn’t want to make a film about that because it was all very vulnerable for her. But a year later, we got to know each other and a year later she did want to write it with me but not be in the spotlight. She was like, “I want to write it with you, but I don’t want to be on the foreground of the film.” And so we did and ever since she’s been a great form of information and inspiration. And without her this film could not have been written or been made. And I think for us on set, she was there, but she was mainly there because she loved the fact that it was happening. She loved the fact of seeing choreography being made. She wanted to become a ballerina but her school didn’t allow her, so for her to see this character based on her life be able to dance in this film was so emotional.
And for Victor being 15, of course getting to know Nora is something that he pulls things out — he sees her, he sees the way she talks about things, he sees the way she moves. But it’s not that … I think that she went deeply into her emotions to make him understand that. Because I knew he understood that already. He’s someone — I knew he was going to be able to do it right after I saw his first casting. Even if he is not trans, I knew he would be, I felt like he would incarnate it with respect and complexity and I think it comes to show for me. Of course every situation is different, but that the greatest strength of any artist in the end is empathy.
Well, I want to talk about casting. Can you talk, Lukas, about the casting process. I read that you did a genderless casting process. And Victor, what, when you saw the call, attracted you to the character?
Lukas Dhont: When we wrote the script, the difficulty was that I constantly had Nora in my mind when I wrote it. So I needed someone who was able to replace that image of what I had in mind. And we were looking for someone with so many abilities — that could dance on that high professional level, which not many people can. It’s a limited amount of people. And also I was excited about the idea of working with a young trans person. So we did a genderless casting.
We saw 500 young people, I think a year and a half before we started shooting. Among which, 7 trans girls and boys and girls — because I was like, I’m open to see anyone for this part. And we didn’t find anyone. In those 500 people, there was no one who had all the abilities for the film. So we started doing a dance casting with our choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who also did the film Anna Karenina. And of course all the young really talented dancers came to that because of my name. And [Victor] really wants to be a dancer. And the dancers are really focused on the dance. For them, being in a film is like, “Whatever.” And so he auditioned for that part, for a dance part in the film.
I remember when we saw him enter the room, it was me, my producer and my co-writer. And we had this just, sometimes you have this when you meet someone, that you fall in love with them. And I need that, I need to be able to fall in love with my actors, like I fell in love with Arieh, as well. And that happened with him. And I felt immediately that he would be able to do it, you know, the dance and be able to be respectful towards that identity. What was attractive for you? He didn’t know when he came to casting that he was coming for the main role.
VP: No, no, because you sent me something like, “Maybe you can do an audition for something bigger” in the film, but you didn’t say the biggest! [speaks in French]
AW: We did the audition at Lukas’s place and he really wanted to do it because he read the script with his mother. And he really liked it so we did the audition together at Lukas’s place.
VP: [speaks in French]
AW: Reading the script with his mother, he was really interested and you could see something really special was happening in that script, something enormous was developing and that was what pulled him in.
WP: [speaks in French]
AW: The really decisive moment was that audition at home because it was the first time he met Lukas, first time he met and it was really important for him and his parents to feel that both director and the actor playing in the film would be very cautious and very kind-hearted and take care of him. And the audition went really well and that’s the same trust we were talking about in the beginning, that was present in that audition. So that was a decisive moment for him.
Since you brought it up, I do want to ask. Obviously, in America, there’s a lot of controversy about casting cisgender actors in trans roles. Obviously, Scarlett Johansson just dropped out of Rub & Tug, so I wanted to ask you about casting a cis actor to play Lara.
LD: The first point I would make is that every situation for me is different. And I cannot say anything about the Scarlett Johansson situation because I was not part of anything of that process. I think Hollywood is such a different system from the way Europe makes film and I think Hollywood, sometimes, there is a star culture — we have that, as well — that is needed for a film to be made. In this case, being a Belgian film, that was not the case. We didn’t need any — I mean, Victor is totally unknown. So that was not a part of the decision.
I think when you represent someone, whether it be anyone, if you want to do that correctly, you need to do that with respect for that community and love. The only thing that I can say is that we really have both. And for me, I would be, I’m excited about the idea of inclusion. I’m excited about a world or a system or a filmmaking industry where trans talent can play cis people and where cis people can play trans talent in both cases if they do it with respect and love. And in the most complex way.
To me, one of the biggest themes of the film was the body of a budding ballerina and having that body also go through transition, and the process of becoming who you want to be. In depicting both of those, it had to do a lot with Lara’s body going through change. How did you go about wanting to depict what it means to have a body that is changing?
LD: I’m so interested in puberty and adolescence because that to me is the moment where you really a) you discover your body and b) you want time to go faster, sometimes. You develop this complex relationship with your body that is changing and at the same time that you’re getting to know. So for me, first of all, when I saw this film, I saw Lara as a teenager above anything. What attracted me in the origin of Nora was, first of all, the symbol. The symbol of a young girl that was told from when she was born that her body is masculine and that she could not accept that even though the people around her say they see a girl she could not see that herself, which was Nora’s struggle, which I found so heartbreaking in a way. Because when I saw her I always saw a girl and everyone around her tried to say that to her as much as possible.
For her to try to obtain this classic idea of the highest elegant female form, the idea of the ballerina, for me it was a great symbol to externalize an internal conflict. She wanted to have that form. So to me the film is really about form, about looking for that form that you feel should be you. Which is I think a universal thing. I think everyone around this table has a complex, has kind of a complex relationship with their body. I don’t know you guys but I can say it because … even if it’s to some degrees, but it’s very universal.
And on the other hand, there was a contradiction in that that attracted me a lot. Because it’s someone who is choosing an arena in which she really has to work with her body, in which her body is central, in which her body is constantly reflected. But has that difficult relationship with the body. To me, there was a self-destructive thing in that that I found to be very interesting. And so the manipulation in the classical ballet of the body and someone who is trying to manipulate her body into the form that she perceives as female or that society has told her to be perceived as female, I thought that was very interesting. I just saw the cinematographic potential of that. So for me, I’m very happy that you say that because at the core, I think this is a physical film about the relationship that we have with the body and the way our bodies are perceived in society.
There’s been a lot of criticism in media about trans stories that focus too much on medical transition and I’m wondering if you want to talk about why you focused so much on Lara’s medical transition.
LD: It’s because for this girl, growing up in … I’m watching this series Pose and it’s absolutely stunning that we get all of these different forms. With Girl, I met Nora and she was one human being from that community and I could only tell that one story. I never intended even to represent a community or something. I represent a human being. For me that was very important.
I wanted to address the conflict that Nora felt, which was completely focalized on the body. Nora didn’t allow herself to feel anything in her body before she was operated because only then she believed could she go into an intimate relationship with another body. And I found that so striking and also universal. We deny ourselves a lot of the time, so many things. I denied myself an intimate relationship with my body for a long time and I’m not trans. So when people say to me, “Oh, you’re not trans, how could you talk about that?” I think that there’s so many things that are so universal in her story, which I think is also the reason why so many people connect to that.
What’s your experience of watching the film with an audience and seeing them react ot the final five minutes of the film? That was, in my screening, that was so difficult for people to watch.
LD: It was in Cannes and we had just really finished the film a couple of days before and I saw it in Cannes and you know, the thing is when we — the ending was a creative decision that I made in collaboration with Nora. I think the film is, I think it’s absolutely necessary. We wanted to show it and not show it. So really you can’t see anything. But at the same time, it’s to prove that cinema can have such a visceral physical effect. Because even without seeing anything, you have a whole theatre that all of a sudden reacts to something so physically. For me as a filmmaker, that’s exciting. For me, that’s … why I wanted to make cinema is to have an effect on people. Not in a shocking way, not want ot shock but to have an effect on people. And when I hear people laugh and I hear people cringe and I hear people do things, that excites me as a filmmaker because I feel like there’s an effect, whether you love that effect or you don’t.
In the film, Lara is going through transition but the film really left open questions about her sexuality. She told doctors stop trying to label her as being into men or women. Was that something that you or Nora put in?
LD: I wanted to talk about gender, not about sexual identity. I think a lot of the time people confuse those two and for me, it was important to focus on that and to focus on someone who doesn’t want to go into that question of sexuality yet, even if she … she first wants to become what she needs to be — a girl, even though everyone around tells her she already is — to question sexuality. For me it was very important to focus on that and to be strict in the film about that. I think a lot of the film is her trying to feel in that body.
Girl will be in US theaters on November 16.