Daniela Vega speaks like a poet, artfully crafting her sentences in a way that feels organic. It’s no wonder the Chilean actress and opera singer—who gave one of last year’s greatest breakthrough performances in Sebastián Lelio’s foreign-language Oscar entry A Fantastic Woman—repeatedly mentions the work of Stella Díaz Varín, a late and little-known poet from Vega’s home country whom she implores others to read. “Poetry is an expression of what’s inside you,” Vega says, “and what’s most inspired me from Stella’s work is her relationship with time.”
Related | OUT's Favorite Movies of 2017 (VIDEO)
Born and raised in Santiago, Vega has also had an intriguing, tumultuous connection with the ticking clock, pacing herself and trusting her gut while chasing her destiny. The 28-year-old has been singing since she was 8, taking extensive classes paid for by her eternally supportive parents. At 14, after years of confusion, she realized she wasn’t gay, but something else, eventually finding clarity when she came across the word transsexuality.
Coming out to her family was fairly easy, but expressing herself at school wasn’t, especially given the gradual nature of her transition. She was bullied for wearing makeup and carrying purses, but for her, the larger purpose eclipsed all of that. “When transitioning, it’s important to do it calmly, with respect for your body,” Vega says, noting that “passing” didn’t interest her, despite the adversity she faced from peers. “It was either them or me,” she says. “Either don’t fit the mold, or die in the attempt to.” She completed her gender confirmation by 17. She never cut her hair again.
Dress by ASOS. Shoes by Pierre Hardy. (Photography: Heather Sten)
“I knew I wanted to be a woman,” Vega says. “Afterward, I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided to be an artist.” Art is where Vega found additional strength—through song, Varín’s poetry, and films by Almodóvar and John Cassavetes, both of whom are stylistically evoked in A Fantastic Woman. But like her character, Marina, who endures trans discrimination and humiliation in the wake of her boyfriend’s death (from both his family and authorities who suspect foul play), Vega was ostracized and dismissed by hiring managers when trying to find work. “In many countries, there is no law for gender identity,” she says, “so you cannot change your name or gender on your identification. When employers ask you for your legal background, you must hand them your documents. And that’s when they say no.”
Distraught, Vega fell into a yearlong depression. She was only 20, but she’d given up singing and had confined herself to her bed. It took the encouragement of a close friend in the theater world to revive her; she soon joined the friend in a college workshop, lending her makeup skills to the production and even landing a role in the show. She had a week to learn her lines, and she had to sing opera, a lifelong passion that had been lying dormant. “There was a theater director in that audience who heard me and told me he wanted to work with me,” Vega says. “He wrote a monologue for me, The Butterfly Woman, about my life and about metamorphosis, and we’ve been doing it for seven years. It’s still running in Santiago.”
From there, Vega left the cocoon of her bedroom firmly behind. Filmmaker Mauricio López Fernández spotted her in a Butterfly Woman performance and gave Vega her first film role in La Visita, released in 2014. And then, while serving as a makeup artist at a Chilean fashion show, she got a phone call that would change her life. It was from Lelio, a writer-director best known for his 2013 drama Gloria. “He said, ‘I would like to meet you because I would like to know what it is to be trans,’ ” Vega says. She agreed to be a consultant on a loosely developing project, which, three years later, became a masterful milestone—one of the finest examples of a trans actor playing a trans character on screen.
“He was in Berlin, and I was in Santiago, so we built the relationship over distance—telephone and Skype,” Vega says. Roughly two years after their first call, Lelio told Vega she’d be receiving a “top secret” package in the mail. It was the script for A Fantastic Woman. As Vega read it, she saw increasing parallels between her and Marina, and she called Lelio. “I said, ‘What did you do?’ ” she recalls. “And he said, ‘I wrote a film for you, and I want you to be the leading lady. I’m absolutely sure you can do it.’ So I accepted. And here I am.”
Photography: Heather Sten
Styling: Michael Cook
Hair and Makeup: Marcelo Gutierrez
Necklace: Porter Lyons