One of the best performances you’ll see this year is by an actress you’ve probably never heard of. Daniela Vega, a Chilean opera singer, stars in a drama about a woman grieving her late lover. The film, by Sebastian Lelio (GloriaDisobediance), is Chile’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it could also get Vega her own Academy Award nomination. That would be a big deal for a foreign language breakout performance, but it would also make history: Vega, who is transgender, would become the first openly trans actor to land an Oscar nomination.

Lelio’s spellbinding drama follows Marina, a nightclub singer who happens to be a trans woman, after her older cisgender male lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), suddenly dies. Mourning isn’t Marina’s only plight; everyone, from the hospital doctors to Orlando’s family, treat Marina like a criminal. Orlando’s ex-wife bans Marina from attending the funeral, his son kicks her out of her home, and a detective questions her as a suspect in Orlando’s death. But A Fantastic Woman is far from a exploitative melodrama like so many reductive trans narratives; Lelio’s film, crafted with nuance and sensitivity, is more interested in Marina’s internal journey through grief and self-discovery. It’s one of the most beautiful portraits of a trans character I’ve seen, and Vega is simply astonishing.

After the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, I sat down with Vega to chat about what it was like to receive such high praise from critics on her breakout role (the film currently has a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Through a translator, Vega told me about building a trust with Lelio on set, especially for her multiple nude scenes, her thoughts on cisgender actors playing trans roles, and what she’ll do if she gets nominated for an Oscar.

I love this movie so very much and you give such an incredible performance in it. How did you first meet Sebastian and get involved?

Thank you. The process was of mutual discovery. Sebastian was doing research into what it is like to be a trans person in Chile. And a person in common between us recommended that we meet, and the rest was cinematic magic.

That’s wonderful. And this is your first leading role?

No. My second. My first role was in a film called La Visita, or The Guest in English. It was released in 2013, it can be found online. And I met Sebastian in 2014.

And you’re also a singer.

Yes.

Which is a perfect fit for this role. What was it like to sing and act?

At first, Sebastian wanted me to sing pop songs, but I’m an opera singer, I don’t know how to sing pop songs. It would’ve been like asking a right-handed person to use their left hand, just from one moment to the next.

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Were you involved in choosing the songs that you sing in the movie?

Yes. My singing teacher and I proposed several arias to Sebastian, and he made the final decision. He said, “This one, this one, and this one.” And even though I had sung opera, the arias that we had proposed, I had never sang. So they were a new challenge to me, and even though they were operatic, it was Sebastian who chose which ones and why.

Marina is so courageous despite the many challenges she’s put up against. How do you understand where she gets her resolve and her strength?

I think the most important thing in creating Marina was to realize the place in which her dignity comes from. She uses that dignity to be rebellious. We were talking about this yesterday, but in order to be rebellious one must have dignity beforehand. And Marina needed to say goodbye, which was something that was prohibited of her but she overcame it, from a place of dignity.

She goes through a grieving process that’s personal, but she’s also facing the public scrutiny of Orlando’s family. How did you approach playing both of Marina’s internal and external journeys?

Marina, in the scene in which she opens the locker, comes to understand that she has nothing of Orlando, that everything she had of Orlando is gone. And it is in that moment that I tell myself that she decides she needs to say goodbye. And it’s in that moment that she overcomes the private, the personal grieving. She’s tried to grieve in a public way, she attempts to go to the church, but every attempt to do it publicly has made her realize that the pain she’s feeling is a personal one and she’s alone in it. So she decides in that moment that she needs to confront public judgement in a public way to go to the cemetery to say goodbye.

The locker scene is so beautiful.

I love that scene. What’s your favorite scene in the movie? I’m the journalist now. [Laughs]

I love the nightclub scene.

Oh cool. When she’s flying?

Yeah. But even when she first walks in and hooks up with a stranger. Then has that magical moment on the dance floor.

And she feels sure of herself. In her own world.

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Right, yes. It’s such a lovely a blending of fantasy and reality.

Yes. Well the whole movie, it’s about reality and fantasy. For that reason, it’s A Fantastic Woman because she fantasizes.

Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

Yes. My favorite scene, it’s when I’m looking at my face in the little mirror, almost the last scene. It’s my favorite because the light is very nice and my skin looks good. [Laughs]

You have a few nude scenes in the film. Were you able to develop a sense of trust with Sebastian to feel comfortable and safe for those moments?

I think it is important, in a main character role like this one, to trust blindly in your director. I think without that blind trust, it won’t work. So one must completely and absolutely trust the director, in the same way that the director must completely and absolutely trust in you to cast you for it. And in that way it was a cinematic marriage throughout the process, and even before it. Before filming when he proposed these two nude scenes, I agreed because I felt they were necessary. I didn’t feel like in other occasions when it seemed like scenes were presented just to show my body. These seemed poetic, political, and more necessary to the film.

They do feel crucial to the story. That’s an important distinction.

So important.

There’s so much authenticity in your performance. Watching you, it just feels so true. Are there pieces of Marina’s story that resonate with your own?

The movie’s not a documentary. Everything was acted out and the story didn’t have anything to do with my real life. However, there are characteristics of certain violent scenes that I identified with by having experienced as a younger girl in school. That isn’t to say that I lived them, but rather we were able to draw feelings and sensations that I had from memories of those experiences to make Marina and those scenes more natural.

What was it like working with Sebastian when filming those emotional scenes? 

When Sebastian directs, he doesn’t look down on the film, rather it’s very eye-to-eye. There’s an equality. And there’s no sense of superiority, rather there’s a conversation between everyone involved that creates a relationship of trust. When he directs, his instructions are not orders, but it’s as if he is asking for you to do a favor with affection. He doesn’t say, “Do this,” he says, “Can you?” And this coming from the director, coming from the owner of this story [who] creates female characters like Gloria, like Marina that he has created in the past and will continue to create in the future.

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I was just thinking about this – there’s something very unique about the way he presents female characters.

He’s a genius, you know.

Do you think that there are things that you bring to this role that a cisgender actor couldn’t bring to this character?

What an interesting question. I personally feel that females have a resilience, and I think it doesn’t matter whether they’re trans women, or trans men. I think that trans men and women may have slightly greater resilience. I think that the personal discovery and that comes with the process, and the personal discovery of ghosts that are inside of us, and the self-knowledge that it creates means that trans people may be able to access a greater resilience. That being said, it’s not a competition between cis and trans people, but rather a placing on level playing field, an even ground.

What’s your experience been like taking this film to Berlin and now Toronto and seeing so many critics praising it and your performance? I know the film is Chile’s Foreign Language Oscar submission and there’s been buzz around your potential for an Oscar nomination.

It’s like living a dream, and you don’t wanna wake up. [Laughs] And I’m giving myself to whatever the future would like to gift us with. It would be wonderful to be nominated, it would be wonderful to win but it’s really too far in the future to think about that. If I get nominated, I’m going to have the most beautiful dress made that the whole world will see.

I hope it happens just so I can see you in your dress!

[Laughs] Yes!

A Fantastic Woman is now playing in New York and Los Angeles for one week awards-qualifying run. It reopens in limited release on February 2, 2018.

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