The Danish Girl director Tom Hooper on his journey to the top

The Oscar-winning director's transgender tale starring Eddie Redmayne is breaking new ground – but why was EastEnders his toughest job?

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There is something quintessentially English about Tom Hooper, director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables (an impressive seven Oscars between them) and, now, The Danish Girl, which Hollywood could never take away. He says, “Gosh”, for instance, and has floppy hair.

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We are sitting in a pretty room in Claridge’s, clinking fine bone china cups of coffee. When he talks about films – his self-confessed obsession since he started making them at the age of 13 – he meets your gaze and is impervious to interruption. But, at times, you can see the shy child he once was; his pale hand covers his mouth, and his speech becomes almost faltering.

Hooper talks about his films in the most intimate way, as though they were his lovers – and The Danish Girl, several years in the making, has been his labour of love. It’s an adaptation of a novel by American writer David Ebershoff, about Lili Elbe – one of the first transgender women who underwent reassignment surgery in the 1930s.

Lili (played by Eddie Redmayne) was formerly Einar Wegener, a celebrated Danish landscape artist, married to portrait painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander). As much a journey of transformation, it is the story of a marriage going through profound change. “It’s the ability to put someone else’s needs and feelings ahead of yourself. Gerda loves Lili so much that she supports her even though there’s a risk that she will lose her as a result,” Hooper says. “There’s something very beautiful about that – it moved me to tears.”

Hooper surprises me by saying it’s a subject he has been thinking about from the age of ten. His mother, Meredith, an Australian-born historian, writer and Antarctic aficionado, had successful surgery for skin cancer in 1982, and a patient in the next bed was one of only two people allowed gender reassignment on the NHS per year. The surgeon came and chatted with Meredith and “ended up in tears, admitting that the woman on the operating table had almost been lost.

“The memory of how risky the procedure was, and how powerful the force was in the person wanting to do it, has been with me for a long time. And in relation to this story,” Hooper continues, “it struck me that if it was that dangerous in 1982, can you imagine the risk Einar was taking in 1930?”

Hooper comes from a strong, loving family of high achievers. His younger brother, Ben, is a human rights barrister and a sculptor; Rachel Byrne, their sister, presents Today in Parliament for Radio 4. Richard Hooper, Tom’s father, began his career as a producer at the BBC, was a founding member of the Open University in the 1960s and went on to become a regulator. When I ask Tom if he takes after his parents, he says his mother has published more than 70 books and that he has a photograph of her “in full survival suit, having a cup of coffee from a thermos, with a Lynx helicopter perched behind her on the tip of an iceberg. That’s my mum.”

It was Meredith who gave him the idea for The King’s Speech, when she went to a reading of it and said, “Tom, I think you’ve found your next film.” He thanked her on stage when he received his Oscar, saying, “The moral of the story is ‘listen to your mother’.”

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Tom Hooper with The Danish Girl star Eddie Redmayne

As a young boy, his first love was acting, inspired by his teacher, Roger Mortimer, an ex-RSC actor. But, with early pragmatic foresight, he worked out that his chances of making it weren’t high: “I killed that dream and thank God, because I’m a terrible actor. Ask any actor who has ever seen me try to act.”

He was, however, mesmerised by Mortimer’s directing, devoured a book on how to direct films and television, which happened to be sitting on a school piano, and that was it — he was hooked. Armed with his uncle’s antique Bolex clockwork camera, the young Hooper started making three-minute silent films, adding musical soundtracks later.

“From the age of 12, I was a hustler. I would go down Wardour Street and into shops insisting they give me stuff for free because I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “The whole mindset of being entrepreneurial has since been helpful for getting other people’s money to make films.”

One of his first films, Bomber Jacket, was inspired by his grandfather (Edward Morris Hooper), a bomber navigator killed in action in February 1942, aged 30. He recalls his father showing him the bomber jacket Edward wore. “The fact that my dad didn’t have a dad had always preyed on my mind as a child. He had been packed off to boarding school at the age of five partly as a result of him not having a dad to help and support at home.”

After reading English at Oxford, a friend of his father’s advised Hooper not to be snooty and to open his mind to directing soap operas and children’s TV. Although he had a lot of meetings, armed with an impressive showreel (including a short film bought by Channel 4 when he was 18), only one person was prepared to take a risk on the fledgling director — Matthew Robinson, the executive producer of young adults’ series Byker Grove. Hooper proved himself more than capable and, at the age of 25, was offered the opportunity to direct EastEnders, “which is an amazing lesson in being present and remains the hardest directing I’ve ever done”.

Twenty years on, Hooper has a reputation for being a tough director to please. Colin Firth has talked about the sinking feeling of seeing him looking away, as though bored with his acting. Eddie Redmayne talks about “the walk”: if Hooper walked slowly from the cameras to the actor, Redmayne reckoned that he had a lot of critical notes and was trying to work out how to edit them down; if he walked fast, it meant he was happy and had only one thing to say. “So now I’m very self-conscious about the speed of my walk,” Hooper says, as a lovely smile spreads light over his face.

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The Danish Girl is in cinemas now