By Jill Serjeant
NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Risky" was a word British director Tom Hooper heard a lot when he was trying to get "The Danish Girl" made seven years ago.
Yet when the movie about a pioneering 1920s transgender woman arrives in U.S. movie theaters this week, it catches a shift in the cultural zeitgeist that is expected to help take the film and its stars all the way to the Oscars.
"I saw it as a small passion project. A labor of love," said Hooper, whose "The King's Speech" won best picture, director and actor Oscars in 2011. "So I am very happy that it's coming out now."
"The Danish Girl" - to be released worldwide in the coming months - tells the story of Danish artist Einar Wegener, who after marriage transitioned to a woman named Lili Elbe and in 1930 became the first person known to have undergone gender reassignment surgery. It also depicts the unusual love story between Lili and the woman who remained by her side, her wife, artist Gerda Wegener.
Hooper said that when the script came to him in 2008, it had been passed around for about 12 years, struggling to secure finance because of what was seen as the story's limited appeal.
Its release now caps a year when transgender issues have gone mainstream, fueled by the success of award-winning TV series like "Transparent" and "Orange Is The New Black," and the transition of Caitlyn Jenner, the former U.S. Olympic athlete.
The White House hired its first openly transgender staff member, the Pentagon launched a study aimed at ending the ban on trans people in the military, and U.S. female colleges have begun accepting transgender women students.
Yet "The Danish Girl" also arrives amid heated debate within the transgender community over how the issue is portrayed in the media, and over the casting of straight men and women in transgender roles.
Getting the tone right was important for the filmmakers, who spent months on research and outreach in a bid to represent the community in an authentic way.
Britain's Eddie Redmayne, who is seen as a strong contender for what would be a second Oscar for his nuanced performance as Lili, spent three years meeting trans women, reading Elbe's diaries and educating himself about transgender issues.
"The generosity of these women in sharing their souls and their stories was totally overwhelming," he said.
He also looked for feminine qualities within himself - some of them perhaps nurtured years ago.
"I went to an all boys' school and when I was a kid I played a lot of women in school plays. In Britain there is a tradition of men playing women but what was interesting for this movie was meeting trans women and hearing what their experience was," he said.
Redmayne's involvement did not end when filming stopped. He has taught an acting class for transgender people, and, with Hooper, has met with people of influence, like American trans actress Laverne Cox.
So far, the reception has been mostly warm, the filmmakers say.
As for Redmayne, "I don't know if I succeeded but what I learned in that process is quite incredible," he said.
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Alan Crosby)