As a boundary-breaking gender nonconforming model, Andreja Pejić forged a successful career in both menswear and womenswear. She’s walked the runway for Galliano, Marc Jacobs, Raf Simons, and Paul Smith, and became a muse for Jean Paul Gaultier. In 2015, she was the first openly trans model to be profiled by American Vogue (in an article entitled Has the Fashion Industry Reached a Transgender Turning Point? as part of Vanity Fair’s Trans America Special Edition) and the first trans woman to become the face of a major cosmetics brand, Make Up For Ever. She’s been featured on the covers of international magazines such as GQ Portugal, National Geographic Germany, Glamour Spain, Harper’s Bazaar Serbia, and Australian Vogue. Pajić’s passion for progressive politics and LGBTQ+ equality has seen her address the Oxford Union and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s Time to THRIVE conference.
As an actress, Pejić co-starred in David Bowie’s 2013 music video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) alongside Tilda Swinton, which she describes as “a congregation of the androgynous, a congregation of people that said, ‘Fuck you to gender!'” She went on to appear opposite Claire Foy in 2018’s The Girl in The Spider’s Web, and will be seen later this year in American Psycho director Mary Harron’s Dalíland, portraying legendary singer Amanda Lear. Her latest film, writer-director Giga Agladze’s visually striking and poetic The Other Me executive produced by David Lynch, sees her star alongside Jim Sturgess as the enigmatic Nino, an artist living alone in a remote house in the woods. Their characters are immediately drawn to one another, creating a compelling dynamic that explores the complexities of identity.
With The Other Me currently in select US theaters and available on digital platforms, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Andreja Pejić from her home in Melbourne about what drew her to the film, what sparked her interest in acting, her fear of damaging David Bowie’s vocal chords, and her queer literary hero, Oscar Wilde.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: how did The Other Me come to you and what was it about the screenplay that drew you in?
Andreja Pejić: “We actually shot this film back in 2019 after I’d done The Girl in the Spider’s Web with Claire Foy. I was only in two scenes in that film, so it wasn’t really enough for me to be critiqued on my performance, but I did get some decent feedback from the people on set. After that I wanted to try and take it to the next level, so I started taking drama classes in London, which is of course renowned for its acting schools. Then this role in The Other Me came up and it seemed like a good next movie to do. It took me a while to figure out exactly what the script was about, but I thought there was something very genuine and sweet about it.”
“I was always interested in using my modeling career as a tool for something more progressive and I want to contribute to progressive movies that explore something about humanity or have a message that is beautiful. That’s what touches me. I thought The Other Me had a nice message and the way that it dealt with identity wasn’t on the nose. It did it in this poetic way that wasn’t so direct and I love poetry. Nino is the kind of character you want to play, especially when you’re younger and you have that ethereal thing going on. I’m not sure if that stays with people forever and that’s something that they always appreciated about me in my modeling days. That’s the kind of thing that I was booked for. So I thought that this was a nice continuation of that. I get to play this kind of magical creature. I think what a lot of the critics didn’t understand is that it was a fine balancing act between her being human, but also not human. She’s also this idea, she’s his other half, and it’s left open to interpretation whether she’s just in his head or a real person.”
One of the things that I enjoyed about it is that you don’t necessarily have to take it literally, but when there isn’t a straightforward narrative in a movie it can feel a bit unsettling, or at least unfamiliar and unmooring to a viewer.
“Totally. I felt like that when I watched The Mirror (Zerkalo) by Andrei Tarkovsky. I was really intrigued by it, but there’s no clear narrative and the whole movie is like a beautiful poem that’s not structured like a traditional movie. It’s sort of an external experience and you don’t so much connect with a character’s story, it’s more about the philosophy and the ideas. It’s not like I fell in love with it right away, but it intrigued me enough to watch it again.”
How open was Giga Agladze to you asking questions about the screenplay to the point where you were perhaps taking away some of the mystery of it so that you could fully inhabit the character?
“Well, he was very mysterious and I couldn’t get much out of him about it! I was working with an acting coach, Giles Foreman, and we were Skyping with Giga trying to get to the bottom of my character in this script. When you’re coming from modeling to acting, people can be scared, they don’t want you to screw up, they want you to try to be as natural as possible and not do too much. But I wanted to build a character, I really wanted to go for it, so I needed to know something to ground me in the role.”
“When we figured out by the end that they are the same person—that’s why they have the same memories, she remembers the boy and he does too—that was a big revelation and helped guide how I needed to play it. That’s how I built my character. I built her as his feminine half, his feminine ideal. Not everyone on set knew that. Jim didn’t actually. They had already started filming when I arrived and I mentioned to Jim, ‘Well, we’re kind of the same person’, and he was like, ‘What?!’ So that threw him a little. He was a bit worried about people not getting that from the movie, but at the end of the day it’s called The Other Me and I thought that that was the most interesting thing about it.”
Those scenes that you mention of the young boy—which seem like the shared childhood memories of both of your characters—are quite disturbing, with his overbearing father not accepting him for being too feminine in his eyes, while he’s also badly bullied by the other kids. What did you make of those scenes and did they resonate with you and your own life?
“It definitely resonated. That was a heartbreaking part. Those are my character’s memories which is where her anger comes from. She’s remembering the little boy and I guess it all hinges on the fact that the boy, my character, and Jim’s character are all the same person.”
“I didn’t have the same experience, but I lived in an Eastern European village when I was a child too and so that experience really touched me because there are so many LGBTIQ kids living in Eastern Europe who are completely misunderstood. Sometimes it’s a very religious culture and not very accepting, although I think it is changing. My career has put me in touch with a lot of organizations in places like Belgrade. I remember when they couldn’t even have a pride parade and now they can. Serbia has a lesbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, which shows that people can overcome their attitudes.”
I’ve always loved Jim Sturgess’ work. You have some quite intense and intimate scenes with him in the film, what was it like creating that on screen relationship?
“He was the perfect male co-star. It was my first time doing something like that. We didn’t do a chemistry test because there was no time for that. On the second day of filming with him we had to make out. It’s awkward in the beginning, but then you trust the character and you trust the process. He was so lovely and so sweet and down-to-earth. I felt very safe and he was really encouraging. That was an important part of the movie, because there has to be such a strong connection between them from the beginning because they’re the same.”
It feels like such a relief when his character is with yours. You really want him to get back there with her.
“Yes, to heal him and for him to overcome this split. So many people in our society have to split themselves up and suppress whole parts of themselves.”
The film is open to interpretation, but one initial potential reading of it that I had was that perhaps the Jim Sturgess character, the other side of your character, hadn’t embraced being trans.
“It could be that, or it could also be that he was in love with a woman like that, or it could be that he’s just not balanced between his masculinity and femininity. We all have masculine elements and feminine elements in us, that balance is such a fragile and such a unique thing. It’s a scale and it’s much more complex than male and female. So the film’s an argument against oppressive identity too, in a world that reduces us to too simple an identity. We all have a woman and a man inside of us.”
I love that it is complex and subtle. It’s definitely a film that people could spend a long time discussing afterwards, whatever their reaction to it might be.
“I hope it leaves an impression. I think good art does that.”
I love the surreal black and white sequence where your character is holding a black balloon and we see those people going up the hill carrying heavy balloons behind them. Where did you shoot that?
“That was such a beautiful location, it was in Georgia, where we shot the whole film. That scene reminded me of an Ingmar Bergman movie. It’s to do with Georgian culture, which is a similar area to where I’m from originally in Bosnia, which is split between the East and the West and between Christianity and Islam. I thought that was a symbolic scene about the suffering of people throughout the generations and of life being this uphill struggle where you have to carry a whole load of baggage. That’s definitely one of my favorite scenes.”
David Lynch is attached to the film as an executive producer, did you have any contact with him at all during the production?
“No, I wish that I had, but unfortunately I wasn’t there when he was on set. I love Mulholland Drive, that’s one of my favourite movies. I think Naomi Watts is an underrated actress, she gave such an amazing performance in that film. I know Giga was nervous about David Lynch seeing the finished film, but he loved it and told Giga that he was proud to be a part of it. I think it went beyond his expectations.”
We’ll see you on screen again later this year in Mary Harron’s Dalíland in which you portray Amanda Lear. How would you describe the experience of shooting that?
“It was such a beautiful experience. I got to work with some incredible actors like Ben Kingsley and Barbara Sukowa, and with director Mary Harron. I loved American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page, and I Shot Andy Warhol; she’s an amazing filmmaker. I have been a fan of Amanda Lear for my whole life, so it was really surreal to play her. I found her fascinating and I learned a lot. Hopefully I did a good job. It was a lot of pressure. Amanda has such a presence and there’s been so much fascination with her since since the 1970s. It was the most challenging role that I’ve had to date and I’m so grateful for the experience.”
Was acting something that you’d always wanted to do and had been actively pursuing, or was it more of a case of having the opportunity to do it and being open to it?
“In one way or another I’ve been acting my whole life. Having to play a boy and having to hide who I was I had to create a mask, so I’ve been creating masks from a very young age. In my childhood, drama classes weren’t accessible, but I remember me and my friends would watch these South American soap operas in the refugee camp we were living in and we would reenact these melodramatic telenovela scenes. We’d all put on skirts and try to speak in Spanish.”
“From the beginning of my modeling career, people would ask me to audition for things or to be in movies, but they either didn’t work out or I said no because I didn’t feel ready because it wasn’t what I was concentrating on at the time. You’re very replaceable as a model, so as I got older I started to think about other things that I wanted to do. One of my big goals is writing, that’s what I’m really interested in, and I thought that acting would be a great stepping stone. It’s an incredible way to learn about psychology, what makes people who they are.”
“I’ve studied politics and Marxism and history, but my knowledge of psychology isn’t that high. I took acting classes in New York and then London and I really enjoyed it. It’s such a beautiful process that allows people to open up and cry in front of other people. It’s such a healthy thing, it’s like therapy really. I think that the majority of people should take acting classes at some point in their life if they can because our society’s so oppressive and we have to hold so much in. Acting is part of my creative journey and I’m open to learning and growing. You learn something new every time. It’s a door that opened and so I’m going to walk through it come what may.”
You made such an impression with the David Bowie music video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight). It’s a beautiful piece of work. I love the moment where your character crawls on top of Bowie and kisses him.
“Yeah, I stuck a claw down his throat and I had to do that ten times! I had to crawl on top of him in 10 inch heels and stick a claw in his mouth. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what about his vocal cords?! You’ll be the most hated woman in the world if you damage those!’ It was amazing to get that experience and it was one of his last creative projects. He was so sweet. I remember complaining to him about my modeling career and feeling like an outcast and he turned around to me and was like, ‘Well, let’s see what this does for you’. And it was the beginning of my acting career, so it’s something that I feel David Bowie gave me.”
What an amazing person to be around and Tilda Swinton too of course.
“Tilda was like a mother, she was so sweet and is such an intelligent woman. It felt like a congregation of the androgynous; a congregation of people that said, ‘Fuck you to gender!’ We all swap roles, it’s such a whirlwind music video, and also has a nice message. It’s really about how celebrity culture corrupts normal people and can distract them from more important issues. At the same time though, I think celebrities have massive potential to point people to the right issues and hopefully now with everything that’s happening in the world with COVID there will be more of that. Hopefully our culture will become deeper.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite books, and Dorian Gray is one of my favorite characters. I would love to play him in a movie, that’s one of my dream roles. It says so much about the times, which I think in some ways are similar to our own times. Wilde is one of the greatest artists from our community and he suffered greatly for it. He was a socialist. The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a really beautiful, visionary piece about what humanity could be. They say great art is a product of a great mind and a great heart and I think that he had both of those things. So much of what’s missing today is reading the classics like Oscar Wilde and Tolstoy. We shouldn’t forget them, we should take what’s great about them and apply it to our world. I’m trying to educate myself and I think that this is a time for reading books.”
It’s a powerful thing when you read the words of someone who has lived decades or centuries before us and their thoughts speak to us in this moment because they are so insightful about the human experience.
“Our society has obviously undergone massive technological and other major changes, but there are certain things like the class divide that have stayed, which is why we still enjoy Shakespeare’s plays. I’d like to contribute whatever I’m capable of to raising consciousness and hopefully young people who are following me in school right now can be inspired to dig deeper and to not throw away Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Wilde as old news. Human knowledge doesn’t work like that, we have to build on top of our achievements.”
By James Kleinmann
Andreja Pejić stars in The Other Me playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms now.