SERENDIPITY HELPED Victor Polster SPRING TO FAME AS A TEENAGE TRANS BALLERINA IN GIRL. HIS TENDER PORTRAYAL OF A CONFLICTED SOUL WON HIM A CANNES AWARD AND A FAST-TRACK TO SCREEN STARDOM. UNFAZED, HE WENT STRAIGHT BACK TO DANCE SCHOOL. TODAY, THE 17-YEAR-OLD LOOKS AHEAD TO A LIFETIME OF PERFORMING WITHOUT BOUNDARIES.
Victor Polster only auditioned for Girl because he wanted to be in the same room as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the film’s choreographer. He was 14 at the time and went along hoping to be picked as a background dancer in the drama about a teenage trans girl training to be a ballerina. Most of the kids in his class at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp went up for the film, too. It was fun. He didn’t think too much of it. Then came an email from the director Lukas Dhont – would Victor like to audition for a bigger role in the film, the lead Lara?
He arrived at the director’s house for the audition with ingredients for baking cakes. Dhont had asked him to take along something to cook with alongside the actor playing the dad in the film, to test their chemistry. (“I picked something easy. I can’t cook,” he says.) Two years or so later, last summer at the Cannes Film Festival, Victor won the Un Certain Regard best performance prize, and today his dance card is overflowing.
Girl is the story of Lara, born a boy, who is taking hormones and counting the days until gender-confirmation surgery after which she believes she’ll finally be able to begin her life as a woman. The film belongs to Victor, who appears in virtually every scene. He catches Lara’s vulnerability and steely determination perfectly. The character speaks very little, but Victor’s body language and movement pull you into her interior world. It’s an astonishingly intimate performance.
When I meet Victor, now 17, in London, he looks otherworldly, like an ethereal wood nymph, with luminous creamy-white skin and startling blue eyes. To put it simply, he’s a beauty. He doesn’t speak publicly about his gender or sexuality but has a fluid way of being that seems to make the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’ interchangeable or irrelevant – words unimportant to his identity. He’s still wearing nail varnish from yesterday’s cover shoot and is dressed in vintage orange flares and a billowing white blouse.
Girl director Lukas Dhont spent months looking for his Lara in a genderless casting process, auditioning 500 young people – cis males and females as well as trans girls. His decision to cast a cis boy in the role was not without controversy. Victor himself was nervous that he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. “I was really afraid, because I knew it would be difficult,” he says softly. “I’d never acted before and I was really scared that people wouldn’t believe my interpretation.” Did he have much awareness of trans issues at the time? He shakes his head. “No. All I really thought about then was dance. I was living in a kind of bubble with my friends where we danced and only talked about dance.”
Victor grew up in the non-macho world of ballet. His family live in Brussels, but from the age of 12 he has boarded at the Royal Ballet School, commuting Monday to Friday to Antwerp. His parents, both radiographers, were not at all fazed by their son appearing in the film. “They saw in the script that it was a beautiful project. They said it would be silly not to do it because maybe this would be the only chance I had in my life to do a film.”
Victor had three months to become Lara, changing his appearance with hair extensions, make-up and clothes. A voice coach from a leading gender clinic in Ghent was hired to work with him – “my voice was not very masculine to begin, but I needed to change it so that it was more feminine,” he says. And then there was the dancing...
The film is based on the real-life experiences of the director’s friend, Nora Monsecour, a trans dancer who at 15 took on the transphobic authorities at her ballet school to be allowed to train with the female ballerinas. (To dance professionally as a woman requires en pointe skills only taught to girls, so she needed to be in that girls’ class.) To prepare for the film, Victor spent an hour a day for three months training with a teacher on his toes. The sessions left him bruised and bloody. “My feet weren’t ready for pointe shoes because girls begin at 12 years old with smaller feet,” he says. Girl is a beautifully tender character study, but it doesn’t shy away from depicting the physical hardship of being a dancer. Watch it and you’ll see black toenails and skin peeling away from battered purple feet. If you’re someone who can’t bear the cracking of knuckles, avoid it at all costs – toes, it turns out, crack just as loudly as fingers.
I ask Victor how he got himself into the mindset of a girl? “Lukas [Dhont] was really smart. First, he changed how I looked. So we had a lot of tryouts for the make-up and clothes. I was already seeing myself as a girl, so then it was much easier to act like one.” When shooting started, he stayed mostly in character: “I was really living in the moment. I was also taking the very hard scenes home. Sometimes it became really difficult to move on, to say: ‘Okay, now this scene is finished. It’s just acting.’” The character stayed with him. “When I went back to school, it was really weird because in my head I still was Lara. It took me some time to switch back to Victor.”
Ahead of the film’s release, Victor invented the surname ‘Polster’ for himself; he was born Victor Ketelslegers. He laughs when I mangle the pronunciation. “Ketelslegers is really long,” he jokes playfully, then adds more seriously, “I also changed it to be safe, just in case there would be a lot of, I don’t know how you would say it, hate? Maybe people would attack me because I was playing Lara and they wouldn’t like it.” Because he’s cis? Victor nods. “Exactly.” Some activists in the trans community did attack the casting. But what triggered most outrage was a shocking scene at the end of the film depicting Lara self-mutilating. Throughout the film, she struggles with body dysphoria, painfully binding her genitals, striving to become the perfect ballerina, that classic idea of femininity.
Victor still considers himself a dancer first, actor second – for now at least. “What would be perfect is to do both, but I don’t have time to do both well, so I think for now I’m more going to focus on dance.” He’s about to start his final year of school, where a typical day begins at 8am with academic lessons. After a break for lunch, he dances from 1pm till 6pm, ballet and contemporary. The discipline and crushingly hard work of a dancer’s life is good training for acting, he says. “When you go to a school like mine, at 12 you already know that you have to work really hard to make it.” When I ask him if he ever resented sacrificing teenage kicks to dance he shrugs off the question: “Actually no, because I’m really focused about dance and I really love it.”
The more time you spend with Victor, the more you realise how similar he is to Lara: kind and gentle, with a stillness that is rare of someone his age. I ask him what he feels when he’s dancing. Is it the freedom and power that the audience sees? He thinks long and hard.
“When I dance ballet, I don’t feel totally free because I still have a lot to think about. But when I dance contemporary dance, then I truly reach a point when I just do, being in the moment and not thinking about anything else, just doing.” The dancers who inspire him most are the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and the late Pina Bausch. At the end of the year he plans to apply to contemporary companies. “Ballet is really beautiful to watch and I love to dance it, but it’s really narrow,” he says. “In contemporary dance you can do whatever you want to do.”
The gender fluidity of contemporary dance appeals too: “That’s the thing, you can do whatever you want. People aren’t really bothered with the fact that you have the boys and the girls. Now you can really just see it as a group without seeing their genders. I don’t know, in real life I would also like to not be only masculine or feminine but to also kind of be both.” Has that been since the film, I nudge? He half-nods, smiling shyly. “Yeah, I think maybe some things changed about me. How I move and how I dance now, and I think I use a lot of the femininity that I used for the film – because I like it.”
HAIR Anthony Turner at Streeters MAKE UP Miranda Joyce at Streeters MANICURE Anatole Rainey at Premier Hair and Make Up PHOTOGRAPHIC ASSISTANTS Romain Dubus, Tomo Inenaga DIGITAL TECHNICIAN Henri Coutant STYLING ASSISTANTS Lydia Simpson, Angus McEvoy HAIR ASSISTANT Claire Grech MAKE UP ASSISTANT Riona O’Sullivan PRODUCTION Ragi Dholakia Productions POST PRODUCTION Triplelutz