When I first meet Tom Hooper, it’s the day after his new film, The Danish Girl, has premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The reviews have been solid but expectations are sky-high for a film that stars British actor Eddie Redmayne, fresh off his Oscar win for The Theory of Everything, and is directed by Hooper, the man behind the hugely successful The King’s Speech and movie musical Les Misérables.

Today the soft-spoken 43 year-old looks surprised by the hysteria greeting The Danish Girl. “I really saw it as almost a film I was doing for myself after Les Mis,” he explains. “I wanted to do something small, intimate and personal.” That’s how it felt when he first read Lucinda Coxon’s script in 2008, when he was still in pre-production on The King’s Speech. “It’s been a seven year journey to protect this thing that moved me,” he says.

Back then, Hooper was a well-respected television director – BAFTA nominations for Prime Suspect and one-off TV drama Longford; Emmy and Golden Globe wins for his two-part mini-series Elizabeth I, which starred Redmayne. But nobody could’ve predicted the success of The King’s Speech: winning four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, this $15 million period piece went on to gross $414 million worldwide.

Little wonder everything he touches is now under a microscope. An accomplished actor’s director, he steered both Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables to Oscar glory. Already, Redmayne and his co-star from The Danish Girl, Alicia Vikander, have been nominated for Golden Globes. “I think actors hopefully feel quite safe around me to try things out,” he shrugs. “Maybe that’s part of it.”

This was crucial for The Danish Girl. Redmayne plays real-life 1920s Copenhagen artist Einar Wegener, who became the first person ever to receive gender-reassignment surgery, re-emerging as Lili Elbe. Back on Elizabeth I, Redmayne playing the Earl of Southampton, Hooper earmarked him for a future lead. When they reunited for Les Misérables, with Redmayne the revolutionary student Marius, the director gave him the script for The Danish Girl.

In the wrong hands, taking on such a delicate male-to-female transition could’ve been a disaster. “There was something about Eddie’s gift – this emotional transparency that he has. He can bring an audience with him, step by step. And I thought, ‘Maybe, with Eddie playing Lili, the audience would go on such an intimate journey, and it would not feel strange or confronting, but actually inevitable and necessary.”

Despite being in development for years – Nicole Kidman, at one point, was attached to play Einar/Lili – The Danish Girl has arrived at a moment when television shows like Transparent, movies like Tangerine and reality star Caitlyn Jenner have all blazed a trail for transgender issues. “It’s become part of the mainstream, which is very exciting,” says Hooper. “Seven years ago, I was told this is a difficult film to make. Now, I’m told it’s a timely film to do.”

Proclaiming that it’s the love story between Lili and her ultra-supportive spouse/fellow artist Gerda (Vikander) that drew him in, Hooper believes the film is more about revelation than transformation. “In a way, Lili was always Lili. She had been required to live as a man, which was not what she felt comfortable doing. Eddie and I talked a lot about revealing the latent femininity, revealing the woman that’s been so severely suppressed.”

Certainly, Hooper can relate to a story about the difficulties of displaying one’s true colours. Ask him how he became a director and he replies, enigmatically, “You know, there’s a great line in Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation: ‘We fall in love in order to simplify the world for ourselves.’ And I think about that so much because suddenly life goes: ‘That’s where I’m going.’ But where the certainty to become a movie director came I’m not sure.”

Raised in London – his mother an Australian author and academic, his father an English businessman – in his youth Hooper toyed with becoming a helicopter pilot or a scuba diver, ambitions that “did not last”, before focusing on film directing with admirable determination. He read books on filmmaking, made shorts with a 16mm camera and, by the age of 14, come runner-up in a BBC young filmmakers’ competition.

Two years later he began his first professional short Painted Faces that, by the time he was reading English at Oxford, would be screening on both Channel 4 and at the London Film Festival. After graduating, he made headway into the industry via commercials and television – episodes of Eastenders and Cold Feet – before finally making his feature debut with 2004’s Red Dust, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

“I did my first feature when I was 30,” he reflects, “so that’s an eighteen year struggle to be allowed to express myself in the way that I decided to express myself.” It’s no coincidence, whether it’s the stammering King George VI from The King’s Speech or Einar/Lili, his characters show a desperate need to do the same. “Maybe I’m drawn to struggle stories,” he says, “because it relates.”

What his next struggle will be remains, for the moment, a secret. But don’t expect a big Hollywood blockbuster. In the past, Hooper turned down the chance to direct Iron Man 3, comic-book superheroes not quite his thing. “The Danish Girl feels different to Les Mis and I want to do something different again,” he says. “I need to follow my heart.”

The Danish Girl opens on January 1.