leveling up

Trace Lysette Wishes She Had Something More Hopeful to Say

The actress has spent years hoping to land (or just audition for) roles like the one she has in Monica. But it’s been a struggle. Photo: IFC Films

Monica is any actor’s dream. A title role in a festival-friendly indie that captures bittersweet emotions through expressions more than words, it demands an interiority only a skilled pro can handle. The movie is especially a dream for Trace Lysette, who has spent the last few years awaiting another breakthrough as significant as her work on Transparent.

When Lysette won acclaim for that Amazon Prime Video touchstone, in which she played a yoga instructor who befriends the newly out Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), she landed small but notable parts in Pose, Hustlers, and the OWN series David Makes Man. Still, Lysette couldn’t quite level up. The opportunities just weren’t there — until Monica came along, three years after Transparent ended.

Directed and co-written by Andrea Pallaoro (Hannah), Monica is an intimate drama about a massage therapist with a strained love life who one day receives an unexpected call from her sister-in-law (American Gods’ Emily Browning) informing her that her mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), is dying. The movie leaves a lot of backstory open to interpretation, but Eugenia rejected Monica years ago when she came out as trans. Now, Monica makes the complicated decision to return home to Ohio, essentially posing as a caretaker while Eugenia’s mind and body deteriorate. Pallaoro often frames Lysette in striking close-ups, sometimes through mirrors and curtains, as if to reflect the viewer’s perceptions. Her performance is serene and graceful. Monica’s familial estrangement has hardened her, but it’s also made her self-sustaining.

The fact that Lysette hasn’t had more opportunities like Monica can be chalked up to typical Hollywood inequity. But she’s confident it will be a turning point. Vulture talked to the 35-year-old actress about her recent experiences in the industry, working with Clarkson, and the message she’d like to send casting directors.

In 2017, you were asked in an interview about trans actors who had one acclaimed role and then struggled to find another project that reached the same heights. You said, “It’s really scary. I just don’t know how to keep the train rolling.” That was mid-Transparent. Six years later, you finally have a lead role in a movie. What has it been like for you to work to keep the train rolling? 
It’s been a struggle. And it’s sad to say that. I’m sorry, I wish I had something more hopeful to say about it. I know that all actors struggle at certain points in their career, unless you come from a very well-connected something-or-other. So I want to first say that, but I do think there’s an added layer for trans people. It’s two or three times harder than it is for, say, a cis actress. If a cis actress went to Venice, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, and led a film and got a near-12-minute standing ovation and came back to the States, one would think that she’d have some jobs waiting for her. It’s been eight months, and I haven’t had a single offer. So that is sobering. I’m trying not to let it steal my joy, especially with all the love we’re getting right now. But all I want to do is feel safe. All I want to do is feel like I have jobs to choose from instead of living gig to gig. I really hope this doesn’t sound sad. What I hope people get from me talking about this is that they get activated, that people in power in the industry say, “You know what? I want her in my movie.”

That’s why I ask. You don’t sound self-pitying. I think it’s easy to say that pop culture has become much more queer-friendly, so people forget about the reality of how few and far between these roles can be. Do you audition a lot? 
I’ve had three auditions this entire year. I would not say that’s a lot compared to my cis actor friends. Even my cis actor minority friends audition more than I do. I guess that tells me that being trans in this industry is really something that we are still trying to figure out as a whole. I keep trying to steer people toward this casting conversation: if we can just start thinking of characters as an essence. What is the character, and who can play that? Probably a number of identities can play this essence. It doesn’t always necessarily need to be in the script. It’s just getting people to use their imagination.

A great example of that for you is Hustlers. That character could have been played by anyone. 

Monica is an interesting contrast to Hustlers and Transparent because your characters in those films are spirited and sassy, whereas Monica is very still, very reserved. It’s a much more interior performance. 
It was a gift and a challenge. There was no phoning it in. Every scene was so internal and from the gut, and oftentimes I was dealing with obscure camera angles and I still had to figure out how to get these feelings across to the audience. The specificity of Andrea Pallaoro is its own beautiful challenge as well. I’ve worked with a lot of directors, but he has been the most specific. I definitely felt like I grew as an actor.

Your own mother was not initially supportive when you told your family that you were trans. How much of you is in Monica? 
I feel so protective of my mother because we’re in such a good place now. The tools that parents had in the ’90s and the early 2000s were not the same that parents have today in terms of what I was like as a nonbinary teen and budding trans girl. There are certainly parallels between my journey and Monica’s journey, but I am so grateful that, even though it was challenging, my mom loves me and I love her more than anything in this universe. I feel gratitude for the fact that she was eventually able to interrogate what she had been programmed to think by society, religion, whatever. I didn’t lose 20 years like Monica did.

Monica’s mother has essentially abandoned her, and yet when she gets this call, she feels compelled to return home anyway. How did you define her decision to return? 
For me, it was just about honoring the time we have left. And it was apparent to me from the phone call that Monica has lived this full, hard trans life on her own for the last 20 years. I know who that woman is. I know how strong she is. I know what she’s had to endure. And I know where she finds her joy. Even though she’s searching for love and there are still a lot of question marks swirling around her validation and what she needs to keep going in life, I knew that she had enough stability and strength to say, You know what, I am going to take this road trip home. I’m going to see this last month that my biological mother has on this earth. I’m gonna see what this has in store. Even if it’s keeping expectations low, I’m gonna go for the ride. For me, it was showing up every day and being in the moment with Monica, letting it unfold and not overpreparing too much, because I knew once I had the shell of her I could find the bridge to my own experiences.

Something refreshing about this movie is that it’s not weighed down with a ton of backstory, because we don’t need it. It’s obvious what happened between the two of them. But how much, if at all, did you and Patricia Clarkson unpack their history? 
We chatted over some wine, I think probably the first night in Cincinnati [where most of Monica was shot]. But we didn’t really belabor over it too much because we knew that what we needed was already in the script. A lot of it is in the scene with Josh Close, who plays my brother, in the pool. You can kind of get the synopsis in that dialogue. The really cool thing about working with Patricia, an actor who is that seasoned and that potent with accessing her emotions, is that you can show up and find it together. Then it feels fresh, and it feels like this magical thing happens. I love working like that.

It’s a little ambiguous as to whether Eugenia eventually realizes who Monica is. Did you and Patricia decide for yourselves? 
I think it’s apparent in a couple of scenes, namely the scene where I crawl in bed with her after a hard night out. She opens her eyes a little. And then again in the bathtub scene, you’re kind of left feeling like, Oh, she knows what’s going on here. Maybe the time is just too precious to have a knock-down, drag-out, who-did-what conversation about it. I think that’s really beautiful. Also, I just don’t know that the film would be as good if we had preachy moments like that.

I completely agree.
But there’s also the opportunity to wonder, Well, maybe there was a conversation that was had off-camera. 

Sure. And it’s interesting to think about what might be transpiring in Eugenia’s mind to allow her to accept Monica in those final days, or to at least ignore her lack of acceptance. As someone who is neither trans nor a parent, I think it’s easy for the viewer to assume a parent would recognize her child no matter what. 
Well, she’s dealing with brain cancer. It might not have been too apparent in the film, but she did have a scar on her head from surgery. I think this movie really relies on the audience to pay attention, maybe even watch the film more than once to catch all the details. I’ve even had some people say to me, “Well, why wasn’t there more?” People want the A-B-C of it. I don’t know that I have an answer, except I will say this film has confidence in the audience in terms of letting them think for themselves. I will also say I’ve seen people transition that I haven’t seen in ten years and I didn’t recognize them either. The before-and-after of it is sometimes drastic, and Monica left when she was 16 years old. She was probably a flaming boy-queen with some androgyny. In my mind, she has gone off and lived this life and had all kinds of gender-affirming care, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that part played into her not being recognized.

Was it hard to come down from some of the heavier scenes toward the end of the film? I’m thinking of Patricia in bed wailing in pain and you cradling her. Is it a lot to take on?
It is. I had to put Monica down as soon as we wrapped. They got me a gold necklace that said “Monica” on it on the last day. One of the producers said to me, “Oh, you should wear it to the wrap party tonight.” And I thought, No, I have to put Monica down now and just be Trace. I was tinting my hair red every week and living in the heaviness of Monica. And prior to that, I had just spread my grandmother’s ashes before filming. So it was a beautiful but heavy summer. I would put her down at the end of every shoot day as well. I would go to the bar and get a drink and an appetizer and try to get a good eight hours of sleep. I needed that reprieve from her.

I will also say, superficially, you look incredible as a redhead.
Thank you!

As I was preparing to talk to you, I learned that you did unpaid consulting on The Danish Girl. Why was it unpaid?
For me, the answer to that is wrapped up in the predatory nature of this business. Here you have a young trans person in New York City. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of access to the industry. I didn’t really know how things worked. I didn’t have a lawyer. I didn’t have a team of people to protect me. My acting teacher at the time asked me to meet with one of the producers, so I did. In hindsight, I would have put some protections in place to get some sort of consulting credit or fee instead of lending my life experience to a film that would go on to win awards for cis people yet again. It was a lesson learned.

Eddie Redmayne has called the role a mistake, and the tide has turned on that movie. Financial logistics aside, is participating at all something that you regret? 
I regret that the world doesn’t take better care of marginalized groups. I regret that the people in my life at that time didn’t let me know that I was being, I guess, taken advantage of in a way. I had that happen so many times in my youth with different projects. I’ve had artists take pictures of me and there won’t be any compensation. One time, a topless photo of me ended up in the MoMA for six months. I don’t say that to vilify the photographer because I don’t think they thought they were doing anything wrong and they were a lovely person, but someone’s making money off of my tits.

And you were paid nothing for that photograph?
I was paid nothing. I was promised a copy of the picture if I wanted it.

Oh, lucky you. 
Yeah. I was also part of two different documentaries that actually never came out, but I didn’t have any deal in place to get any back-end points or front-end compensation for those, either. As a young trans girl running around New York hustling to keep a roof over my head by any means necessary — and you can read between the lines on that — it’s crazy to me what this world will do to have-nots for no other reason than the fact that they can. You can’t do that to a Vanderbilt’s daughter or a Hilton or Fonda or a Barrymore. You can’t do that to Lily-Rose Depp. And I hate that.

I’m really hopeful that, with the attention Monica is getting, this is going to be another gateway for you. I know Transparent has a lot of baggage to it, but it seemed like it opened doors. I’d like to be confident that it won’t take five years to find another Monica
It’s getting a lot of love, especially from reviewers and the trans community. I think it’s okay to be confident. I’m confident.

Trace Lysette Wishes She Had Something More Hopeful to Say