Exclusive Interview: Trace Lysette on starring in Monica “it’s a weird duality to have this moment in my career at the same time as all the anti-trans legislation & propaganda”

Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica was one of the most talked about films at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for both the Golden Lion and Queer Lion, and went on to win the Arca CinemaGiovani Award and receive an eleven and half minute standing ovation at its world premiere. Captured in almost every frame of the stunningly shot movie (by cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi), is a mesmerizing performance by Trace Lysette, who made headline news for becoming the first openly trans lead actress in a movie playing in competition at that film festival, the world’s oldest. As significant as that is, her emotionally potent, beautifully restrained, and poignant work in the film goes far beyond such historical markers, as does placing such a rich and nuanced trans character at the centre of a film about family, forgiveness, and love. After many years of estrangement, Monica (Lysette) returns home to be with her ill mother (Patricia Clarkson) alongside professional carer Leticia (Adriana Barraza), where she is reunited with her brother (Joshua Close) and meets his wife (Emily Browning) for the first time.

Trace Lysette on the red carpet at the world premiere screening of Monica in competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival. September 3rd , 2022. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane.

“Trace Lysette’s performance was at once a revelation and an affirmation”, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe filmmaker Aitch Alberto shared with The Queer Review. “After years of watching Trace shine as Shea in Transparent or blazing trails in Hustlers, no role had yet allowed her to transcend, until now. As soon as she comes on screen in faded fiery locks, you’re instantly entranced, similar to the enchantment of a siren that goes beyond her beauty. It’s her embodiment in Monica of survival, vulnerability, and surrender; this woman who has nothing to lose that’s so captivating. Yet as the audience, you’re also instantly overwhelmed with empathy and committed to making sure she’s OK because the years of pain, isolation, and resilience are evident in her eyes. This proves the point; it’s only someone with a similar lived experience who can capture such complexity. Trace injects every emotional moment with depth that speaks to the struggle of most transgender women. But one that doesn’t leave her hardened or hopeless, instead soft with childlike naïveté. Few films about the transgender experience can capture this degree of raw intensity. This one does and Trace is the main reason why.”

Trace Lysette as a special CAA and GLAAD screening of Monica. Courtesy of GLAAD.

Along with those roles in Transparent and Hustlers, Lysette recently guest starred as youth counselor Kate in a groundbreaking episode of NBC’s Quantum Leap reboot directed by Shakina entitled “Let Them Play” that centres around a trans teenager who wants to play on her high school basketball team. As an actress, Lysette’s other credits include roles on Pose and Drunk History, and voicing Toluca Lake on Netflix’s queer animated series Q-Force. Last year she released a fierce new solo music track, “Red Line”, as well as being a featured vocalist on Nomi Ruiz’s single “Hi-def Femme”.

With Monica released in US theaters from Friday, May 12th 2023, Trace Lysette speaks exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about why she was so committed to making the film and taking on the title role, her intimate scenes with her screen mother in the film Patricia Clarkson, the experience of shooting in and around the areas where she was born and grew up in, and why she admires fellow actress Candis Cayne.

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: It’s such a beautiful film and a really stunning performance, but before we get on to Monica itself, let’s talk about acting in general. When did you first start to take a serious interest in it and how did that manifest?

Trace Lysette: “I didn’t really have a lot of skills for life. I didn’t go to college and I had a rough adolescence with all of the gender stuff. So I fought my way through high school and ended up living in New York. I was stripping in the nightclubs when a guy friend of mine who was an actor was like, ‘You know, you can’t do that forever’, and I was like, ‘I know! I just don’t know how to get out of the life.’ Then he said, ‘You have a lot of potential, why don’t you take an acting class?’ That was around 2007 and I started taking the money I got from swinging on a pole and putting it into acting classes. I kept bouncing around from different acting studios and thought of it like a musical instrument or something that you need to keep practicing on and putting the work in with. I started thinking, ‘okay, this is a part of me too. Maybe it’s a hobby, maybe it’s a dream. I’m not really sure, but let me just stick with it’. It wasn’t until 2013 that I booked a little indie and then I booked my first big TV job, which was Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

If you’re an actor starting out in New York and you get on Law & Order, you know you’re on the right path!

“Exactly, you have to do Law & Order, it’s a rite of passage! You must play a sex worker or a murder victim on Law & Order!”

Is that what your character was?

“I didn’t die, but I was a sex worker named Lila.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

You first read the script for Monica in 2016 and then finally shot the film in 2021. Why did you remain so passionate about it and dedicated to making it over all those years?

“It’s a really important story. Also, it’s not every day that an actor gets to play the title character and I think it’s even more rare for trans actors. So I was here for them whenever they needed me. I wasn’t going to give up on this baby.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Why was Monica a character that you wanted to breathe life into?

“I thought she was special and she represented so many of us, with the parallels in her story to mine and to the stories of my girlfriends. Also, the rareness of a character like this made me feel like I had to leave it all on the floor, that I had to leave my soul in Cincinnati. I just gave it everything that I had. We shot in 2021 in the summertime in Cincinnati, so that was a full circle moment, because I grew up about 45 minutes north in Dayton. We actually shot the hotel scene where I’m getting out the shower and injecting the hormones in Dayton itself. I was born in Lexington, Kentucky and we shot the bar scenes right there. All of that made it even more special and made me want to breathe even more life into her.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

One of the really special things about the movie is that although it does centre a trans character and it feels authentic to her experience, it’s not about her being trans.

“Thank God for that! We’ve seen enough transition stories, it’s like we’ve been beaten over the head with them. There are so many trans people out here who have lived these full-bodied lives who are the ones we need to be speaking to the most, our trans elders; people who have lived this way for 20 years-plus, like me and my generation. There’s so much wisdom out there that’s being disregarded and they’re probably the wisest people in our society because they’ve seen the world through a different lens and they’ve seen so many different things. Trans people who have been in this life for a long time are anointed and so special to me, and I think that’s part of the reason why I love Monica so much.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

You’ve also spoken about the way that the film is able to humanize a trans story, which should not be something that’s necessary in the first place, but unfortunately here we are in 2023 when that’s something that is urgently needed.

“Yes, with all of the legislation that’s happening right now and all of the the ignorance and the hate. It’s arguably the worst we’ve ever seen. So it’s a weird duality to have this moment in my career happening at the same time as all of the anti-trans legislation and propaganda that seems to be everywhere every time I open my phone.”

It makes having a beautiful film like this or seeing Sasha Colby win RuPaul’s Drag Race feel all the more meaningful.

“Yeah, it really does.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

We have to talk about Patricia Clarkson, who you have some really moving moments with in the film, what was it like to form that close connection with her as you created those intimate scenes?

“She’s an amazing woman and an incredible actor. We first met at a pre-Emmys party a few years ago and she came across the room to me and immediately started calling me her daughter. We embraced and I felt a kind of familial love for her right away. I can tell that she really cares about me and wants this film to do well and wants more for my career. That all helped when it came to doing our scenes together and to have that love for her in the film like I do in real life.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

A lot has happened in the years since Monica left home, but she arrives back there with a lack of bitterness and a sense of forgiveness which is really powerful to see you embody.

“She’s been through a lot and maybe she just didn’t want to bring all that with her. I see her as having had a very full life with lots of ups and downs and maybe she’s learned how to not bring extra baggage and stress into the last few moments she has with her mother.”

Trace Lysette as Monica in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Recently, you’ve referred yourself—and your character Monica—as transexual, why is that a word that you want to reclaim?

“It’s an old school term that’s a bit more specific to my journey and that’s why I’ve started using it again. Because there is the broader trans community, which encompasses a lot of different things—and they are all valid and wonderful and we are all part of this rainbow—but I do think that the transsexual journey is its own thing. Not to say that it’s better or worse or anything else, it’s just different, because the medical side of this transition—the things that you have to do to transition medically—especially back in the 90s and the early 2000s, was a different journey.”

Although there’s a lot of support among creative people in Los Angeles it can of course be competitive too, how would you describe the way that you navigate the business?

“I try to bob and weave away from any of the competitive feelings and understand that whatever is for me is for me, and that as long as I have put in the work and that my craft is solid, that I’ll be okay.”

Candis Cayne, Behind the Scenes, Wigstock, Greenwich Village waterfront (near West 11th/Perry Streets), Sept 4th, 1994. Jillian Jonas Collection — Downtown Drag+Performance in the 1990s. Village Preservation.

One last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you resonated with you over the years?

“Candis Cayne. She’s a trans actress and she was one of my earliest role models. I used to go to her shows on Monday nights at Barracuda in New York City. She would do a weekly drag show where she would lip sync and and it was really wonderful to see a piece of me up there doing the thing. Then later on she became really successful as an actress when Dirty Sexy Money happened. I think that was the first time that there was a recurring trans character on TV. Now she’s become a friend and I’ve been to her house to hang out at her pool a few times and I just love her. I love all of my trans sisters, they’re honestly what keeps me going.”

By James Kleinmann

Monica is in US theaters beginning Friday, May 12th, 2023.

Monica – Official Trailer | HD | IFC Films
Monica – Official Poster | IFC Films

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