Trace Lysette Wants More for Trans Actors

The Monica star discusses her role in the buzzy new film, which is being hailed as raising the bar for trans-led stories.

by Patrick Sproull

Trace Lysette in the film Monica
Courtesy of IFC Films

For Trace Lysette, the film Monica has been a long time coming. Since her teens, the L.A.-based actor—once a staple of New York underground life—has been working tirelessly to get to this place in her career, from a supporting role in Transparent, to being a minor player in Pose, and a stripper in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. Lysette has tapped into her personal history for each role—she was a member of the ballroom scene as well as an exotic dancer—and Monica feels like the culmination of years of work.

Directed by Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro and co-written with Mexican screenwriter Orlando Tirado, Monica is the type of trans-led drama that would have looked very different just five years ago. Focusing on Monica, a woman returning home to the Midwest to care for her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) years after fleeing, the film is blessedly subtle in its execution. There is no great confrontation between Monica and her mother, no big reveal of Monica’s transness, no violence enacted upon its protagonist. Instead, Monica is simply allowed to be. For Lysette, who endured a decade of an industry that has mishandled trans actors, it is a breakthrough performance; all poise and steel.

Speaking to W ahead of Monica’s May 12 release, Lysette discussed receiving feedback from industry friends, how she related to Monica as an experienced trans woman, and her acting ambitions.

How are you feeling now that people have seen Monica and you’re able to hear from the audience?

I feel such a sense of relief, because I’ve been wondering how it will be received—now, I’m getting bits and pieces of that back through preview screenings and friends of mine in the industry whose taste I value. Lorene Scafaria called me after a screening and also wrote me a really heartfelt text about how she hasn’t felt this way about a film since Moonlight. To be compared to a film like that is the highest compliment to me.

Photograph by Kobe Wagstaff

What did you see in Monica that wasn’t necessarily present in other scripts?

When I first read the script in December of 2016, the first thing I saw was that there was a trans character in a title role. It didn’t feel exploitative or overdone or preachy. I loved that she’s this trans woman who has lived a full life, and been trans for a long time. I do think there’s something to be said for trans people who have lived this life for a while and the way in which we see the world, the lens we see it through, the life experiences that are unique to being transsexual. The elders in our community are some of the people we need to be talking to the most, and I don’t always feel that happens in pop culture. With Monica, we finally get to see that—and we get to see her existing, just having a family, holding a baby on a dock in the sunshine in her bathing suit, talking to her brother, playing tag with the kids. Some of the most powerful moments in the film for me were the ones that didn’t even have dialogue.

We don’t see a lot of Monica’s life before she goes home and so much is left unsaid—how did you build your own understanding of the character?

A lot of it was imagination coupled with my own life experience. It’s what try to do with every character I play. I have all these thoughts about what her life has been like for the past 20 years and what her friend group is like. I took clues from the script to form my own backstory for her before she goes home. Her shell is different from mine, so once I understood that, I tapped into the heart and found whatever bridge [to her] I could while at the same time staying in the moment. I got to master that over the 6 weeks we were shooting—and I got to sharpen my craft in a way that was really a gift.

Music is so integral to Monica—we see her disassociating and listening to Pulp, New Order and O-Zone. Did it help you connect to her?

Absolutely. I found ways to inject pieces of Trace into her, too. I wanted her presence to feel interesting because I couldn’t always rely on the sparse dialogue.

In the past, you’ve mentioned similarities between your relationship to your mother and Monica’s relationship to hers. Did you find any of the process emotionally taxing because of this?

It was taxing, sure—and at times, cathartic. I realized there’s a weird comfort in that stuff as well, and that processing it is healthy even though it’s hard. What Monica represented, not just for me but a lot of trans women I know, I understood the importance of not shying away from any of it.

I have a deep love and respect for parents who can challenge whatever views society or religion has instilled in them. In some ways, I think our parents are victims, too. Sometimes I would think about that to find the humanity in their journey and what they’ve done in their lives while filming a scene.

A still from Monica starring Trace Lysette.

Courtesy of IFC Films

I’ve seen a lot of critics praise Monica for raising the bar for trans-led stories on screen and I was curious about your thoughts on the film being seen as a standard-bearer.

I guess that is a compliment, and I hope that trans stories do continue to evolve. If some people are seeing this as a benchmark then I’m sure that’s intended to be positive, but I don’t know if that was always the intention when we set out to make this piece of art.

After Monica, are there any specific roles or genres you’d like to explore?

I fantasize about shows like The White Lotus and I hope that casting executives can think of me and other trans entertainers for more. What I mean by that is, when you go to cast one of the leading or strong supporting roles, you do consider trans actors, even if the role is not written as trans. If you cast off a person’s essence and let their identity fall in line, then it adds another layer to art. In addition to the inclusion of it all, I do think that lends itself to good art—and maybe there’s something there worth exploring.