Trace Lysette Is First Trans Actress to Lead a Competition Film at the Festival

Trace Lysette Is First Trans Actress to Lead a Competition Film at the Festival

For five seasons on Amazon’s groundbreaking gender- and genre-breaking series, she played Shea, a transgender yoga teacher who helps Jeffrey Tambor’s character — and the non-trans audience — understand trans lingo and culture.

It was also Lysette who came forward, in 2017, with claims that Tambor had sexually harassed her on the Transparent set, one of several allegations that led Tambor to exit the show after its fourth season.

Her performance as Shea helped get Lysette the role of Tracey in Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 blockbuster Hustler alongside Jennifer Lopez, one of the first times a trans actor had a starring turn in a major Hollywood film.

And then, nothing. Aside from the occasional guest appearance, voice work on Netflix’s short-lived LGBTQ animated series Q-Force and a supporting turn in Ty Hodges’ Venus as a Boy, Lysette’s burgeoning career appeared to come to a halt.

“Besides Hustlers, there really wasn’t much movement for me personally, in my career,” Lysette tells THR. “As a transgender actor, I don’t have the luxury of rummaging through a handful of scripts every week, saying, ‘Oh, I’d like to play this one or try to read for this one.’”

One script that had come through, in December 2016, was for Monica, a family drama by Andrea Pallaoro, the Italian director of Medeas (2013) and Hannah (2017). Lysette was up for the eponymous lead, playing a trans woman, estranged from her family, who returns home to care for her sick mother (Patricia Clarkson), whom she hasn’t seen since before her transition and doesn’t recognize Monica as her child.

“Here was a transsexual protagonist, the movie was centred around her, seen from her lens,” Lysette recalls, “and that’s rare. It’s also rare that it’s done well. And I think they [Pallaoro and co-screenwriter Orlando Tirado] wrote a really good script, centred on family, and survival, without being too in-your-face.”

Lysette read for the role, going through several rounds of auditions. But it wasn’t until last year that the project finally secured funding, got the green light and gave Lysette her first leading role. Monica will premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival, making it the first movie with a trans lead to grace the Lido.

While the actor says she always tries to find a personal link to the roles she plays — “I get a parallel in my own life and then sort of tai chi it into the character” — Lysette found much of the film’s story to be autobiographical.

“I don’t want to dive down the rabbit hole of my trauma, but I think Monica’s story — being rejected from your biological family when you are young and queer or, you know, assigned as male at birth — is pretty typical,” she says. “And so, spoiler alert, her having to go survive on her own was something that many trans folks identify with. I think that grabbed me.”

Not that Monica is a message movie. As in Hannah, which also premiered in Venice (winning the best actress prize for Charlotte Rampling), in his latest feature, Pallaoro favours the slow burn over melodrama, the subtle over the explicit. There is no screaming confrontation between Monica and her mother, no big reveal. Instead, we see Monica go through a series of struggles — learning to be a caregiver to her mother, reconnecting with her brother (Joshua Close) and playing auntie to his children, manoeuvring the online hookup scene — both poignant and mundane. In the end, her victories, too, are understated and conditional.

“It would have been easy to make it shinier, more Hollywood, but I think that the way we did it was extremely true to life,” says Lysette. “You don’t always get the black or white answer or revelation that you’re seeking. A lot of times life is just this grey area where you have to find the good and find the happiness and your contentment in that.”

The core of the film’s story — Monica’s reconnecting with the mother who once rejected her — was something Lysette said she “could definitely relate to in my life.” The actor has spoken publicly about how she was estranged from her family for a period of time when she transitioned, but how she has reconnected with her mother, who has become her “biggest cheerleader.”

For the film, it didn’t hurt that Patricia Clarkson’s manner “reminded me a lot of my own mother,” Lysette says. “I kind of grabbed onto that. She was so warm and welcoming and complimentary of my work, which really helped me feel even more comfortable.”

Hollywood, Lysette says, has become a bit more comfortable with trans actors since Transparent. But true equality is still a ways off, she says, as she continues to push for more, and faster, change within the film industry.

“There has been progressing, there has been changing, but it’s been slow if I’m being honest,” she says. “I feel so honoured to be able to play trans characters, and I think there are so many more trans stories out there that deserve to be told. But at the same time, I don’t want to have to limit myself in the same way that other leading ladies don’t have to limit themselves. It would be awesome if I could be in the Marvel Universe or play somebody’s friend or auntie in another indie film that tugs at your heartstrings…. I just hope people seeing this film, and knowing that a trans actress is leading a film at Venice, will shake things up. And when people watch this film and see that the transness is very understated and that the role could be any leading lady, they’ll see that maybe being a trans actor doesn’t have to be this niche thing. It’s so weird that Hollywood sometimes boxes us in, and I think we just want to kind of get past that.”


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