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Trace Lysette and Patricia Clarkson on the Joys and Challenges of Making ‘Monica’: ‘The Work Has Already Changed People’s Lives’

When “Monica” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2022, the response was immediate

When “Monica” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2022, the response was immediate: The movie received a standing ovation that clocked in at 11-and-a-half minutes. Andrea Pallaoro’s powerful tale of a woman returning home to care for her ailing mother who hasn’t seen her since before her gender transition had already made history by being the first film to feature a trans lead to play the fest. Praise was heaped on star Trace Lysette in the title role and Patricia Clarkson, who portrays her mother, Eugenia. 

Still, it wasn’t until November when IFC Films, whose parent company is AMC Networks, picked up North American distribution rights.  “‘Monica’ is a terrifically textured film anchored by multiple riveting performances,” says Scott Shooman, head of AMC Networks Film Group.  “We really responded to Andrea’s vision and felt that it is the type of boundary-pushing, auteur filmmaking we always seek to be associated with.” The indie offshoot released the film theatrically in May; it was available to stream soon after. 

It’s been a wild ride for Lysette, who was probably best-known for her role as yoga teacher Shea on the series “Transparent” or for her supporting role in the film “Hustlers.” And there is much to celebrate — the day prior to our conversation, Lysette received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her work in the film. But it’s tinged with some frustration about the process of trying to play the awards game alongside studio films with big budgets, awards consultants and marquee name stars. “It’s deeply exhausting,” she admits. “I’m doing my best to not let it taint any of this experience. But it’s really hard when you have to go and organize a fundraiser for your own FYC whatever.” 

To support the film, Lysette held a GoFundMe to hire a publicist. Clarkson has flown herself to L.A. on her own dime three times in five weeks. They called in favors from stylists and hair and makeup artists. And many people have stepped up: Lysette cites Women in Film and PFLAG as getting the word out, and friends from Laverne Cox to Tarell Alvin McCraney as big supporters. Sarah Paulson and Lorene Scafaria even bought out showings at theaters  and offered free admission to the public. 

“I could cry thinking about how my friends have showed up for me,” Lysette notes. “That’s really why we are even in this conversation, because Patti and I have been relentless and these people care about the film.”

And Clarkson says it’s all worth it, for the response she’s receiving to the film is unlike anything in her career: “Trace needs to be seen and heard. End of story.”

You’ve both been very open about how challenging it is to promote a smaller film in the awards race. Was there a point where you all had a discussion about it or was it just understood?

Patricia Clarkson: It’s all about money. Nobody has any friggin’ money. We had fundraisers and beautiful people turned out. We auctioned off dinners with us. 

Trace Lysette: We really pimped ourselves out to raise money.

I don’t think everyone understands that a lot of this awards process is about money and events. You haven’t shied away from talking about it.

Lysette: I try to deliver it in a nice way that won’t alienate people or turn people off, but it is a sobering reality for me. It’s tough to want to be real about this awards journey and about how much bigger it is than a simple trophy. Not only for me, but my community — I think a lot of it is based in survival. And being a late bloomer — I’m 42, I’m a transsexual woman. And as a minority in this business, I often feel invisible. 

I know this performance is worthy and solid — Venice told me so. But even that, it’s just been such a battle. I sometimes wonder if a cis actor went to Venice and got an 11-and-a-half minute standing ovation for playing a trans role, I feel like the Academy would be coming in their pants and the press opportunities would be insane. So it’s disheartening. But I’m trying my best to lean into the good. However it pans out, the work has already changed people’s lives. And so that’s what I cling to.

When did the two of you first meet for this movie? Were you familiar with each other’s work?

Clarkson: Yes, I was, of course. I got this call to play her mother. And it was just a beautiful moment in my life. I knew how important this film was and the only way it could have been made was with someone like Trace. Not just because she’s transgender, but because she’s a great actress. When we first met, I felt an immediate connection to her and very maternal. She got me really excited about doing the film. It all came together in the kind of the way it should — a small film comes together because of the right people saying yes. 

Trace, you auditioned for this over a period of time.

Lysette: I did. They made me audition a lot, which was fine. I knew she was worth fighting for. I first got the script in December of 2016. I auditioned and would check back in, and I heard they liked me but were still auditioning all over the world. I did multiple rounds of self-taping and went in in person. It was extensive. 

Auditioning is such a weird process. But I don’t know if there’s any better way to do it. Do the two of you have theories about making the experience any better?

Clarkson: Let me tell you, the only thing that’s great about age is you don’t have to audition anymore. I have wrinkles, but I don’t have auditions. I remember it was brutal, especially when you have something you really love, and you know you’re right for it. We all suffer through it unless you become a star at 25. But then you miss out on the good stuff, all the angst you can bring to the screen because you’ve lived it to get to that damn part. 

Trace, have you made your peace with the audition process?

Lysette: Well, I don’t think you have a choice — it comes with the job, unless you are ushered in by other means to this gated Hollywood community, which is fine. I just try to do the best with the path that I had and understand that a life that has been well-lived is a gift. It’s something you can’t learn at Yale, you can’t learn it at Tisch. Anyone who’s had a real struggle or real-life experience that then comes to acting, you’ve already got an amazing tool kit to work with. So I’m trying to think of it like that, there’s this whole arsenal here. And if they loved “Monica,” they haven’t seen shit yet. So I’m just waiting for the doors to open.

I know this was a fast shoot and a small budget; how did you work with the filmmaker to shape the characters?

Clarkson: Eugenia was pretty much formed, and I accepted the journey she had. But I’m a very verbal, physical actress and I was robbed of both those assets. It was almost a radical part for me. Even though I’ve died before and played ill women — I’m very good at dying! — this was such a rare moment for me to take on something new, and I didn’t fight for more words. I said I’m going to be void of language and body. 

We didn’t rehearse really — what’s great is Trace and I work in very similar ways, we’re both very emotionally driven actresses. I don’t need to know what she had for breakfast. We want to work, we want to do the scene and put everything we have in that day in the scene. We had so many scenes that were almost silent. My friend Ricky said, “You were like silent movie stars.” 

Trace, I imagine you had insight you could bring to this character no one else could have?

Lysette: They did ask for a round of notes, which I gladly gave, and a lot of them got incorporated into the script. It was a constant dialogue on set with me and Patti and Andrea, and that’s the best way to work, when it feels collaborative. I always want to just take the direction and make the director happy. But I really appreciated the gentleness of Andrea and the fact that he cared what we thought, and that he gave us room to play, and let it be organic. 

What were some of those initial notes or thoughts you had on the script? 

Lysette: The big ones were around sex work. At one point, it was all taken out. And Andrea said, “We’re afraid it might be too much.” And I’m like, “It’s not enough.” That’s the reality. People need to know how she makes money. This has been a reality for so many trans women that I know — that’s just a cold hard fact of reality. And that duality was important to me to show that the hands that keep a roof over her head that provide pleasure to men are also the hands that are rubbing her mother’s back and holding her when she when she’s crying out. That duality is so powerful to me and that’s real life.

I imagine the feedback you’re getting from audience members is so overwhelming.

Clarkson: Incredible. I’ve gotten some of the most beautiful messages of my career after seeing this film. Many of my friends couldn’t even get out of their seat after the New York premiere, they just were so knocked out about this movie and Trace. At 63, it’s rare to be proud of things but this film has filled me with — no pun intended — a lot of pride. The emails and texts I’ve gotten had been extraordinary, unprecedented. I mean, I’ve had this vast career. But there is something about this film that is unique, that is singular. And it’s a very universal, powerful film. And everyone who sees it has that same reaction to it.

Lysette: It’s been an endless stream of beautifully written notes, over social media and in person. Specifically from transsexual women who have felt so invisible for so long. I think it gets amplified by all of the legislation that’s been introduced this year — over 500 bills trying to make our lives harder. The violence that we endure every day when we go out into the world. 

I think about my younger self, that little queen on the playground who took the insults and the fists and how many other little queens are out there. And all the queer kids who are still enduring that for being different. And I see it reflected back in the messages I get about how important it is for our stories to be told and how important it is for us to not just survive but thrive. Not just to exist, but to have an actual seat at the table. And understand that if you’re lucky enough to get through the door, you have got to make sure that others get through the door, too. And that’s kind of like been my life’s work in a nutshell. So yes, I’ve been overwhelmed by the heartfelt messages. 

Jenelle Riley, variety.com (04/01/2024)