After more than a decade as a working actor, Trace Lysette has had her share of projects she was attached to that simply never saw the light of day. Those failed endeavors were painful enough that she smartly trained herself not to care about a gig until the cameras were actually rolling. In 2016, the “Transparent” series veteran was cast in the title role of Andrea Pallaoro’s captivating drama “Monica,” and Lysette says she was justifiably a little skeptical that this rare leading role for a trans woman would actually happen. That is until the first day of production was upon her.
“I felt maybe a little bit of relief because I saw how passionate the crew was,” Lysette says. “I saw how good the director of photography, Katelin Arizmendi, was. I saw that they were shooting on film. Well, I knew that they were, but to actually be there and experience it all, you can get a feel for the quality of what the product is going to be.”
Beautifully shot on a budget of just $1.7 million, “Monica” is centered on a trans woman who returns to her hometown to spend time with her ailing mother (Patricia Clarkson). Monica has not set foot in her childhood home for many years, and it is unclear if her mother, who is suffering from a number of debilitating conditions, is even aware of who she is (or used to be for that matter). Lysette, a Kentucky native, found the story to be groundbreaking.
“I just thought there was so much there to explore and sink my teeth into as an actor,” Lysette says. “[I’d] never really got the shot to lead or show the world what I could do in terms of my acting chops. I was excited. That being said, I did have thoughts about the script. Andrea was really, really cool about wanting to collaborate with me and wanting my thoughts, not just my energy as an actor.”
The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in competition, with Lysette earning rave reviews from critics around the globe. One scene in the film that displays her impressive talent finds Monica heading back to the West Coast after deciding the situation with her family is just too uncomfortable. In an extended one-shot take, Lysette intimately conveys Monica’s fear, heartbreak and frustration as she begins to have an emotional breakdown while driving. The entire sequence was challenging on a number of levels.
“When they were setting that shot up, and I saw the orange cone down the road, and then the technicality of that scene where I would have to turn the car onto a free road — [they] actually did not have one of the roads blocked off — and then pull a U-turn on that road,” Lysette says. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m supposed to do all this and then be in my head about what Monica’s going through.’ And so I tried not to overthink it, because as an actor, I knew it would be a big shot, and I really surprised myself that day, because that was the first take that we used in the film.”
cquired by IFC Films and released in theaters in May, “Monica” may not have been a massive hit, but it’s been a slow burn with audiences that have discovered it on digital download services. Lysette says the response she’s received has been “pretty intense.” Especially at this moment where numerous states have enacted anti-trans laws just to score political points with conservative voters.
“The letters that I get from trans people across the nation and even overseas sometimes through social media, reaffirm me in ways that help me get up in the morning,” Lysette says. “They have shared with me how this film makes them feel seen and hopeful and like, ‘Oh, maybe our stories will get told. Maybe they will make space for us. Maybe there are more opportunities on the horizon. Maybe one day, they won’t legislate our bodies the way that they are right now.’”
For many actors, awards recognition from their peers or critics is usually the cherry on top of a successful theatrical run. For Lysette, the stakes are much higher. In her eyes, any potential nominations mean survival.
“It means that I probably wouldn’t have to worry as much about living gig to gig,” Lysette says. “I think that nominations like that kind of solidify you in this industry, because this industry is so fickle and complicated for minorities, and it would just mean so much more to my community as a whole, because then we can all dream a little bit bigger.”
As her journey continues, Lysette says she has every intention of using whatever reach she has to assist her trans siblings and other marginalized groups to tell more stories that will humanize people and reflect the world.
“When I let myself dream big, that is the dream,” Lysette says. “But I also have to be realistic and know we’re up against big money and we’re up against resources that we just don’t have. And I just hope that the art speaks for itself.”
Gregory Ellwood, latimes.com (04/01/2024)