Trace Lysette talks humanity, joy in ‘Monica’
- Published: July 2, 2023
Earlier this month, the Little Art Theatre premiered “Monica,” a film starring Trace Lysette, who grew up in the Dayton area. In addition to presenting a virtual Q&A session at the Little Art, Lysette spoke briefly with the News via phone after the film’s local debut.
Lysette rose to fame in 2014 for her supporting role in the Amazon series “Transparent,” which followed aging parent Maura Pfefferman after coming out to her family as a transgender woman. Lysette, who had previously only acted in cisgender roles, portrayed Shea, a trans yoga teacher and dancer — a role that marked Lysette coming out publicly as a transgender woman herself.
“Monica,” penned and directed by Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro, follows its titular character, a transgender woman, as she returns home to Ohio after nearly two decades to visit her estranged mother, who is dying.
The film suggests that the estrangement between mother and daughter was caused by the revelation of Monica’s gender identity many years prior. However, by caring for her through her illness, Monica develops a new relationship with her mother, whose perception of her child is profoundly, and unexpectedly, affected by the illness itself.
When “Monica” debuted at the Venice Film Festival last fall, it was the first time the festival featured a competition film starring a transgender person in a lead role. “Monica” received three awards at the festival, including the Golden Lion for best film, and the competition screening garnered an 11-minute standing ovation for Lysette.
In speaking with the News, Lysette said there were ways her own personal history mirrored that of the title character, but she focused in the interview on the experience of filming and the ways the role itself was unique — not only to Lysette as an actor, but to cinema and its historical inclusion of trans actors and portrayal of trans characters.
Below is a transcript of Lysette’s interview with the News; the transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
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YS News: What originally drew you to the title role in “Monica”?
Trace Lysette: It was December 2016 when I got the script, and I was immediately excited because it was the title character. … As a trans actor, it’s rare to get the shot to play a lead. I feel like [trans actors] have to work two and three times harder in this business.
I read [the script] and really enjoyed it. And I thought, “Oh, this is good — I want to fight for this.” I started the audition process in 2017, and it took a while to complete that. … Then it was just this marathon of trying to find funding, and then we had a pandemic in between, and then we finally got to shoot it in 2021 in Cincinnati — and part of Dayton too, actually. So it was just a beautiful thing, to have it be this full-circle moment.
News: Were there ways that Monica, as she was written, represented a different or deeper examination of what it’s like to be a trans woman?
Lysette: I was really intrigued by the fact that this trans woman had been living as a woman for 20 years since she left home, and that it was the story of a life well-lived as a trans person. Because I think the longer you’re living in this trans experience, the longer you’ve been able to see the world through a very unique lens that is in some ways a gift and, in other ways, really hard.
I think a lot about different cultures and trans people over the course of history and how, in certain societies, trans people were anointed. And I wonder sometimes if that’s because we have the ability to see the world through a different lens — through a very unique lens. And it was intriguing to me that Monica had built this life for herself without the help of her biological family, and that she was still afloat and doing OK.
News: What was the atmosphere like while filming? “Monica” deals with some heavy themes — abandonment, illness, death, grief — but was there room for lightness or even healing for you on set?
Lysette: The day-to-day was pretty heavy. I’m gonna be honest [laughing]: It was a lot of nudity and crying.
But there were definitely moments of joy in-between scenes. And even in the film, there’s a few scenes where you do get to see trans joy.
I found joy just in the process because being on set — it’s my favorite place to be. I love the long, 15–16 hour days and having purpose and living in a bubble for a month or more at a time and creating this amazing piece of art that you get to birth to the world — and hopefully it creates some change. It makes it all worth it to me — it gives me purpose.
… I read some reviews that said they got the feeling that maybe Monica wasn’t happy. When I read that, I thought, “Well, you don’t know her. Maybe she is happy. Maybe she’s okay, maybe she’s content — and maybe content is enough for her. Maybe she’s been through a lot and her peace is her joy.” And I just thought there was something so quietly powerful about her strength.
News: And she’s an adult woman, and adult women don’t always look happy when they’re walking around in the world.
Lysette: [Laughing] It’s that whole thing of when you walk by a guy on the street, and they say, “Ma’am, you should smile.” Why? I’m okay. Is it really your business?
News: How does it feel having embodied your first lead role in a feature-length film?
Lysette: There was actually one other film in 2012 that will remain nameless, but I was the lead in that, and it was just a little low-budget indie. Upon discovering that I was trans, that producer just shelved the film. So this is my first real crack at leading a feature.
I think that for trans people, a lot of our life is just playing catch-up — not only to ourselves, but the fact that once we bloom and become who we’re supposed to be in our physical bodies, then what’s left is trying to play catch-up to figure out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives. Not only that, but we have the rest of the world trying to catch up to us at the same time. So it’s not lost on me that this opportunity is extremely rare and important and a huge responsibility.
At the same time, going to Venice and making history there after 90-some years of that festival being around is a telltale sign of just how much farther we have to go.
News: What has the response to “Monica” been like from your point of view?
Lysette: Oh, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. People have written long paragraphs [to me] on Instagram daily from all over the country, and even overseas, because it’s been screening overseas at various festivals, about how much this film means to them — especially trans people and people under the queer umbrella. They have really just poured their hearts out to me about how much of a gem this film is and their appreciation for getting to see bits and pieces of themselves.
I’ve also had people outside of the LGBTQ community come up to me and tell me how it’s affected them because maybe they’ve had to deal with … the death of a loved one. I had a man come up to me after one screening … who was telling me he was an adoptee and he had reconnected with his birth mother late in life, and that there were a lot of similarities there with his story. … The death of a loved one is something that a lot of us have had to deal with, or will have to deal with. … I think that in a lot of ways, even though this is a trans story, it’s such a universal film.
… I just hope [“Monica”] starts conversations amongst family members and loved ones, and I hope that it allows people to see [trans people’s] humanity in a different way — maybe a more everyday, ordinary kind of way. Because I think that what keeps trans people othered is the fact that a lot of people just don’t really know us. So I hope that this film is a window into that.