We interview Trace Lysette, the star of indie darling Monica, a film about a woman returning home after two decades away.
Monica tells an affecting story of acceptance after abandonment. When Monica (Trace Lysette) receives a phone call about her mother Genie (Patricia Clarkson) becoming ill, she returns to the home she was once forcibly removed from for being transgender. Gentle filmmaking and aesthetic choices from director Andrea Pallaoro and crew lead Monica to be a rare, progressive gem as it places trans lives on the same wavelength as cis lives, taking careful consideration to remove itself from the tropes that trans stories fall into.
With Monica now in UK and Irish cinemas, the shining star of the film, Trace Lysette, joins us to discuss her 12-minute standing ovation at 2022’s Venice Film Festival, fighting to get distribution and her seven year Monica journey so far. She is currently in the midst of attempting an Oscar FYC campaign for her performance that our review calls a “once-in-a-generation performance of beautiful anguish”, and talks about the pressure that is on her shoulders if she was to be nominated. Read our interview below.
TRACE LYSETTE ON GETTING AUDIENCES TO SEE MONICA
It’s good to say hello. I’ve been head over heels for Monica since I saw it in Venice.
Trace Lysette: Thank you for that beautiful review you wrote up.
You’re welcome. It’s a beautiful movie that I wish more people were able to recognise. What have you found to have been the main difficulties in getting Monica onto our screens?
T.L.: Yeah it’s been pretty tough. I just keep trying to show up. I don’t know the particulars of those conversations about getting into theatres. There was a guy by the name of Jasper [Basch] at IFC who was really giving it his all to get it into as many screens as he could. We ended up getting more than we initially expected, but I guess the difficulties have been getting people to understand that this is a story about family and it should have broad reaching appeal and universal themes. Convincing theatres that it would appeal to more people has been the battle, getting people to care about marginalised stories. They’re part of the fabric of our humanity: we all have families and deal with those feelings of abandonment in our lives at some point.
I’ve had countless people who are cis come up to tell me that they resonated with parts of Monica that had nothing to do with the trans experience. If we got more people to understand that, maybe the film would have a broader reach. I think that not landing a big streamer was the missing piece. That may have taken care of a few issues when it came to getting eyes on it. We did a theatrical release that actually didn’t do bad for the size of the movie, considering it’s post-pandemic.
TRACE LYSETTE ON DISTRIBUTION ISSUES AND HER STANDING OVATION AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
I’d love to hear about the standing ovation. Can you describe what it’s like to experience that, and what emotions go through you when you’re up there?
Trace Lysette: It felt like I was in a tornado of emotions, in a very Twilight Zone kind of way. It was a whirlwind. I’m sure, from the outside looking in, it was all very glamorous and like, “Oh, she’s got it made, she’s the next it girl” but it’s different for minorities, especially trans people. For any cis actor, a 12-minute standing ovation at Venice would mean a different thing. I had the foresight to know that it wasn’t going to mean the same thing to me and my career, as it’s not a level playing field. The same opportunities don’t arise. It doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually. Whenever you have a win as a minority actor, there’s a bit of a delayed reaction in receiving the fruits of that labour.
My friend Johnny said that it was weird that no one was writing about it when we’d watched everyone overwhelmed with emotion. We’d just made history as the first trans lead [in Competition] in Venice and all they were writing about was ‘spitgate’ with Chris Pine and Harry Styles. I remember reading all the write ups about ‘spitgate’ and Cate Blanchett and Brendan Fraser, but we just didn’t get any that next day.
You exited the news cycle so quickly, it was quite disturbing.
T.L.: It was quite disturbing, and I don’t want to pretend like it wasn’t, because that’s not healthy. I took the positive from it, but I, as the lone trans person on the project, was watching the other producers and directors catch up to the realisation that we didn’t get distribution, so they were sort of seeing what life is like as a trans person in this industry. But we did [get distribution] and eventually got it out to the world. I try to stay hopeful and hopefully that big project will come down the pipeline for me, the same way it would for any cis actress who went and got a 12-minute ovation at Venice.
Going from a standing ovation in Venice to fighting for audiences to be able to see Monica, what’s been your biggest takeaway from the last 15 months?
T.L. I have been trying my best to learn how to zoom out because on any given day, there is some sort of issue to be taken care of or battle to be fought. The weight of that over and over with these wins in between, which feel great, can be a lot, so I’ve learnt to zoom out and remember how lucky I am to be an actor for a living. Even though the playing field isn’t exactly level, not going to lie to myself, and even if certain things aren’t quite equal and fair, I still have to remember that girl on the subway in New York who was holding all of her changes of clothing, schlepping it to audition after audition and then having to go work overnight in a strip club for eight hours, get up the next day for acting class and do it all over again day after day. I have to remember her and not lose her because this is the dream.
I imagine that girl would be so proud of you if she could see where you are now.
T.L: I think so too. It’s beyond what I could have imagined.
TRACE LYSETTE ON OSCAR PRESSURE AND THE MONICA JOURNEY
You are breaking down barriers and smashing records with Monica. You were recently nominated for an Indie Spirit award. Congratulations. There has never been a trans woman nominated for an Oscar before, so you feel like there is any pressure on your shoulders now to be that first woman nominated?
Trace Lysette: Yeah, there is pressure. There’s pressure from the world, there’s pressure from myself. There’s pressure in wanting to feel safe, for me where I know an Oscar nomination is just one step closer to me feeling safe as an artist who probably won’t have to worry where the next gig is coming from, if I can secure that. That’s lingering in the back of my mind, but I do find comfort in knowing I gave 110%, not only in my performance but in the press after, and going above and beyond to get people access to the film.
Getting the right PR on the campaign has been a real challenge. Being left off the round tables during this season has been tough for me mentally. Not being able to land a late night spot when I’m trying to keep hope alive. Now that we have a Best Leading Performance nomination from Indie Spirit, maybe that will be an easier pitch for my publicist. So there is pressure, but I keep trying my best to not just give up. Keep showing up. I think what most people don’t realise is that this has been a seven year journey now. I got the script back in 2016, so you can imagine how many little battles there have been on the way, and all of that does weigh on you.
So how did you first come across this project, back in 2016?
T.L.: They [the casting team] had heard about my work on Transparent and they sent it to my reps. I gave it a read and began the audition process for it in 2017. That went on for over a year before I was formally attached to it.
Were they always looking to cast a transwoman in the role of Monica?
T.L.: I believe so, yes. Thank god.
So when did you take on the role of executive producer?
T.L.: That came when we were doing our deal, which sometimes takes a while. You sign on and start working on the thing, and then the deal gets finalised later. Wish that wasn’t always the case, but they asked me for a round of notes on the script and so, when I gave them very detailed notes – i mean, page by page notes – it just seemed right to ask for a producing credit when it came time to get the deal together. They were open to it, so that was pretty cool.
TRACE LYSETTE ON PREPARING FOR DIFFERENT SCENES
You had multiple scenes with Patricia Clarkson that required you to be very vulnerable and intimate with her. How do you go about preparing yourself for those scenes and building that relationship?
Trace Lysette: Well, Patty was very warm and embracing of me right from the beginning. There wasn’t really much relationship building we did apart from some drinks that first night in Cincinnati. I think, for the most part, it was already there. We’re both seasoned actors so the rawness and the emotion is already there at the top of my throat. We just dove into it. We didn’t do a table read, we didn’t have rehearsals by choice. Neither one of us wanted them. It was pretty raw and organic and Andrea [Pallaoro, director] was collaborative the whole way through.
My favourite scene of the movie is where you are driving away, leaving Genie behind. It’s a one-take, mostly static shot of yourself for a number of minutes wrestling with these complicated emotions before you turn back around. What is your process in how you get yourself into the frame of mind where you’re having to slowly break down like that, all while driving?
T.L.: I do different things. Hitting an emotional mark while doing technical things can be daunting, but I try to focus on whatever else I can on that day. For the driving side, that was often more challenging. We ran into difficulties because we didn’t have the money to close roads off so traffic became an issue. So the scene, where we turn onto a road and then pull a u-turn in an intersection, was a challenge but I look forward to those things as an actor. I told myself that it just makes it more real. I try to tell myself you’re not in a scene, this is real life. In a lot of ways it is. I’ve had those emotional moments in my own life and with people that I love.
I know some actors who are more mechanical criers, but that’s never been me. I’m more at the root of the emotion, so I never know how that emotion will come out or how it’ll look like. I just know I have to connect to the truth behind the emotion, and whatever comes out will be beautiful. I tell myself that it’s already okay. As far as preparation goes, I guess I’ve prepared my whole life for this. I’ve prepared in my actor training in New York city to hit those emotional beats over and over, so I know my instrument pretty well.
How many takes did you do of the scene, and was there any variation in the takes?
T.L.: I think it was the first take that we used, but we did three altogether, I think. There was one take where I was much more vocal, because I was trying to give Andrea a range of takes, which I do with any scene. Sometimes, with those emotional scenes, it is the first one that is the best because it’s the most raw, which is also why it’s not great to rehearse these scenes too much. It was just me and Kate [Arizmendi, cinematographer] on the day along with someone focusing the camera crouched down in the back seat. When Andrea saw it, I could see his face light up. He came up to me after seeing the first take and was really excited, telling me that it was a big shot for the movie. I liked that he was happy with the take and guess I was proud of myself and reaffirming that everything was as it was supposed to be.
TRACE LYSETTE ON MONICA’S AMBIGUITY AND TRANS REPRESENTATION
The film leaves the reason ambiguous as to why Genie doesn’t recognise Monica. The assumption people have taken from the film is that it is because Monica has transitioned rather than due to Genie’s illness. The film can be read as having this dual narrative, where both reasons exist at the same time. Was this a deliberate choice?
Trace Lysette: I definitely think it was. I’d have to ask Andrea for absolute clarity, but I think those two things – the transitioning and her illness – definitely warrant not recognising somebody after 20 years, so it feels pretty deliberate to me. I like that there isn’t any clear answer; we don’t always need that from a film.
There is often criticism levied at stories around trans representation for being didactic, or ‘woke’. There is no mentioning of transition, no deadnaming or any number of the tropes that usually appear within narratives that feature trans characters. Was this an important factor in getting you involved or was it just the way the film happened to end up as?
T.L.: A lot of that was already there. There was not a lot of over-explaining or preachy moments. There actually was some deadnaming, but we had a discussion about it and it was taken out. I think it’s really special in that way, because the overly woke projects that are out there, they’re not my favourite thing either. I get how they can be off putting to the masses, so if the goal is to reach a bunch of people about it, I think Monica can be a bit of a Trojan horse in that way.
If you had any advice for young trans performers looking to break into the industry, what would you tell them?
T.L.: I think community is the one thing I can say that they really need to hang on to, because it will be the thing that holds you up when it gets tough, and it will get tough. It’s also the future. Your fellow queer and trans folks are going to be able to build with you. Making it isn’t possible without our allies and the community, you have to recognise that and hold on to it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Monica was released in UK & Irish cinemas on December 15, 2023 and is still showing in select cinemas: check the full list of screenings on 606 Distribution’s site. The film is now available to watch on digital and on demand in the US and various countries. Read our review of Monica.