Trace Lysette Wants You to Think of Her as a Leading Lady

Trace Lysette received the script for Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica in 2016. It’s taken seven years to get the film, which had its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last fall, to U.S. audiences. An understated, gestural family drama, it follows Lysette as the titular Monica coming home to her sick mother, Eugenia (played by Patricia Clarkson). Eugenia believes she is a hospice nurse; she kicked Monica, who like Lysette is trans, out at a young age. But the story refuses tidy and moralizing narratives. It asks what it means to see and be seen by someone who, although estranged, is not a stranger. To honor the U.S. release of Monica tomorrow, CULTURED called up Trace Lysette to talk about missing home, bringing her grandma’s ashes to set, and not ABCing trans stories for viewers.

CULTURED: How are you feeling about the U.S. release of Monica?

Trace Lysette: It's been such a long road. I got the script in December of 2016, and I think the audition process started early 2017. At certain times, I just had to kind of step back and let it breathe and do its thing. When it came down to shooting, I was prepared and gave it my all, and now we’re here. I’m excited for it to finally hit U.S. soil.

CULTURED: What drew you to the script initially?

Lysette: It’s so rare to see a trans character in the title role. Secondly, I realized after reading the script that this was a fully-formed, well-lived life of a transsexual woman. Society seems to really sensationalize or gravitate towards stories about transition. And that is not what this is. This is a woman who’s been living this way for a long time, and she’s going on this journey back to her roots and negotiating what to do with this limited amount of time she has left with her mom who doesn’t remember her. She’s already who she is.

CULTURED: How did you prepare yourself for filming Monica?

Lysette: Dying my hair red helped me embody Monica. I definitely had a playlist of songs that were in the movie. I tried to get familiar with what her friend group may look like. It was different from Trace, even though that might not be obvious for people. I just had to find the bridge, and some of that was helped by bringing my grandma’s ashes and a ring of hers to set with me, and also the fact that we shot 45 minutes south of where I grew up in Dayton, Ohio.

CULTURED: Do you have anyone that you dream of working with?

Lysette: People are always telling me I need to play Jennifer Coolidge’s daughter in something. I am absolutely down for that.

CULTURED: That would be incredible! What’s your ideal movie watching environment?

Lysette: I usually watch movies at home or on the plane because I like to get up and get snacks and go to the bathroom. I have a baby bladder, so I have to do what I have to do. I would say Monica is probably best watched on a bigger screen because the aspect ratio is smaller. But I do think it will also be on American Airlines, if you don’t have the time and you’re on the run.

CULTURED: Tearjerkers are great for planes!

Lysette: Right. Why am I always crying on a plane?

CULTURED: Must be something about the altitude! Family and home loom large in the film. Those are big words that can mean so many different things. What do they mean to you today?

Lysette: I think I’ve been chasing the dream for such a long time that at some point I’m going to have to downsize my life and find a smaller city to settle in to hopefully slow down half a step. It’s been a hustle. And in the Midwest you grow up at a different pace. I think that’s what home means to me. I’m just missing it right now.


CULTURED: What is Monica for, and what is it against?

Lysette: It’s for love and compassion and education and humanity. It’s meant to provoke people’s thoughts and leave you with a few question marks that there is no right answer to. It’s against hate and ignorance, specifically towards trans people, and it’s against preachy moments and ABCing it for viewers.

CULTURED: You were the first trans actress to star in a film at the Venice International Film Festival, and a lot of the coverage has focused on that. Are you sick of all this talk around “firsts”?

Lysette: I have so many mixed feelings about those headlines. Obviously it’s important to the timeline of trans representation, and it’s important to call it out so that we can recognize whatever first we’re talking about. At some point, I would love to not have to talk about those things. We wouldn’t have to be talking about this if it hadn’t taken 90-some years for that to happen. I just sometimes wish we were further along.

CULTURED: What’s next for you after the U.S. release of Monica?

Lysette: I don’t have much on the plate as far as acting. That’s one thing that’s been getting me down a little bit. I’ve heard that if an actress goes to Venice and gets a standing ovation for 11.5 minutes, she’s probably going to have some options when she gets back to the States. I just haven’t had any scripts come my way yet, and I don’t even have an agent right now. I just wish that the powers that be could think of us for more. Don’t think of me as just a trans leading lady. Think of me as someone who’s talented and can inhabit a character. If my essence matches their essence, cast me off of that, and let the identity piece fall in line when and where it needs to.