Trace Lysette made history last summer when she became the first transgender woman to lead a film in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Viewers were so enraptured by Lysette’s performance in the film — titled “Monica” and directed by Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro — that they reportedly greeted her with an 11-and-a-half-minute standing ovation as the end credits rolled.
Though grateful for the acclaim, Lysette is hopeful “Monica” will have a more significant impact and serve as an impetus for much-needed change with regard to trans representation in Hollywood.
“It’s nice to see people celebrate milestones,” the Kentucky-born actor said. “I get the importance of a headline, but a headline is just a headline. What I look forward to is abundance for trans performers, and options in this industry and how that affects our overall humanity.”
Watch the trailer for “Monica” below.
By all accounts, “Monica” — which opens in Los Angeles and New York Friday before a nationwide rollout next week — represents a major step up for Lysette as a screen performer. She stars as the titular character, a transgender massage therapist who returns to her hometown to care for her dying mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson).
The two women have been estranged for 20 years, ever since Eugenia kicked Monica out upon learning of her daughter’s plans to transition. When Monica appears by Eugenia’s side, her dementia-stricken mother doesn’t recognize her, assuming she is a hired caretaker.
Lysette, whose credits include “Transparent” and “Hustlers,” delivers a chilling performance as Monica. Her character is a grieving woman grappling with abandonment trauma who maintains a flicker of hope that love and family connections will override transphobic sentiments of the past.
“I just knew Monica so well, and I knew how much she would represent so many trans women I know,” said Lysette, who first read the “Monica” script in 2016. “I’ve been living this way longer than I was anything else — I was nonbinary in the ’90s and began transitioning in the early 2000s — so I knew if I got the chance to play her, I could bring her to life in a really layered and authentic way.”
The actor also relished the opportunity to work with Clarkson, commending the three-time Emmy winner’s “very passionate, sensitive, seasoned” presence on set.
“It was really beautiful to watch her work and see her stillness in between takes, and how assured she was,” Lysette recalled. “We work similarly in that we don’t over-prepare. We work from the gut and the heart and allow space for variables within a scene. I always felt like whatever I was going to bring, she was going to catch it.”
Speaking to The New York Times this week, Clarkson echoed that praise, noting that her co-star was “capable of a piercing stillness.”
Lysette is, of course, cognizant of the fact that “Monica” is being released as transgender rights remain a hotly contentious issue both in the U.S. and abroad. Since the start of the year, at least 13 states have enacted laws and policies aimed at banning or severely limiting gender-affirming treatment for minors.
While “Monica” is not overtly poltiical, Lysette believes the film’s “delicate” take on a fraught mother-daughter relationship may help it reach “a broader audience that might be resistant to something like this if it came in a different package.”
“I had a man come up to me who’d been adopted and recently reconnected with his birth mother, and he said he was deeply moved by the film,” she said. “It reminded me that the themes of abandonment and reconnection are not exclusive to trans people.”
She went on to note, “It’s a trans story, yes — but it’s not limited to that.”