Trace Lysette made history last summer when she became the first transgender woman to direct a film in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Audiences were so enthralled by Lysette’s performance in the film, titled “Monica” and directed by Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro, that they reportedly gave her an 11-minute standing ovation and half while the end credits were rolling.
While grateful for the acclaim, Lysette hopes that “Monica” will have a more significant impact and serve as an impetus for much-needed change regarding trans representation in Hollywood.
“It’s nice to see people celebrate milestones,” said the Kentucky-born actor. “I understand the importance of a headline, but a headline is just a headline. What I hope for is the abundance of trans artists and choices in this industry and how that affects our humanity in general.”
Watch the trailer for “Monica” below.
By all accounts, “Monica” — which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday before a national release next week — represents a major step for Lysette as a screen performer. It stars the title 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, since Eugenia kicked Monica out when she learned of her daughter’s transition plans. When Monica appears next to Eugenia, her dementia-stricken mother does not recognize her, assuming that she is a hired carer.
Lysette, whose credits include “Transparent” and “Hustlers,” gives a chilling performance as Monica. Her character is a grieving woman struggling with abandonment trauma who holds out some hope that love and family connections will override the transphobic feelings of the past.
“I knew Monica very well, and I knew how well she would represent so many trans women I know,” said Lysette, who first read the script for “Monica” in 2016. “I’ve lived this way longer than I was. anything else – I was non-binary in the 90s and started transitioning in the early 2000s, so I knew that if I had the chance to play it, I could bring it to life in a really strategic way and authentic
The actor also relished the opportunity to work with Clarkson, praising the three-time Emmy winner’s “very passionate, sensitive and experienced” presence on set.
“It was so beautiful to watch her work and see her stillness between takes, and how safe she was,” Lysette recalled. “We work in the same way that we don’t prepare too much. We work from the gut and the heart and leave room for variables within a scene. I always felt that whatever I wore, she would take 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, of course, is aware of the fact that “Monica” is being released as transgender rights remain a hotly contested issue both in the United States and abroad. Since the beginning of the year, at least 13 states have enacted laws and policies aimed at prohibiting or severely limiting gender-affirming treatment of minors.
Although “Monica” is not overtly political, Lysette believes the film’s “delicate” portrayal of a strained mother-daughter relationship can help it reach “a wider audience that might be resistant to some something like this if it came in a different package.”
“I had a man come to see me who had 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 issues of abandonment and reconnection are not unique to trans people.”
He went on to say, “It’s a trans story, yes, but it’s not limited to that.”