Trace Lysette remembers the text. The Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro messaged to tell Lysette that their movie, Monica, would be premiering at the Venice Film Festival. "Honestly, I knew it was prestigious, but then I started researching. And I was like, 'Oh, it's actually the first film festival ever,'" she recounts. "I've seen JLo and all of them step off the boat there, and I'm like, 'Okay! Maybe we'll have a boat moment!'"
The film, a poetic character study about an estranged daughter returning home to care for her ailing mother, was a natural fit for the festival — not just because all of Pallaoro's previous films have bowed there. What Lysette could never have known at the time is that that text would change everything: When Monica premiered, she became the first trans actress to lead a movie in competition in Venice.
"It was momentous. I feel so honored," she tells A.frame. "I mean, at the same time, a little bit sad that it took 90 some years. But personally, I felt like this is a big responsibility."
Lysette got her boat moment, arriving to the Lido by water-taxi and posing on the pier for the requisite seaside photoshoot. She walked the red carpet at the Palazzo del Cinema dressed in Valentino ahead of Monica's world premiere. As the credits rolled, the film received an 11-and-a-half-minute ovation from the audience.
"That's a long time to stand there," Lysette says. "I was bawling because there was, what? A thousand and change people staring at you, and clapping for that amount of time. That was something that changes you for forever."
Lysette first auditioned for Monica in 2017. She was still appearing on Transparent, the series that provided her breakout role, but had yet to star opposite Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers when she got the script. Monica was conceived as the second film in Pallaoro's planned trilogy about female characters, following the Charlotte Rampling starrer Hannah. The filmmaker spent more than a year searching for his Monica before he found Lysette.
"I knew that choosing the one person that would embody this character, that would bring her to life, was the most significant and most consequential choice in the making of this film," Pallaoro says. "When I met Trace, it was something very instinctual that happened. I knew that I'd found the person I could delve into this journey with, creatively. She possesses this quality — this very rare quality, even among actors — of being present and being a character, instead of having to act. It's something that makes her incredibly hypnotic, and seductive, and mysterious. And those are very, very important qualities for me."
Pallaoro asked Lysette for notes on the script — which she provided, scene by scene. "Some of the trans-specific stuff, I gave my opinion freely because he wanted to know," she shares. Eventually, Lysette was asked to also serve as an executive producer on the film, while Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado tailored the character to her.
Lysette's Monica is a trans woman who was disowned by her family decades prior. Upon learning that her estranged mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), is dying, Monica returns to her childhood home for the first time in years. No one has told Eugenia that Monica is the child she abandoned, and so Monica assumes the role of her mother's caretaker. Slowly, the two women find their way back to one another, toward acceptance and forgiveness.
"I, of course, was a little nervous, but I also knew how prepared I was. Not to sound cocky, I just know I had done the work," the actress says of her first leading role. "I know I had done the training and had the life experience to bring what needed to be brought, and I was more excited than anything to just dive right in headfirst."
"Trace and I work in a similar way," Clarkson says. "We were very gut-driven and heart-driven in the way we work. I had a deep love for Trace off-camera — I had to just let it live on camera... I had to trust how I really, genuinely felt about Trace. That art and life, at times, just have to come together. And I knew Trace's face would give me so much and give me really what I needed."
Monica is a character, and Lysette did all of the actorly work of building out a backstory for her and making playlists of the music that she might listen to. They also, however deliberately, share many life experiences. "I'm always trying to find the bridge to whatever I've gone through in my own life and figuring out how that applies to the character," she muses.
"And then there's this kind of weird thing that happens when you're on set in scene as the character. There's this weird, magical thing that happens where it all kind of blurs together," Lysette continues, "and it comes out as this other person. I don't really know how to describe it any other way than that."
Clarkson remembers walking back to her hotel with Lysette after a party in Venice. "This was just me and Trace, two girls, a few cocktails in, walking home in our party dresses," she reminisces. "This beautiful man starts to pass us and he comes back and he says, 'Oh!' He has this beautiful thick Italian accent, and he goes, 'Oh, oh, oh! You are the darlings of the festival! I love you!'"
After a lifetime of hustling, Lysette wasn't so easily convinced. When the 11-and-a-half-minute ovation ended, she found herself wondering, "Are we going to get distribution? Is the film going to be successful? Is this going to translate into success for me? Will I be able to stop living gig to gig? Will I have options? You know, what does this mean for me? Especially given the walk of life that I came from, it was surreal to be in this prestigious place, having this moment. And I went to the bathroom and cried for five minutes, because there were all these unanswered questions that came with that really, really beautiful moment."
Monica did secure distribution, through IFC Films, and opens in select theaters on May 12, before expanding. Its release coincides with a flashpoint in the trans rights movement: A record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year alone, many of which directly target the trans community.
"I'm actually very, very surprised that we are in 2023 and we're still having this conversation," Pallaoro says for his part. "Back in 2015 or '16, when I was writing [Monica], I would have imagined that in five years or six years or seven years, the world would have evolved. In fact, I was thinking, 'We need to tell the story now. In a few years, it will not be as relevant.' Unfortunately, it is as relevant as ever."
"It's incredibly timely," Lysette echoes her director. "All of this hate and legislation that's going on right now against the trans community, and to have this film coming out, I mean, it is so important that people go out and see this film. Hopefully it starts conversations, and leads to understanding and compassion. That's my biggest hope for this film, is to create some kind of a shift."
"Because right now, it really is wild out there," she says. "Every day, I look on my phone and I open whatever social media and I'm bombarded with all of this news about trans people, and this law got passed over here, or this bill got introduced over here — it's this constant onslaught of hate and willful ignorance. And it's just so far away from who we are as human beings. I wish people could just see our humanity — that's really what I really wish — and I think this film helps to show people that."
By John Boone