Trace Lisette Takes Center Stage With Patricia Clarkson In ‘Monica’ – IndieWire

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Trace Lisette Takes Center Stage With Patricia Clarkson In ‘Monica’ – IndieWire

The poignant family drama Monica is full of artful mirror shots that serve as striking visual reminders of the many angles that shape life. There’s also something poetic about the sideways coverage when you consider that the film’s glittering star has spent her career as a supporting actress — when she was clearly meant to be a leading lady. Whether she’s seen in a sleek compact car, a rear view, or a patina profile, there’s no such thing as too much Trace Lysette. Bringing both gravitas and levity as the central character in “Monica,” she finally got her chance to shine.

Most viewers will recognize Lisette from her breakthrough role as Shea in the groundbreaking series Transparent or opposite Jennifer Lopez in Crooks, where her casting was a major asset for trans representation in a studio film. Even with such high-profile gigs, it’s been a long road for Lisette and “Monica,” for which she first auditioned in early 2017. The pandemic, funding shortages and casting issues (Anna Paquin was originally attached to a supporting role) delayed production until summer 2021. Through it all, Lisette remained steadfast in her commitment to the project.

"Mission Impossible 6" set

Told with minimal exposition, “Monica” revolves around a trans woman who returns home after many years to be with her estranged mother, Eugenia, who suffers from dementia. Played by the incomparable Patricia Clarkson, Eugenia is snarky and childlike, both a powerful loose cannon and a frail old woman. Although their relationship is clear to the audience, Evgenia thinks that Monica is just another person to help her care. As Monica tries to reconnect with her mother, the two women engage in a delicate dance of acceptance and forgiveness, neither fully determining where the other stands.

“I knew it was really rare to center a trans woman in the title character, and I knew this story wasn’t an atypical trans story, as many of us are at odds with our blood family. And for it to be told through her eyes and not through other people’s eyes was really rare,” Lisette said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “So even though the dialogue was sparse, I just knew that if I had the opportunity to do it, I could make it work.”

MONICA, Trace Lisette, 2022 © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Monica”©IFC Films/Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Although dialogue was minimal, Lisette saw potential in the nascent project. Directed by César-nominated Italian director Andrea Palarao, whose first two feature films premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the film features female leads. Palarao wrote the screenplay for “Monica” with longtime collaborator Orlando Tirado, both cisgender men.

With that in mind, Lisette did something she doesn’t usually recommend: she gave away notes for free.

“Andrea wrote a great script, but it was written by a cis person,” she said. “Before I got the job, Andrea and I discussed it and they wanted to know what I thought. I don’t recommend this, but I gave them a round of free notes. They asked and I gave it away for free, but I also wanted them to know how invested I was in telling this story.”

Lisette exemplifies a unique predicament often faced by performers from marginalized identities; whether or not to draw on their own experience to improve someone else’s project. In this case, she was grateful to be met by collaborators who not only listened to her, but recognized her and compensated her for her expertise by being named an executive producer.

“If someone says, ‘Tell me your thoughts,’ and then you have a larger conversation around a script, I think it can be difficult, especially for marginalized groups. Because at the end of the day we have to put food on the table. And if we’re giving away our life experience, you hope there’s some kind of check attached to it. But I don’t think I expected that at that moment,” she said. “I was in a state of just generosity and I just wanted this story to be right and I wanted to show them how passionate I was. … And they ended up bringing me on as an executive producer, which was good.”

There were two key moments where Lizette’s advocacy really stood out: when she fought to cut a case where Monica was pronounced dead, and when she lobbied to include a scene of Monica doing sex work.

“At one point there was a line where she was told and we were like, ‘Maybe we’ve lived through that.’ And it became a big discussion. And thankfully, they cooperated and wanted to do what the trans voices on set felt was right. So we ended up not saying that line,” she said. “I think it was much more elegant and beautiful that way. … I like that it’s not heavy.”

To show how Monica makes her living, Lisette felt strongly about the role of many trans women who survive through sex work. Not just for authenticity, but to highlight the limited employment opportunities available to trans women. In the first act of the film, we see Monica performing sex work on camera through her laptop in her hotel room. For Lisette, it was personal.

MONICA - Still 6
Trace Lisette in MonicaCourtesy of IFC Films. IFC Fi

“I come from the hustle and bustle. I come from sex work for survival and sex work for survival before the internet, so old school sex work in the West Village. I was like, ‘We have to see something because the girls are out here doing what they have to do to survive with what society has given them, which isn’t much,'” Lizette said. “I fought for it to be returned. It wasn’t in the final cut of the movie. … There was actually another trick at the top of the movie where I pull out the person I’m massaging, and that was taken out as well. And I thought, “Well, we need one or the other. We need to know what she does to survive.

All this behind-the-scenes work does not detract one bit from Lisette’s performance, which is elegantly dialed and expansively nuanced. Monica remains remarkably collected through difficult circumstances, rarely expressing her full range of emotions in conventional outbursts or monologues.

But she’s always on screen, even in slanted profiles or at odd angles, and Lisette is able to convey the depth of the experience with very little speech to fall back on.

“A lot of people don’t always want to face the hard stuff. And I think with the limited amount of time they had left, that’s why you don’t see a big scene with her mother on her deathbed. … I thought it was interesting and beautiful and definitely a choice,” she said. “So you can’t get him on the phone because he’s reading. There were no easy scenes. And I knew going in, I knew how much was going to be going through Monica’s mind at any given moment and through her heart. There was a lot of inner work that had to be done in every single scene. There were no bright days.”

IFC Films will release “Monica” in limited theaters on May 12, 2023.

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