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'It's just so rare to see': Trace Lysette and Patricia Clarkson on centering a trans story in Monica

Warning: This article contains spoilers from the film Monica

Monica is a beautiful depiction of the power and hard truths of family. Directed by Andrea Pallaoro, the film (in theaters now) follows a woman of the same name (Trace Lysette) as she returns home to take care of her dying mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) — years after Eugenia cut Monica out of her life for coming out as transgender.

The indie family drama's road to the big screen was a long one. In 2016, when Lysette (Hustlers, Transparent) got the script, she was taken aback by seeing a trans woman at the center of a feature film. "It's just so rare to see, and I fell in love with our director," she tells EW of filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro.

As for Clarkson, the Sharp Objects and Easy A actress jumped at the chance when she was cast in 2019. "I literally said yes in one day, and I don't think I've ever done that before," she recalls. "I had never seen such a beautiful story."

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EW spoke with Lysette and Clarkson about their characters' complex relationship, what they are taking away from the experience, and the film's slightly ambiguous yet human ending.

MONICA, Trace Lysette, 2022. © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
MONICA, Trace Lysette, 2022. © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

IFC Films/Everett Trace Lysette in 'Monica'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Monica and Eugenia's dynamic is the center of this movie. How did you go about establishing it?

TRACE LYSETTE: It was pretty instant for us. We met at an Emmys party a few years ago and [the dynamic] was just there as soon as we embraced. She's an amazing actress. We had an amazing director and our crew was incredible, so we all just brought our A-game every day in the Cincinnati summer heat and knew how important this story was to give it our all.

PATRICIA CLARKSON: Trace and I are similar in a way. We don't want to talk about a lot of things. We don't over prepare. We're both very emotionally driven actors and our bonding was very fast because we work from the gut and from the heart.

Trace, how did you manage to navigate the complexity of the early scenes where Monica is dealing with seeing her mother for the first time while she has no idea who Monica is?

LYSETTE: I tried my best to tap into real-life stuff. I knew that feeling well from different circumstances in my own life. I understood what Monica's journey was. I thought a lot about where she had been the last 20 years or whatever, and I know the journey of a trans woman. There was a lot at stake for her in terms of going back home and how vulnerable that was. At the same time, she needs to be guarded and care for herself because that's all she's done for however long now.

Early on there's a powerful scene where Eugenia is crying out at night and Monica comforts her. Can you talk about that moment? 

CLARKSON: We have a couple of moments before that where we start to connect in odd ways. I start to see her fully, and the hostility I have when I think she's from hospice is fading. I remember it was a fraught and brutal scene, but Trace was so warm. I just fell into her arms. I was so thankful she was so present as she always is in every scene we ever did. She held all my weight.

LYSETTE: What I remember about the day is [Patricia] really dug in and went there. We did a few takes and they were really powerful. I remember trying to cling to everything that was going on in the moment. Mind you, prior to that Monica has her webcam scene with the trick. It was a stark contrast from playing that character for the trick to running to take care of her mother by being a motherly figure — even though she doesn't know that I'm her child. It was complex, and I do remember people crying on set that day.

MONICA, Patricia Clarkson, 2022. © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
MONICA, Patricia Clarkson, 2022. © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

IFC Films/Everett Patricia Clarkson as Eugenia in 'Monica'

There are so many great moments that are really snapshots of the family's life. Do you have a favorite or one that stands out looking back? 

LYSETTE: There are a couple. On that last day where they're playing freeze tag in the forest and then there's also a shot of Monica holding the baby at the end of the dock. There's something powerful to me about seeing a trans woman's body because I'm in a bathing suit, right? Just seeing this trans body, literally her flesh, and also being maternal. It was something I don't think middle America gets to see. It's one of my favorite stills from the film.

CLARKSON: Mine is towards the end of my time in the film with the puppies, but also the moment [Tracee's] hand is on me. I don't know if anybody would know it, but it's when I take her hand when we're taking the photo. I know I have moments left on this Earth and the simplicity of the hand on my shoulder. I love that moment.

There's a scene towards the end where Monica and Eugenia are in the tub, and it seems like she knows who Monica is even though they don't discuss it. Can you talk me through your understanding of that scene?

CLARKSON: It's such a beautiful scene because it is simple. It's about "your child is your child" and it's about unconditional love. I love my daughter. I love her with every fiber of my being. The scene is still very hard for me to talk about. All I had to do was just let her know how much I love her.

LYSETTE: It was beautiful because it wasn't some preachy moment. It just feels real. For Monica, it was so complex because you do get to see her fall apart at other points in the movie, and at that point she's just committed to being with her mom. It's intense at the same time, and it was wonderful to be in that scene with [Patricia] to just receive all that she was giving. Monica doesn't know what to make of it all and you can see at a certain point I can't hold her gaze because it was so intense. [With] everything Monica has been through to this point, she's found some purpose in doing this task for her mom, bathing her towards the end of her life.

MONICA, adults, top, from left: Joshua Close, Emily Browning, Trace Lysette, bottom from left: Ruby James Fraser, Graham Caldwell, Patricia Clarkson, 2022. © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
MONICA, adults, top, from left: Joshua Close, Emily Browning, Trace Lysette, bottom from left: Ruby James Fraser, Graham Caldwell, Patricia Clarkson, 2022. © IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

IFC Films/Everett

In the end, they don't have an actual conversation about who Monica is. What do you make of the ending?

LYSETTE: I grew to love the fact that it wasn't spelled out because we see so much of that in film and TV. That's what this film does differently.

CLARKSON: For all of the complexities of shooting this film portrait-style and the chemistry that had to be brought out to shoot in this specific way, so many of these scenes are quite simple — without reams of dialogue.

What did you take away from these roles and working on this film?

LYSETTE: It taught me patience. I already had a certain amount just being in this business. I got an education on indie film making this movie, but I have such a love for the craft and the trans community. Those two things are what get me up every single day. Especially now, in this day and age for trans people, everything is just so intense, all of the hate and legislation that's going on right now. This film is incredibly timely and it really is an honor to bring Monica to the world.

CLARKSON: I feel privileged to know Trace and her journey. To see it echoed in a beautiful, non-exploitative film with heart and pathos, it's one of the biggest highlights of my career, and I've had a very long career. What is happening in the world right now is appalling and heartbreaking, but then I think of this beautiful film out there and Trace who is so exquisite leading this film. There's hope.

Monica is now playing in theaters.

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