A very honest conversaton with Transparent scene-stealer Trace Lysette

The trans actress talks Season 4, her difficult past, and what Hollywood really needs to do to be inclusive.

Illustration Sharon Gong
A very honest conversaton with <i>Transparent</i> scene-stealer Trace Lysette Trace Lysette   Frederick M. Brown/Getty

Last year on Transparent, Trace Lysette stole the season with a single episode. For “The Open Road,” Amazon’s big-hearted seriocomedy switched its focus away from the life of trans matriarch Maura Pfefferman to depict an ill-fated road trip with Maura’s son Josh (Jay Duplass), and a yoga instructor/dancer named Shea (Lysette). It starts off sweetly enough, with flirtatious foreplay in a roadside diner and hand-holding at an abandoned water park. But after Shea, a trans woman, discloses that she’s HIV-positive, Josh’s perma-adolescent blundering and crude objectification results in an ugly argument.

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Lysette screamed herself hoarse in freezing temperatures while filming the traumatic scene, which got shout-outs from public figures like Sia and Laverne Cox, and resulted in a viewer-driven push for her to score an Emmy nod. “You know, [if something’s] triggering for me as an actor, [that’s] a good thing!” Lysette said recently, reflecting on the scene over the phone. “I want to be triggered. I want to bleed emotion into the camera. I’ll be 36 this fall, and I’m done being silent.”

Lysette’s post-Transparent roles haven’t come as readily as you’d expect for an actress of her abilities, but she’s been great in shows like Comedy Central’s Drunk History, as legendary Stonewall trans activist Sylvia Rivera, and held her own opposite Patrick Stewart in Starz’s Blunt Talk. This fall she brings a little “Delta Burke realness” to Transparent's fourth season, as an entirely new character — pageant queen Celine, who appears in a touching flashback.

During our interview, Lysette spoke softly, blaming the slight rasp in her voice on a Netflix party the night before. She spoke candidly, her bright outlook a hard-won payoff for a life of near-constant hustle. Now she's determined to “get a little piece of the dream” in Hollywood — not just for herself, but for her trans sisters everywhere.

A very honest conversaton with <i>Transparent</i> scene-stealer Trace Lysette Trace Lysette as Celine, in Transparent season four   Amazon Prime Video

In season four of Transparent, your scene at the drag pageant in the Valley was really fun and touching. What was filming that like?

It was wonderful, because my roots as a teen were spent performing in the drag bars of Dayton, OH. Drag was not only my introduction to womanhood, but my introduction to entertainment. It was the first time I realized that I could move a crowd. Drag mothers are an integral piece of our culture, so that little moment between baby Davina and Celine was really sentimental for me. We were paying homage to the Queen Mary, which was this iconic club back in the day in Los Angeles.

Last season, the road trip episode with your character Shea and Josh was a real highlight. Why do you think it struck such a chord, particularly with queer and trans viewers?

We’ve been waiting for the longest time to see what love looks like for trans women. And at the beginning it was just boy-meets-girl; it was very sweet and endearing — he was around his family, giving small kinds of affection for Shea. And then they went on this road trip together, which was wonderful — until the catastrophic ending! [laughs] It’s a very real account of what can happen. My own experience of dating cis-hetero men has really been a challenge, because of the stigma they have to endure for attempting to love us. It was a gift to get the material that spoke to my heart and my lived experience, and allowed me to really dig in deep and just purge it all for the world to learn from, and to really be horrified by — because that really is our reality. We wake up every day living in a world that does not make space for us, for the most part.

In an interview with PAPER, you hinted that this season would address the unfinished business between Shea and Josh — but that isn’t happening. Were you privy to that decision making process?

I definitely tried. I communicated with the writers, and we did shoot something with Josh, but it just didn’t make it into final cut. Maybe there was too much footage and they had to cut some things. I was disappointed, but maybe in season five we’ll see some closure for Shea and Josh — or even just Shea winning without Josh!

You grew up in Dayton, OH. What was that like?

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It was not the most welcoming place. I had a lot of fights in high school. I ended up switching schools in my junior year, because I had been suspended for defending myself — somebody called me a faggot, and I knocked him out in English class.

I saw an incredible throwback video of you performing Janet Jackson routines. At what point did you start to channel your energy into performing and dance?

I got to choreograph a halftime dance with the cheerleading squad, which was all-female, at my high school. And I was the only boy, at the time. We did this whole routine to “Maria Maria” by Santana, and “Thong Song” by SisQó — it was a mix. And the crowd just erupted.

When did you get the acting bug?

After I hit rock bottom. I was living in New York and I had abandoned a lot of my talents. When you transition from male to female, sometimes you can get caught up in the vanity of it all. I was so focused on getting my outside shell “correct.” That was drilled into my head by my elders, like, “You have to be passable. You have to go get a sugar daddy. You have to use your only resource, which is your body.”

After I lost my job at Bloomingdale’s because they wouldn’t allow me to use the women’s restroom, I was a working girl in the Village. I eventually went to Thailand and had my bottom surgery, came back, and auditioned to work in cis strip clubs. I decided to keep my business to myself, and to get by on my passability. I danced all over Manhattan for eight years — for ball players, CEOs, hood dudes… you name it, I danced for it. And that was so not a safe space where I could talk about being trans. I would literally go into character when I would go into work, and monitor my slang and my mannerisms. I didn’t even tell people my real name.

I had a bad breakup with a boyfriend, and I left the club one night and slit my wrists on a side street in Midtown. I ended up in Bellevue [Hospital]. I was in the psych ward for a while. And when I got out, a male friend of mine was like, “Yo, you need to invest in yourself. You have so much potential, you gotta do this acting thing.” I was like, “You’re right. I want to find my talent again — as a woman, this time.”

How did you find strength to get through those tougher times?

My mother. She had come around by that point, and started to accept me as the woman I am. She was a big part in me wanting to give life a try again. When I’m feeling crazy now, I look to my trans sisters Laverne [Cox], Peppermint, and Mila Jam. We keep each other together. Until the world can catch up, we have to have each other.

A very honest conversaton with <i>Transparent</i> scene-stealer Trace Lysette Trace Lysette as Shea, with Jay Duplass as Josh, in Transparent season three   Amazon Prime Video

I read that Laverne took you to Brad Calcaterra’s LGBTQ acting class in New York, Act Out?

Yes. Prior to that, I was not disclosing that I was trans in the industry. When Orange Is The New Black hit, and I saw Laverne living in her truth, it sparked something in me. Also, I was living in Harlem at the time, and a young girl by the name of Islan Nettles had been catcalled and beaten to death by some trade — that’s what we call, like, boys on the block. I remember crying on my knees in my apartment, like, That could have been me, or one of my sisters that I walk down Lenox Avenue with any day of the week. Laverne helped me get to the LGBTQ acting class where I could finally talk about being trans in my work, and really use all those horrifying experiences that I had — the joy and the pain.

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Why can trans people feeling like they have to “pass” be so destructive?

You’re literally erasing trans culture. If you live stealth, while personally it might be easier for you in some ways, it’s not doing anything for the community as a whole. Trust me, I get it! On my first job in the industry on Law And Order, I was not telling anyone, I was not disclosing my trans-ness. I shot an indie film that got shelved after they found out I was trans. Transparent actually came out first, and then they shelved the film, and the producer sent me a nasty letter calling my womanhood a “fraud,” and calling me a fraud in general. It was really hurtful, but it also let me know that I was on the right track. I didn’t wanna be living like that. I’ve been through too much to be insulted in that way.

A lot of trans actors seem to struggle with following up well-received performances. I was excited to see more of the actresses in Tangerine, for instance, but I haven’t seen them in many roles since. What are your thoughts on that?

I’m actually going through a little bit of that myself. It’s really scary. I just don’t know how to keep the train rolling. I wake up every day with a little bit of anxiety: What do I need to do? Who do I need to email? How can I get out there and keep this thing happening for me? I’m terrified of where I came from — the life of sex work, struggle, and hustling, and no money. I don’t have the long term stability that I’d like.

I read you’d been working on a pilot of your own called Tribe. Is that still a focus for you?

Yeah. I’m letting it breathe right now, because I had shopped it around a little bit and it’s kind of a tough sell because it is so queer, and it is so POC. It’s a reflection of my friends, and my experience of my 20s in Harlem and Brooklyn. Trying to get networks to see it as something that’s marketable was just a little bit of a challenge. It is a little frustrating, but I think I’ve just got to let the world catch up. It’s a great script, and when the time is right, I think it’ll get made.

Every time there is a cis actor cast in a trans role, there’s backlash — as seen recently with Matt Bomer in the film Anything. Why do you think producers and casting directors continue to ignore the outcry?

I think they have to believe it to see it. If no one grants us the access to do it, how can the rest of them see it be done? Someone has to give us a shot, in order to successfully set the tone. And so I want to know, who is going to be that studio head to say, “No! I want this trans person to lead my project, and show the world what this really looks like when it’s done right.” It’s going to take someone to be the hero I think — somebody to give us access. I want to know, Hollywood: who’s that gonna be?

September 22, 2017
A very honest conversaton with Transparent scene-stealer Trace Lysette