“We’ve been on this journey, this timeline, for trans representation for a while, and being that ‘Monica’ is a delicate but complex story, I don’t know if it had happened sooner if it would have been the right time,” said Lysette. “It’s not lost on me that this is also happening at the same time that all of this anti-trans legislation and hate is going on against our community. I think I’m just sitting with the duality of all of that and trying to trust the universe.”
Directed and co-written by Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro and shot on location in Cincinnati with local actors and crew, “Monica” centers on an emotional Ohio homecoming. Reconnecting with her dying mother (three-time Emmy winner Patricia Clarkson) and the rest of her family for the first time since leaving as a teenager, Monica (Lysette) embarks on a path of healing and acceptance. The film “delves into Monica’s internal world and state of mind, her pain and fears, her needs and desires, to explore the universal themes of abandonment and forgiveness.”
IndieWire notably writes, “Refreshing and inspiring. Raises the bar for trans stories onscreen, and Lysette takes her rightful place as its muse … A meticulously crafted master class in restraint.”
Full circle fully-formed
When Lysette first read the script in 2016, she was immediately drawn to the prospect of leading a major film as a trans actress. Having received strong notices for her breakthrough role as Shea on the Amazon series “Transparent” as well as appearing as Tracey in “Hustlers” opposite Jennifer Lopez, Lysette was ready to take the next step. Her tenacity paid off not only in front of the camera but behind in order for Monica’s story to be told with the utmost authenticity.
“Seeing a trans character in the title role was so rare for me,” she recalled. “(The script) was really good. I knew it was worth fighting for. When they brought me on board, I also came on board as an executive producer and gave some notes.”
As the script evolved, Lysette wanted to ensure Monica was completely rooted in her identity, allowing her the freedom to reenter her family circle truthfully.
“The thing I like the most about (Monica) is that this is a fully formed trans woman who has lived this trans life for a very long time,” she said. “And I think that kind of representation, for those of us who have lived this trans life, is kind of few and far between sometimes in the TV and film landscape. Because I’ve lived this life longer than I was living any other way, that struck a chord with me (and) was important to me. I really feel our trans elders and people who have lived this life through a trans lens for a decade or two are special. They see the world in a way other people haven’t and I think we need to hear from them more. We need more of their stories.”
Working opposite Clarkson, Lysette said she enjoyed the interplay that developed between them that bolstered their scenes.
“It was such a gift to work with Patricia because she and I work in very similar ways,” she said. “We come from the gut, from being in the moment, from the heart. Not overpreparing but just being really present in the scene. It also helped to have Andrea, our director, be this gentle auteur. He trusted us every step of the way but was also very specific in a lot of his direction, which for me, as an actor, was a nice challenge. We had an amazing time.”
She also was mindful to simply step back and recognize the significance of filming in Ohio and Kentucky.
“It was a full circle moment for me,” she said. “A lot of times I would cling to the full circle moments to try (to) really muster some of the extra oomph Monica needed in some of the scenes.”
Reflecting on the past
Lysette’s full circle reflections include growing up in the ’80s and ’90s navigating a rocky adolescence and upbringing. She enjoyed being a track athlete at Colonel White High School and “riding down Gettysburg Avenue in the summertime” with her friends but was repeatedly bullied. She eventually found artistic inspiration as a drag queen, performing at such local clubs as 1470 West, Celebrity and Reflections, before moving to New York in the early 2000s.
“When I think about home, when I think about my youth in Dayton, what I realize is that when I was there, I didn’t appreciate it in the way that I do as an adult looking outside in,” she said. “I was this flaming queen on the playground. Fistfights were a regular thing. All I could think about was that when I turned 18, I was going to get out of here. I was a rambunctious teen trying to figure out who I was. I wanted to get out of this old factory town that I felt didn’t have a lot of opportunity for me.”
However, the gift of time has allowed her to reassess her past with a greater introspection that illuminates the positives of Midwestern sensibilities.
“After living in New York for 14 years and now L.A. and being in this industry, I miss the people from the Midwest,” she said. “I miss Daytonians. I miss the heart and the soul that is found there that I don’t see as much of in other parts of this country. I miss the simplicity of people’s kindness and earnestness. When I came back to shoot ‘Monica,’ I realized how beautiful it was in a way I was not able to see as a young hungry teenager trying to find my fitting in a world that was not making space for me, my transness and all that I was.”
Fondly recalling seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at The Neon as a teenager, Lysette is thrilled for Dayton audiences to see her on the big screen at her hometown theatre in a film with the power to educate and resonate.
“I have a love for Dayton,” she said. “I hope audiences take away Monica’s humanity more than anything. I hope (the film) causes conversations between loved ones — not necessarily about trans topics. If there’s been a rift in your family or if there’s a person in your life you might need to reconnect with, I hope (the film) starts conversations or at least leaves people with question marks around reconnection and what we do with the time we have left with the people we love.”
HOW TO GO
Where: The Neon, 130 E. Fifth St., Dayton
When: Screenings through May 29: May 23-24: 3:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.; May 25: 3:30 p.m.; May 26-27: 5:00 p.m.; May 29: 5:10 p.m. There is no screening May 28.
More info: Call 937-222-8452 or visit neonmovies.com