Trace Lysette Is Ready for Her Close-Up
It's Nice to Laugh

Trace Lysette Is Ready for Her Close-Up

The Transparent actress on the show's fourth season, coming out in Hollywood, and why it's time to disband film's Old Boys Club.

Photography by Alexandra Arnold / text by Michael Cuby

When I call Trace Lysette on the last day of May, she's relaxing in her childhood home back in Ohio. After wrapping up production on the next season of Amazon's breakout series Transparent, the actress chose to spend time with family (her grandmother, some nieces and nephews) and decompress. While she does love the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, now, all she wants to do is "unplug and recharge."

Transparent, which will premiere its fourth season this fall, has been celebrated for the positive strides it's made for the trans community, bringing issues unique to them into the spotlight, while also garnering boatloads of award nominations and wins, including Primetime Emmy's and Golden Globes. But its success has done little to help propel Lysette's other career endeavors. "I haven't had any offers post-Transparent season three yet," she dejectedly admits—a confession that's both surprising and unsettling, especially after the "great arc" her character Shea had in that season's sixth episode. "I just thought that, by now, some of the jobs would roll in."

It's an unfortunate truth, but the jobs Lysette thought would appear just don't seem to exist. As an out-and-proud trans actress, Lysette knew it would be hard to book roles written for cisgender women, but has found it equally difficult to book roles specifically written for trans women like herself, simply because those characters are rarely, if ever, included in good scripts. In an effort to take matters into her own hands, the actress wrote her own pilot for a show, Tribe, which focuses on chosen family in the queer community. She's been shopping the show around for months, but has realized that even when you do the work yourself, selling a story like hers is still close to impossible. So far, the majority of network executives that have read the pilot have all maintained that Tribe's subject matter is too niche.

Luckily, while Lysette continues to search for a home for her Tribe, she has plenty to look forward to with the upcoming season of Transparent. Though she declined to give too many details about what viewers could expect, she did readily hint at the fact that Shea's storyline would continue to expand on last season's blowout. To hear her talk, it's clear that she values the work show creator Jill Soloway has done; the actress even cites Transparent as her official "coming out party." But naturally, Lysette, who got her start on Law & Order: Sexual Victims Unit in 2013, wants more for her career than to just be a guest star on an Amazon-produced television show (even if that show is a critical darling and peak example of prestige TV).

But as she unfairly endures the tedious wait for her real time in the spotlight, Lysette seems content to surround herself with close family and friends—like RuPaul's Drag Race season nine runner-up Peppermint, who she points to as "the kind of person I like to keep in my inner circle." But with no real end goal in sight, it's understandable that the talented actress-cum-scriptwriter seems to be losing patience in the system. "I think we're taking baby steps," she tells me about Hollywood's very gradual shift towards telling diverse stories. "But it's time to start jogging."

See a glorious, glamorous, old-Hollywood shoot with Lysette at Liberace's Palm Springs estate in the slideshow below.

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So, you've just finished production in the fourth season of Transparent, right?

Yup, we wrapped season four [in April], so I'm looking forward to that in the fall. Since then, it's been a little slow though, at least for me. I haven't had any offers post-Transparent season three yet, so I'm hoping something will come down the pipes sooner or later. But that's the game of Hollywood: trying to keep the ball rolling and the momentum up.

Speaking of the "game of Hollywood," GLAAD published its annual Studio Responsibility Index. The only trans or gender-nonconforming character in any of last year's mainstream films was the gender-nonconforming model from Zoolander 2, which has already been spotlighted for being incredibly problematic.

That's so disheartening to hear. It's deeply frustrating for me, because it's not my first time at the rodeo, so to speak. I've been acting for ten years, and it's now season four [of Transparent]. I just thought that, by now, some of the jobs would roll in. My other show which I reoccur in on Starz, Blunt Talk, just got canceled. They had some big plans for my character going into season three—she was going to school to study journalism and would be working more closely with the main character—but it got canceled so that won't come to fruition. I'm just doing the best I can to keep my momentum up and manifest new things.

I just wrote a pilot about chosen family and queer people, and I've been shopping that around but it seems to be some kind of resistance or glass ceiling when it comes to having narratives that put LGBTQ people—specifically trans people—at the center. And then casting trans people to play those roles is another thing. As much progress as we've had in the past couple of years, we just still have a really long way to go. I think I'm seeing that now. Because I had such a great arc on season three of Transparent, I thought, "Oh! I'll be alright! Something is going to come." But that hasn't happened. So I'm just going into survival mode a little bit. I have been auditioning, but that is just more of a fight. Nothing has come. It's just a chase right now, if you know what I mean.

Of course! I think that, on the surface, it looks like things are changing for the trans community. But for anyone who is actually paying attention, that's obviously not the case in terms of important things like policy. It's definitely been a topic, at least since Laverne Cox's TIME cover and the whole "trans tipping point" discussion. But that's been three years and we've almost seen a regression in trans rights.

Right! Can you believe that it's been three years since Laverne was on the cover of TIME? Who else have we seen on covers since? Probably just Caitlyn. What about the rest of us? We all have a story to tell and all of our journeys are equally important. How can we ever become human to the mainstream if we're not able to be included in leading roles and being put at the forefront of media? We're going to stay this kind of mystery to people, which is exactly why laws like HB-2 in North Carolina and SB-6 in Texas come about. It's because Middle America doesn't know us and they are scared of what they don't know. So they create these laws to kind of systematically hunt us and keep us marginalized. It really makes me angry. I try my best to stay positive and not get jaded but sometimes it's super tough.

You made a few appearances on Jenner's show, I Am Cait, before it was canceled. What do you think about the about-face she has done in the past few months with regard to her support for Trump? What do you think finally got her to wake up?

I'm sure a lot of people who voted for Trump are having that about-face right now for multiple reasons. I think for Caitlyn—I mean, I don't know for sure—but I think that maybe she was just kind of stuck in being a Republican and refused to vote for Hillary because of deep-seated reasons. I think now she's seeing that it wasn't necessarily the best choice for her newfound trans community. As much as we tried to tell her, people have to learn things on their own time. But that being said, I do appreciate her bringing the trans conversation to the forefront, along with Laverne, and kind of reaching Middle America and a part of America that the trans community has never been able to reach before. I think the movement takes all types [of trans people] and it's great that we have people like Laverne and Caitlyn, but I do think the narratives need to be expanded. I mean, Hollywood in particular needs to really make room for our stories because there is so much more to tell. And not even just trans stories. In my first [episode of] Law & Order, I hadn't even disclosed that I was trans, and that's how I started in this industry. Now that I'm out, it's been difficult to get back to playing cisgender roles. But I think that is the future, when they can open the door to let us play regular cisgender female roles.

What would you say you gained from "coming out" as trans, despite the fact that the roles available for you are now more limited?

I definitely gained a sense of peace that is with me daily. It's also a new sense of purpose. When I get up in the morning, I feel like I have a voice that's authentic and real, and I don't have to compartmentalize my life anymore. It sounds cliché to say, but the quote "the truth will set you free" really did. I don't have to play this passing game anymore. I think the notion of "passing" is deeply problematic but it was something that I was taught by my elders in the trans community—that if you could blend in or you could pass, it was just something you did in order to gain access to different things and have a better quality of life. So I subscribed to that for a little while. Actually, it was more than a little while; it was even more than a few years. But I got to a point where I was just burned out and I wanted to be transparent—no pun intended. Then Transparent came along and that was my coming out party. I'm just so thankful that I don't have to hide, and I know we have a long way to go but I am thankful that there are parts of this country where I do feel safe. I just think we have to get the rest of the country to know us and see us as humans. Otherwise, we're just going to stay this completely foreign entity to them.

That is something Transparent has done so well.

I think the scene from season three with Jay Duplass and myself was really telling of what trans women go through to try to find love and romantic partnerships. I think it was kind of eye-opening for a lot of people, so I was really proud of those scenes.

Those scenes moved me, especially when Jay tells you that he loves the fact that he doesn't have to worry about you getting pregnant. You could see how he thought it was benign, but with your visceral performance, you could also see how hurtful that type of microaggression can be.

I love hearing people tell me the direct impact. The crazy thing is that when I read that line, I thought, "Oh my god, I've had guys say that to me." I couldn't believe that I was actually getting the chance to show the world that little sliver of what we go through. I really have to give props to Jill Soloway and Our Lady J and really our whole writing team for really going there. I'd love to see more of that, just navigating love and life from a trans person's point of view because we don't get to see us having family, or being loved, or winning, or succeeding enough. Even though that ended horribly in episode six, I think we got a little glimpse of boy-meets-girl and it was really beautiful. I just think there's so much more of that to explore and I hope that Hollywood can get on board.

In Hollywood, we're seeing a noticeable difference between what stories are being told on television and what stories are told on film. Even for TV, I think there's a difference between network shows and shows on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. Why do you think that difference exists?

Well, it's my understanding that film is still kind of run by the Old Boys Club, and what that basically means is, usually, older, heterosexual, cisgender, white men. So it's them reaching out of their comfort zone to give someone else outside of that group an opportunity.

Just today, I retweeted Ava DuVernay, who had found a clip of Jessica Chastain speaking at Cannes Film Festival, and she was saying something along the lines of, "I have never watched twenty films in ten days before, and what I took away from this is there wasn't enough female protagonists and stories that were centered around women that had opinions and strong ideas. It was more like women reacting to the main characters, who were men." Of course there are some exceptions, but for me that parallels what happens for all marginalized people. If women are still fighting for that…my god! You can only imagine what trans women or people of color are going through. I think it's time for the Old Boys Club—the cis hetero white males—to just kind of take a moment, take a deep breath, and maybe step out of themselves for a moment to lend a hand or reach a hand out to somebody who doesn't have all the access or the privilege or the power and see what kind of art they can make with them. Just see what kind of brilliance can be birthed through that and how that can change the world really.

The resistance almost seems deliberate. Hidden Figures and Get Out were both extremely lucrative, and their success completely upturns the idea that a story centering on marginalized communities is a financial risk.

Or the critical acclaim that Moonlight got.

Exactly. You can't say that these narratives can't be bankable anymore because these examples are clear evidence that they can be. So what are they holding onto? It isn't ideas that are rooted in any kind of truth; it's more like tradition that they refuse to abolish.

Exactly. It's a longstanding tradition and I think it's time to step out of that and see what other stories need to be told. Obviously, they are bankable and they do receive critical acclaim. That is the future! I'm really happy that companies like A24 exist, because they seem to be dedicated to giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't have it. Streaming is definitely leading the charge for TV, and I think that film can look to TV and gain some inspiration. I mean, just break that tradition! Let's get on with it.

It's literally about time. We're in such a Golden Age for television in general, so even the idea that film exists in this prestigious realm reserved for only it is antiquated. TV is barging its way in.

I think so, too. But I also think there's room for more, even with television. I've noticed that since shopping the pilot that I wrote around. It's called Tribe and it's about a group of queer friends that are kind of chosen family. There are a few central trans characters and it's mostly people of color. Honestly, I think it's really bankable. It's a slice of life that mirrors my experiences in my 20s in Harlem and Brooklyn, but it's set in L.A. I've had network executives tell me that it feels niche or kind of small, and for me, I'm like, “How can you say that? This is real life!" If Insecure is slice-of-life and Atlanta, and Transparent even, then why would my pilot be considered niche? There will always be a universal narrative that people in other communities can relate to, and that can become a bigger conversation. You don't have to be a queer person of color to feel something when you watch Moonlight. I think we're taking baby steps, but it's time to start jogging.

How has it been working on a show like Transparent? There is so much representation for trans people in all aspects of production. I'd imagine that's not something you're used to.

Jill has definitely gone the extra mile to make sure that trans people were included every step of the way for this project. Not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera and in the writers room, too, which I think speaks to her humanity. If the rest of the decision-makers and the people with access and power in Hollywood could just take a page out of Jill's book, I feel like we could really make some big strides.

How has working in that environment differed from your past experiences as an actress?

It's like night and day. I've had a few different experiences on different sets. I remember doing Law & Order and not even being out as trans, and of course there was no other trans people on set. That's a very far extreme to what I experience every day on the set of Transparent, where I'm surrounded by LGBTQ people and lots of trans people. In my scenes and even just between takes off-camera, I'm immersed in this nurturing, trans-friendly, trans-inclusive environment. I think it makes for better art because we are free to bounce off of each other and play.

Jill is also really cool about letting us kind of riff off the scripts too; we're not ever really married to the text. I think Jill welcomes our input and if we want to improvise something, we just do. Sometimes it happens on take one! It's really magical, but I think that now I'm probably really spoiled. Would I go work on other sets? I mean, Blunt Talk was a little more text-driven, less improv, so I've had a case of that as well, which is fine. But I do really appreciate the organic acting process where the director can kind of put some trust in the actors to bring their lived experience to the art. I think that especially with trans people, that's crucial for getting something authentic and not some caricature or a rewritten history of us. It's better if it comes from the source. You get to see all of the beautiful nuances instead of just some sensational portrayal.

Finally, what can we expect from your Transparent character Shea in the fourth season?

Well, I can't get too much into that but she does return and obviously has some things to discuss with [Jay Duplass' character] Josh. That's probably all I can say. But season four will be really cool. There are some more flashbacks going on, which are always really interesting. I know that in a previous season, we did Berlin and we did Boyle Heights in the '60s. So you'll have to stay tuned for the flashbacks this season.

Stylist: Marni Seabright
Make-up: Cat Wall
Hair: Ahbi Nishman of Rebels and Outlaws NYC
Special thanks to Garth and Betsy Gilpin