Actress Trace Lysette is no stranger to the struggles of hustling. Earlier in her career, she was taking roles on television shows like Transparent and exotic dancing at the same time. Because the bills needed to be paid. It wasn’t until she was brought back for season two of the award-winning Amazon series that she was able to “hang up [her] G-string,” she says.
“I was living a double life,” she tells Out, “because I was still kind of stealth in the club. I didn't talk about being trans, but I was out on TV, and thankfully the people that came in the club didn't watch Transparent.”
And if that wasn’t enough to make her a perfect fit for Lorene Scafaria’s new film Hustlers, about a real-life group of strippers who scammed the stock traders and CEOs who visited their club, Lysette actually worked at the very club, Scores, the movie is based on. She stars opposite Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and Cardi B.
Following the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Out spoke with Lysette about how a fateful tweet helped her land a role in the film and what it was like having J.Lo’s butt in her face. We also discussed what returning to the set of Transparent was like after a tumultuous year marked with sexual harassment and career uncertainty.
I think the story goes: You read an article that this movie's being made, you send a tweet that, "Oh, I used to work there. I'd love to be a part of it." What happens next?
All of my Counsel of Trans Sisters retweeted it: Laverne [Cox], Peppermint, Mila [Jam], Mj [Rodriguez], everybody. And then Lorene Scafaria, the writer-director, slid into my DM's and said, "Let's go to lunch." We went to lunch and chatted for two hours. I told her a bunch of fucked-up stories about working there for over eight years. A lot of the stuff was already in the script. We hit it off, but I walked away with zero expectations because my whole reasoning for reaching out was just because I didn't want to leave it to the proper Hollywood channels or be at the mercy of the red tape of Hollywood by just going through your reps. I was just so passionate about this so I was like, "I can't let this one pass me up."
Sure enough, we kept in contact, and she wrote me a role. I was asking if I could read for something and then she just wrote me it.
How was it seeing yourself on the big screen when you first watched the movie?
It was new territory for me. I've bounced around as a guest star [on TV shows] for the past, I don't know, five or more years. But being in a big-budget blockbuster movie with this A-list cast of badass women was just a dream.
What was the filming process like? Everybody keeps wondering what it was like working opposite J.Lo.
I had to pinch myself several times when we were shooting because when we were doing the Usher scene on stage, for example, J.Lo’s ass is right in my face. We're all just slapping each other's asses and just dancing, and Lizzo's making jokes. Keke, too. But everybody was just so great … I had to pause and really be in gratitude because I grew up watching J.Lo. She's a self-made bitch. I resonate with that, literally. And so, I was just like, "Man, this is where it's at. This is what I want more of."
Lorene Scafaria was so gentle and had so much to get done, but she never made it feel stressful. It was always so smooth, which is refreshing. Because it's not always like that on different sets.
What was it like having lived part of this life and then having to be part of putting it on screen?
Definitely a full-circle moment. I did have a moment of apprehension when I walked into the club when it was packed with patrons. It felt eerily familiar. I was just like, "Man, this is scary but cool."
You were recently on an episode of the podcast, Kiss and Tell, with hosts Shar Jossell and Jayce Baron and talked about how the last year was difficult for you, considering the sexual harassment you say you faced on the set of Transparent. You called it a low moment. To go from that to this, how does it feel?
2018 was hell. We didn't go back into production, obviously, because all the stuff with Transparent and the situation with Jeffrey, and I wasn't working, I lost my health insurance. I had only had it for two years of my life. It was like my livelihood was in question because my career is kind of all I have. Coming around the bend, I guess, and getting work again, and not being a victim to what traditionally happens when women speak out — sometimes they disappear, or they get blacklisted. I think that's what's different about the Me Too Movement, is that most of us are working. We should all be working. And we should all be very conscious and intentional of employing women, and anyone who spoke up against their abuser. So for me, I now feel a little at ease because I wasn't sure what was going to happen.
That said, you’re in the series finale of Transparent, which has become a movie musical. What was it like returning to that storyline, returning to that space?
Scary at first because it was so explosive. [Transparent creator] Jill [Solloway] and I had a pretty contentious moment on the Paramount lot in front of the Coffee Bean where I had already felt like I had expressed to appropriate people about what had gone on, and I felt like the safest option for me was to go public. And it was pretty shitty for awhile there. A lot of things were said that I'm still healing from. But I think as a family, we just came back together to make this gift for the world so that Transparent's legacy is not stained. It's triumphant because we got our season five and it's beautiful. It's a musical and I wasn't expecting that, but it's this sweet transition.
I feel like a lot of people have been saying you've been skyrocketing over the last couple years in terms of Transparent, now Hustlers, the role on David Makes Man. But from your vantage point, do you feel like you're there yet?
Hell no, I want my bank account to skyrocket. [laughs] And I say that seriously. It's a weird thing to walk down the street and have people come up to you with tears in their eyes about your work and what your representation means for their life, and then you look at [your] bank account and it's not adding up. Not to get too technical, but guest stars don't make the same amount as series regulars. And it's only a handful of those for trans people on TV. I'm not getting in the room for these big cis roles like that. Maybe I will now, after Hustlers. But I haven't had that job that makes me feel secure or financially OK, or maybe even dream about buying a home before I turn 40 in a couple years and take care of my mom. That's what I want for myself is that kind of security. And whatever art that that comes through, I'm cool with it.
I'm confident in my range from drama to comedy and everything in between. I'm also writing my own stuff with my friend, Devere Rogers. We wrote our own pilot. It's in development at Powderkeg. I'm really just trying to be active and not passive about my career. I would love to do more film, I would love to land a more principal role on a TV show. I'm so grateful for all the guest spots I've had bouncing around, but I do feel like I need stability. And I also feel like I need that TV family because I'm such a sensitive person, and when you bounce around from place to place and you don't have that home base, it can be rough.
What’s it been like being an actress who is trans during this moment when the industry is talking about diversity, inclusion, and opportuntiy, especially since you started your acting career in cis roles and came out as trans later?
It’s definitely been liberating but also extremely scary. I put myself in danger working in the strip club and then coming out. It was a leap of faith. I didn't know if it was going to pay off or not. Because now that my business is out there on a public scale, I find the trauma from when I was early in my transition in New York City, from when I didn't used to pass, has come back because now the world knows again. So I had this period of years where I lived stealth and kept shit to myself in terms of my gender history, but now it's all out there again. And I look over my shoulder now when I leave the house still, because I'm like, "Fuck, you don't know what someone's thinking." All of that has returned and that's been weird. And then career-wise, I think I've just been afraid of being pigeonholed. But I'm encouraged by Hustlers because it wasn't even specifically a trans role. That was dope.
What's something that you haven't been asked about in interviews, a topic that you're really passionate about that you want to talk about that people don't ask you about?
I think people don't know, and this is a general note for any trans actor, that all of the fucked up shit and trauma and unique lens that trans and non-binary folks look through to navigate life, all of that gets put into our work. If you train and you harness that, it's an arsenal that is so unique and powerful. I don't think cis people could even fathom some of the situations that we have to push through, and when you learn how to sharpen your craft of acting, all of that becomes a resource. I feel like it's kind of our secret weapon. I wish they would see it as, whether the character's specifically trans or not, "OK these people have been through something very unique and it affects their work in a positive way. We shouldn't look at them as just 'the other.'" If they could just understand that our skillset is a gift and that we should be considered for all roles and not just ones that are specifically written for us or a token here or a trope there, I feel like that would create a shift for a lot of us.