“Mette! Sorry, I’m so sorry. She’s one of my costars. I haven’t seen her yet.”
Trace Lysette bubbles with excitement, and with good reason. Sitting over coffee in the Four Seasons Toronto, Lysette waves to Mette Towley, one of several Hollywood starlets mulling about the hotel. Lysette stands out among all of them: leggy, glamorous and dressed to the nines.
She also has good reason to feel excited. Her film Huslters is set to premiere that night at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the most high-profile festivals in the world. The film tells the true story of a group of strippers who banded together to filch cash from a group of robber baron bankers following the 2008 financial crisis. She stars alongside mega stars like Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B., Keke Palmer, Mette Towley and Lizzo, who makes her acting debut. The film marks a new high in Lysette’s career, following roles on shows like Transparent and Pose.
In the midst of the festival whirlwind, Queerty had the opportunity to chat with Lysette about appearing in a major Hollywood film, working as an out-transgender actress, and her hopes for the future.
So you’re about to have a hit film. I don’t get to say that with assurance to too many people.
Yeah, not to people in our community. It’s a big f*cking deal.
It is a big f*cking deal, and you have a good part in it.
Which is also awesome. So in the midst of all of this, how are you feeling? What’s your life like right now?
Wow. I worked really really hard in life in general, and especially in acting and honing my craft just trying to get my big break. I don’t know if I’ve really gotten it, so I’m wondering if this might be it. But I also don’t want to jinx it, so I’m just going with the flow and trying to stay in gratitude. I just can’t wait for the world to see it especially because my character isn’t specifically trans. She might be; we don’t really know.
Someone from middle America can watch this movie and wonder about my character and look me up and see that I’m trans. Maybe in some way they’ll feel like oh, that’s cool. Maybe I kinda know somebody who’s trans now, indirectly. It could be the start of a conversation. It’s just rare that we get to be in mainstream blockbuster movies, or mainstream anything. So I’m really trying to just soak it up and be grateful and in the moment. I’ve worked really hard.
Absolutely you have, and come so far in just a few years. How did the role come to you?
So I kinda went and got it. It was very unconventional. I’ve had projects in the past that were near and dear to my heart and my specific experience, and I’d gone through proper channels to try and get in the room to no avail. Sometimes the red tape of Hollywood is just that thick.
So my friend Devere Rodgers, who’s also my writing partner, sent me this article about the movie. I found out it was based on an article called “The Hustlers at Scores.” I had worked at Scores for over eight years in my 20’s.
Oh my gosh…
So he in big, capital letters said: “TRACE, YOU MOTHER F*CKING HAVE TO BE IN THIS FILM.”
He said no matter what you have to do, you have to be in this film. So not wanting to take the conventional route again, I said I’m just going to tweet this article out with a heartfelt message to the universe and whoever would listen, and tell them that I’m so excited that these women’s stories are being told and how important it is to tell stories like this. To frame women as anti-heroes in this Robin Hood-esque kind of story. I said I would tell the world that I worked there for eight years, and I would love to help in any way, shape or form. And Lorene Scafaria saw it and DM’ed me on Twitter. We followed each other. Then she asked me to lunch.
We hit it off. We talked for probably like an hour and a half of two hours about my glory days as a dancer, and old stories from Scores. I just fell in love with her. We kept in touch. I just said I would love to try and audition. And she wrote me the role.
Oh my goodness.
Yeah. So that’s how it came about.
You know I’ve never heard of anyone getting a part of Twitter, let alone written for you.
She literally said to me “This is probably the one time someone has tweeted me and it worked out.”
That’s amazing. I knew you’d been a dancer before, but I didn’t know you worked at Scores.
I did. It was kind of my main club. I danced at many, many clubs all over New York from Manhattan to Queens, into Brooklyn, even. I was all over New York, but Scores was my home base.
So when it comes to the authenticity, the recreation of it, and the sort of vibe there, how spot-on did the film get it? Did you offer any advice or suggestions?
They were already on the right track. Lorene was really brilliant about doing her research. I remember telling her that, you know, I can’t even count how many shots of whiskey I’ve thrown over my shoulder over the years, or lines of coke I had to blow on the floor to avoid getting too f*cked up at work and focusing on the money. So I’m not quite sure which one of my suggestions would have helped or not. But I gave it freely, and they were so capably and passionate about getting it right and humanizing strippers & sex workers, not censoring them. It’s really amazing to me: we’ve watched movies like this through a male gaze through decades whether it’s a mafia movie, or I don’t know…
Wolf of Wall Street?
Yes, exactly. That kind of narrative is old hat for Hollywood. It’s cool to see films like this, films like Oceans 8.
What you say about it being so subversive. I didn’t know what to expect going in, frankly. But it’s almost like the anti-Showgirls. Everything Showgirls gets wrong that we love for camp value, Hustlers gets right.
And we love [Showgirls] now.
We do love it now. For real. But Hustlers gets the female empowerment right, with the complexity you’re talking about.
You’re also working with some huge names here. Constance Wu is a major star on the rise. Jennifer Lopez is…well, Jennifer Lopez. Lizzo, Cardi B. And you have scenes with all these women too. Who surprised you the most?
Well, I guess I was surprised by how down to earth and sweet Jennifer Lopez was. She’s such an icon to me, she was just so chill. So that was surprising. Also, I think Cardi B. is an amazing actress. I don’t know if she knew that prior to the film, but it’s pretty evident in her delivery and how natural it comes off. If she wants to continue acting, she will have roles laid out for her. Lizzo was really playful and sweet and funny. She had us cracking up. Keke Palmer had me cracking up. She’s just a complete comedy act on her own. There was at least one scene in the locker room where Keke and I are going at it, even after they called cut. We just kept improving, going at each other, poking jabs at each other. It’d be cool to see if there’s a blooper reel of that somewhere.
Put it on the Blu-Ray! I want to see it. The other thing I love about your character…you know, Cardi & Lizzo get their name on the poster, but you get the better role. Tracey has dramatic scenes with her boyfriend, and you get the big dance sequences on stage too. What you were saying about how the film humanizes strippers—those scenes with her boyfriend, we feel so embarassed with her.
I understood that Cardi and Lizzo would get on the poster, and there’s only so much room for marketing. I’m still just so grateful to be part of it. To be in six scenes—that’s pretty substantial in a blockbuster movie, and to have a love interest. To have an arc and just be one of the girls at the club is huge. I hope people look at this and see trans women can play more than just trans roles. Just to see a trans actress with a love interest in a major movie…I know in my own personal life love has been so elusive because of the stigma attached to being a trans person. I think we need to release that shame, and I hope in some way this movie contributes to that.
What I love about the humanization that you mention. This film is in many ways about camaraderie and the complexity of femininity, but it’s also about male insecurity.
These women manipulate these men through their own cowardice at times, their own fragility. You know, as queer people we have interesting perspectives on gender roles. That’s particularly true of transgender people, obviously. Is that male insecurity inborn? Is it taught?
I think it’s definitely taught by society. It’s a very old cancer that we have been chipping away at through equality and feminism over the decades. There’s been a new wave of wokeness in the past three, four, five years where I think, in my lifetime, for the first time, I’m starting to believe I might see a shift that sees traditional, toxic masculinity as uncool. I think that shift is happening. I think that people are starting to understand it’s not ok. I also think that men are victims of this belief system as well.
Their worth is wrapped up in money and power and success. They completely disregard their own feelings, and they’re not operating as full human beings. They’re operating as these power-hungry, success hungry, money-hungry people. If that’s where you think all your success lays, that’s so hard. That’s got to be so hard. Then you affect other people the way you move through the world in such a selfish way.
The men in the movie I thought were so pathetic in a regard. They have money and success, and they need to pay for the illusion of affection.
That’s so strange to me.
It’s bizarre. And it’s something that’s been around for years. Maybe there will be an awakening that happens among the patrons of strip clubs as well to understand what it is, and what it’s not. It’s an unfortunate game we have to play.
So how long had it been since you actually danced when you walked on the set?
I cleaned out my locker Season 2 of Transparent, when they asked me back. I had just shot an NBC pilot that never got picked up.
So fairly recent.
Yeah, I guess it’s been about four years since I hung up my g-string.
So what did you do to get into shape?
Well I definitely worked out, and I try to eat healthy for a couple weeks prior to shooting. I didn’t have any super strenuous dance solos, so most of what I was doing was pretty leisurely. I did want to, though my own vanity, get back into shape for it. But the one thing that I loved about this film was that it shows diversity in so many different ways, one being body types. I thought that was so amazing and appropriate. We need more of it.
Definitely. You mentioned earlier that you don’t even think about if your character is trans or if she’s cis. Which is kind of awesome. Do you find it empowering to play cisgender roles?
I find it empowering to work, period.
Whether the character is specifically trans or specifically cis, I am invested in telling all stories that I’m able to tell. I think it’s really cool that they didn’t address it in Hustlers because it allows the audience to form their own opinion. Sometimes we spoon feed things to audiences. I don’t think that’s necessary. This might even be more effective in terms of opening people’s minds because it’s not too on the nose or hitting them over the head with it. They can come to their own conclusion or Google me later on, maybe fall down a rabbit hole of different articles about being trans. Something that would educate them: I hope that’s what comes of it.
Awesome. There is so much conversation in the media about representation right now. I recently talked to Rhys Ernst who worked with you on Transparent.
I love Rhys so much.
In his film Adam one of the most impressive elements is that I didn’t know what actors were trans and which were cis. I kind of like that.
I kind of like that too.
It’s like, do we need to ask people about their genitals to cast them?
Or their gender history? Right. Can we just get to know someone like we would get to know any heteronormative cis person? You just uncover layers of the character as the film or TV show goes on. It doesn’t have to be so upfront.
So when it comes to casting trans roles then, I think we’re all to the point where we’ve figured out you need to have trans people involved. If you’re going to tell any kind of story, you need the people that it is about to be involved in some capacity.
So in your mind, is it ever in good taste to cast a cisgender actor in a transgender role? I know this is something that you, as an activist, have addressed in the past as well.
I think, with that, I’ve always stuck to the point of…look, if all things were equal, than maybe this would be a non-issue. But all things are not equal. Because of that, when roles to come along that are for trans people, I think it’s really important that trans people are being strongly considered. I don’t like saying that cis actors could never play a trans person, but at the same time, I feel like we should be getting in the room for more mainstream—cisgender or non-specific—parts, for roles not specifically trans. You know, your average leading lady in a rom-com. Why can’t transwomen of all colors get in the room for that?
Bond girls, superheroes…
Exactly. So I think it’s more about being open with casting, having open castings. Obviously, sometimes you do need to be more intentional and specific, but it’s coming to a point where marginalized folks are getting the same opportunities. That’s what it’s all about.
The other thing I talked about with Rhys is the way the community looks at Transparent. How will we look at it in the future? Obviously, some of the casting choices are controversial. His thought was that it will be viewed as an object of its time. What’s your feeling, having appeared on the show? So much has changed in just a few years.
I think it was a stepping stone on the timeline of trans liberation in TV. I think that at that point in time, we’d never seen a trans lead on a major TV show. We had Laverne [Cox] on Orange is the New Black as a guest star, and we had Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money. They were both recurring guest stars. We’d never seen a lead trans character played by a trans actor. Apparently the industry wasn’t quite ready. We did get more recurring guest stars: Hari Nef, Alexandra Gray…multiple trans actors on the show. And also trans writers—Our Lady J—and cast and crew that was active in hiring trans people. So I definitely think it did its part.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s been eclipsed by Pose and other projects. But that’s supposed to happen. It opened up the door for more progressive and accurate storytelling. I wouldn’t have the career I have without Transparent. Alexandra Billings has done Broadway since, and is still working on other shows. So I think it did its part. When I think of Transparent’s legacy that’s what I’ll remember.
The idea that a show like Pose even exists still blows my mind.
It sets the bar very high. I think we’re all just really excited to see what comes next. I think Hustlers is a continuation of that. It’s like ok, now we’re being non-specific. It’s going to take a lot of stories, some that are specific to the trans experience, and others that just employ us to play roles that are cis or not specifically trans to get this next chapter rolling. I think we’re thankful for the rainbow of stories being told under the trans umbrella right now. I’m celebrating all my sisters and brothers and non-binary siblings. It’s something I didn’t know if I’d see in my lifetime.
I share that feeling. You also have amazing directors like Silas Howard…
I love Silas so much.
Or Jen Richards, who’s also a terrific actress.
I love Jen too. She’s so brilliant.
Actors like you and MJ Rodriguez. You’re getting parts. You know she’s about to open…
In Little Shop of Horrors! I know. We had a girls movie night. She’s [in LA] for rehearsals. She’s just like my little sister. It’s been really awesome to see the numbers of transwomen who are working in Hollywood right now.
So in researching this interview, I read several other articles where you discussed that you were told not to have bottom surgery. Which is mind-boggling for me to read. I’ve heard this from other trans women. Dominique Jackson, when I interviewed her, talked about how for a long time, if you were a trans woman, sex work was what you had. That was it.
Because this is something that isn’t widely discussed, first of all, what is that about? And second, how do we get past the stigma of that?
It comes from a lack of opportunity and being pushed to this dark corner of society for so many years. That is what my trans elders told me. When I lost my job transitioning at a department store in New York, and I wasn’t passable yet, I couldn’t get another job. I turned to my one resource. My peers showed me the ropes of survival sex work. I think that’s been the reality, the norm, for a lot of urban trans women, and probably trans women in general. That’s where we were told we had value. So when the rent is due, you need to put food on the table, you have surgeries and hormones to pay for…you do what you have to.
I understand the stigma around it because I lived it. I got to a point where I didn’t want it to affect me anymore. I chose to honor my journey rather than let people look down on me for it. I know that it was circumstantial and I did the best I could. It was a different time. Obviously, Dominique can attest to that. I think we’re of a similar era of New York—the 90s/2000s. So there was advice from my trans elders to not have bottom surgery because there was a well-known fetish for girls who were beautiful but pre-op. That fetish still exists today, and there’s a demand there where you can charge a high dollar amount to be someone’s fetish or oddity. It’s unfortunate that it feels like an only option for so many of our girls, but that is reality for many of us. My life is not typical. A lot of us don’t get out of that life.
Along with that…this last one is tricky. You’ve been through a lot.
Coming out, not just for trans rights, but against sexual harassment [Lysette was one of several women to go public about sexual harassment by Transparent star Jeffery Tambor]. Many of us in the queer community have been sexually harassed. I bring it up because I want to know how to move on from that, particularly when you don’t get the apology.
For me, I’ve had to get to a place where I didn’t need the apology. Going public was kind of fighting back and speaking my truth. It was me standing up to the wrong that was done to my body, my person. It’s hard. If you’ve never talked about it, maybe you’ve never had that release. Even if it’s not a public declaration, maybe it’s just talking about it in your personal life when it feels right to you and how that made you feel. I feel like it’s important to release that pent-up energy to the universe so you don’t carry it.
Right. I, and so many others, appreciate that you’ve spoken about this.
Thank you. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and that I’ve ever had happen to me. I think that I was just so used to being sexualized and brushing that stuff off that I developed a callous to it. Thankfully, we’re living in a day and age where we don’t have to take that sh*t anymore.
Yeah. Thank you. So last question: when you think about everything you’ve been through, and you’ve had a life.
And you’re not even old.
I won’t say my age. I tend to play younger. My agent would kill me.
When you think about how far you’ve come, everything you’ve lived through, everything in the past few years, when do you feel the most gracious? The most humbled? And how do you put that gratitude out into the universe?
That’s a daily practice. Sometimes I have to scale it down and be grateful of the blue sky or the flowers I pass on the street because I still get bogged down by life. I still deal with depression. I’ve dealt with it my whole life. I attempted to take my own life about a decade ago. I still battle with finding happiness and practicing gratitude daily when the world is still such a hard place to exist for a lot of marginalized people, especially trans folk.
I think I also really get a taste of it when people come up to me on the street with tears in their eyes and tell me how much my work has meant to them. Sometimes even that is triggering though, because I look at my bank account and I’m like when does the money come? I start to think about how can I take care of my mom? When can I be financially secure? I’ve never felt that. So I have to knock myself back out of that. It’s a conscious decision. It’s an intentional one. But sometimes I find it in the small things.
Hustlers hits cinemas September 13.