Trace Lysette talks about her big breakout in the third season of Transparent and the responsibility to her trans sisters.
Amazon’s Transparent has always been lauded for its lived-in, natural performances, but this season featured a star turn that should not go unnoticed. Trace Lysette’s Shea appeared in smaller, amusing scenes, but she wasn’t given a juicy dramatic moment until this third season. Early on, we see Shea flirt with Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass), but the blossoming romance comes to a crashing halt when Josh says some truly hurtful things to Shea.
In “The Open Road,” a scene in an empty water park escalates quickly. It’s a beautiful sunny day–one that would normally be the atmosphere for a romantic comedy of sorts. One moment Shea and Josh are on the verge of sex, but when Shea discloses her HIV status to him, he quite literally starts backing away. For as evolved and enlightened as Josh Pfefferman can present himself to be, he turns into a little boy in that moment. His wounding words are hurled at Shea without thinking of the damage they can do. You can see Shea’s face crumble as if she’s been through all this before, and it’s one of the most powerful moments of the entire television season. Consider her for the Primetime Emmy® for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
“The Open Road” is such a fantastic episode. I think it’s one of the best of the season. Did you know they were writing this for you?
I didn’t until Jill disclosed to me, and she told me there was going to be something there for me. When I finally got the script I was blown away. I was immediately excited and felt this immense responsibility to do it justice—not just for me but for my trans sisters as well who are navigating love and trying to find respect and a place to belong. Also, fighting the stigma of being trans and that added layer of disclosing the status on top of it all while trying to be accepted and be in that boy meets girl moment. It’s so layered and so heavy. I felt an immense responsibility to do it right.
Do you think Shea was always attracted to Josh?
You see the sparks fly at the birthday party of Maura. Prior to that I hadn’t given it much thought because I don’t think they ever really interacted. That was my first introduction to it too. What I clung to was the fact that here is a man who is outwardly flirting with me or giving me vibes in front of his own family. For a trans woman, says a lot. It says that he’s unbothered, and that he’s cool with my transness.
It says, “I think you’re attractive, and we’re going to play hide and go seek and hide together and I’m going to make sure there’s extra food on your plate.” Doing it front of your family members. That’s a big deal for a trans woman to be accepted in front of people because for so long we’ve kind of lived in the shadows. We’ve been this secret. I think that’s what stuck out for me. It was sweet and very boy meets girl.
I have to say that I was rooting for this romance to happen. It was very sweet, and…pure in a way. Did you feel that chemistry with Jay as you were filming those scenes?
Oh, immediately! He’s one of the most evolved, sweetest men I’ve ever met. That made it so much easier to connect in the scenes together because he’s so sincere and loving and kind. It is real. It’s a real chemistry. That’s a great gift as an actor to have that when you get into a scene with somebody.
How did you react in that moment? You have a line where you say, “I am not your adventure!” You say it more than once. It truly feels like those emotions are come from a genuine place, or if Shea has experienced that type of rejection before.
I would assume that she definitely has. I know that I have. I’ve been single a long time and I think that’s in part of my transness. There’s a deep wound there. Most of that was scripted and some of that was a very gut reaction.
It’s also Jill’s amazing direction. It’s all swirled together to create this kind of magic that was purged that day. We shot it over two days, and it was really cold but the sun was burning down on us. We all got sunburned. It was really hard to see in that empty white pool. It was hard to see and feel.
I didn’t know how I was going to deliver this. I had to to dive down into my hurt and my pain that I felt as a trans woman trying to find love. All of the struggle and all that. I had to get that to live in the scene I knew it was going to be ugly. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there, but I knew that I had to. It wasn’t just for me. It was for all of my girls. It’s been too many years of this nonsense of us being deemed not lovable. That’s what was coming out. That guttural reaction.
The topic of family is always brought up. Does Shea want kids?
I think she does, but I don’t think she knows what that looks like for her. There’s no blueprint for that. She’s never witnessed that outside maybe Maura, but Maura and her are in completely different age brackets. Shea transition at a much younger age than Maura, so she doesn’t know if that’s even possible. It’s more of a fantasy for her. Part of that is painful to know that the idea of getting a family is far-fetched. The idea of that for a trans woman is a painful reality that she lives in. To be reduced to a toy yet again is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Is Shea going to be able to talk to Josh again?
We just wrapped Season 4 maybe a month and a half ago. I will say that they do have some unfinished business, so I can’t dive into how much that is. There will be something.
I always love hearing about how the cast of Transparent comes up with the character arcs and the storylines. It’s always so interesting to listen to. Do you like that type of preparation?
It was very abstract. I have done a lot of out of box acting workshops. This one is very in your body and very cerebral. We really just get to run around and play and bump into each other like cattle and crawl over each other. We get to explore the entire season arc for each of our characters in this marathon play day.
Jay and I really got acquainted and got to experience the subtext of our characters and the arc that were going to go through together and break the ice. That helps when you get into a scene with someone where it feels intimate. You already feel familiar in a way. I adore Joan Scheckel’s workshops. It really lets the brain wander and let’s you find little magical pockets that you can tap into when you’re on set.
That sounds like a beautiful atmosphere to be in.
Jill lets us be free. We have brilliant writers, but I don’t feel at any time that we are explicitly bound to the text. Sometimes we improv on take one! Sometimes we just throw the script out and do what feels right and I love that. We have a brilliant outline that we can dip into and follow, but if we need to take a detour, we can do that. Jill trusts us. That day when we filmed the pool scene, she was literally shouting at me from behind the camera and going with it to make it feel primal and ugly. Just really get in there and get the most gut feeling out and let it live on screen forever. I love the unconventional process that Transparent has.
We do this thing in the morning where a cast or crew member stands on a box and kind of talks about whatever. It can be personal or it can be in regards to the show or it can be political. Just to get people’s brains going in a emotional and sentimental way. Then they might tap someone to speak at the next box session. There’s this always kind of spiritual atmosphere that’s brewing. It’s not your typical, overly technical set. It’s really, really awesome.
I have to tell you a silly story before you go.
We have an editor for the site who is a cis, straight male who responded to the promo for the second season where you teach Maura how to say, “Yas, queen!” We say it to each other all the time. Do a lot of people come up to you and say that?
I love that straight, cis men can adopt out lingo, and it’s all good. To me, that’s breaking down toxic masculinity and breaking down the door for more evolved men in our world. That’s the crux of so many issues. Toxic masculinity is taught to our boys at a very young age, so I love that Transparent is having that impact along with so many other shows. We’re kind of having this conversation of what is a man, what is good masculinity, what is bias masculinity? That warms my heart.
All 3 seasons of Transparent are now streaming on Amazon.