It’s a secret to absolutely no one that Transparent centers around Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman—that his character, formerly Mort, will transition to female. As viewers, we join Maura for the journey of her new phase in life, which of course comes along with meeting new friends. One of those friends, from the beginning, has been Trace Lysette’s Shea, a yoga instructor with whom Maura hits it off, and the two eventually become roommates.
Shea brings an understated and low-key bit of laid-back humanity to the show, which so often focuses on the ever-neurotic nature of the entire Pfefferman family. And so Lysette’s role, justly, has expanded with each passing season. With her connection to Maura firmly established, the third season of Transparent seizes the opportunity to place Shea in different waters, resulting in a pairing with Maura’s son, Josh, played with precisely the right amount of both aloofness and alertness by Jay Duplass.
As a trans actress and advocate herself, Lysette feels a very personal connection with Transparent. Season Three, which debuted on Amazon last Friday, finds Shea with her largest moment yet, one that made Lysette channel a combination of personal and shared experiences, telling a story that, as the actress said, “needs to be told.”
We chatted with Lysette over the phone about Transparent’s spotlight at the Emmys, what went into Shea’s big episode, working with Jay Duplass, and what needs to happen to continue to further the blueprint for trans awareness and inclusion.
Brooklyn Magazine: I saw the Emmys last week and obviously Transparent did well. Jill Soloway’s speech was certainly touching and for some, I’m sure, eye-opening. What did you take away from seeing that moment on a national stage? Trace Lysette: Well, it was beautiful to see her recognized. I think that Jill is very conscious of giving marginalized people opportunities, and her art for her is extremely personal and political, and I think that if more people in Hollywood subscribed to that kind of filmmaking, we would be changing the world at a more rapid pace. I was ecstatic for her and the show.
I think that’s something that’s so great about Transparent; obviously, there’s LGBT representation across the board, along with diversity, at a time when TV doesn’t necessarily always have that. For this show to have so much success, what does it mean to you to be a big part of such an important series? It’s everything. I feel like I was so lucky to land a role on a show that changes the way people think, specifically to a community that I am part of. I mean, it’s one thing to be a working actor, but to be working on a project that affects change is the greatest gift. Prior to Transparent, I wasn’t going out for Trans roles. So, this was a break for freedom for me as well, because it was a chance for me to stop compartmentalizing my life and be visible for my trans sisters who are just fighting to be seen.
As the show’s gone on, your role has grown. It gives your character some room to breathe, rather than having to explain who this is, how you know everyone, and so on. How do you view this kind of expansion? I think the expansion of Shea is super relevant right now, because it showcases the transition of a different generation of trans woman, and what that is like when you don’t come from the financial privilege that Maura has, and what some of us have had to do to survive in the midst of being othered by society and by our blood family, and how strong the concept of chosen family is. One thing I’m really proud of with Season Three is that even if only for a moment, there is this playful, childlike interaction between Shea and Josh that has this air of romance to it, and he is openly engaged with her amongst his family members, which, to me, reads as there not being shame there, or cowering from that stigma that a lot of hetero men have when they’re attracted to a trans woman. Until, of course, his moment of ignorance later on. But I’m really proud of the fact that we could at least show that little bit of magic between the two of them.
Totally. And something that any show benefits from as it goes on longer and longer is the opportunity to pair together characters that haven’t been put together before, and test out new chemistries. This year, as you alluded, you got to work a lot with Jay Duplass. What was it like acting with him? He was so kind, and so sweet. I think sometimes when I think about doing scenes with a hetero, cis, male actor, for a moment, I go into this mode, like, Are they OK? Are they cool with this? How are they feeling? That shouldn’t be my first concern, because we’re all here, and professional, and they know what the deal is. So I have to free myself from that, and Jay made it very easy for me to feel comfortable and safe and wanted in those scenes, and it was really beautiful. I had the same experience with Patrick Stewart on Blunt Talk; those are the kinds of evolved men that I think can be examples to the men who are involved with us in real life, off screen.
One of our writers, Our Lady J, and I have this conversation all the time about what it would take to have cis, hetero men overcome that stigma of desiring, or admiring, or publicly claiming their attraction for trans women, and not be worried at the judgment that comes with that. It’s something that we need to tackle, and we jokingly talk about what it would take, and we always say it would take an athlete, an actor, and a politician to come out unabashedly love a trans woman publicly, and perhaps the rest of the men would follow suit. But I think it’s something that TV needs to explore first, because they don’t even really have the blueprint for what that looks like.
The sixth episode of the new season is a huge one for Shea; probably your biggest showcase yet. Can you tell me a little bit about how you approached that episode in particular? Yeah. We shot that out in Palmdale, which was like the most barren place, and so it was definitely challenging with all of the elements. It was windy, and we were sunburned, and I was freezing, and that climactic scene in the waterpark was me also battling the elements, but I think that my lived experiences stuck to me for that, so I really didn’t feel nervous. I just felt like, “OK. This is the story that needs to be told, and I’m the vessel, and it has to be delivered.” So I was thinking of all kinds of things during those moments, and pulled a lot from my trans sisters and collective experiences, personal experiences, to get those lines up and through with the right feeling.
We started with the Emmys, and I’d like to end with another question from the Emmys. In Jeffrey Tambor’s speech for winning Best Lead Actor In A Comedy, he said that he “would not be unhappy if [he] were the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.” What was your takeaway from that moment? I think it was an awakening for a lot of people. I heard lots of chatter after he said that, in the audience. I think they were wondering what the word ‘cisgender’ meant. I applaud him for taking that leap, and speaking out for what’s right; and that’s not to say that I would say that a cis person couldn’t ever play trans. I just think that when it comes to telling our stories, we need to be in the audition room, and we need to have a crack at telling our own stories, because we can tell them more authentically than anyone else. And that I will stand by.