• slideshow image

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Monica.

Andrea, this is your third feature and a lot of your films have been led by women. I’d love to hear how you developed the script.
Andrea Pallaoro: Well, it’s a film that I had envisioned as part of a much larger exploration on the traumas and the dynamics of what it means to feel abandoned and the consequences of that. I really believe that the experience of abandonment, of not being seen, of not being recognized for who you are, is something that shapes so much of our relationship with the world around us, but also with our own sense of identity. And I think it’s something that we can all relate to in one way or another. Through the story of Monica, I think we can recognize ourselves through a much more extreme paradigm. But we can see so much of who we are and what we have experienced as well. That was really the main impulse for that in this story, and it’s really inspired by the story of a very dear friend of mine. It’s not her story, but it draws a lot of parallels with it.

Finding the truth is what we always want to do.

The role of Monica is a massive undertaking as she’s in almost every scene in the film, and she’s the conduit for the audience. What was the casting process like?
AP: It was clear that the most significant choice I could make was in finding the person that could bring this character to life. You know, the person I could actually embark on this journey with. And it was a very, very long process. I saw so many candidates for the role. And it was a search that wasn’t limited to the U.S., but expanded all over the world. When I met Trace, I immediately knew I had found who I was looking for. I found the person that had the all the characteristics to bring this person to life on the screen. That was the first time I felt like, oh, my God, yes. Now we’re talking.

And Patricia was always in the back of my mind because we had met a few years prior at a film festival in Marrakesh., I was such a big fan of her work. And her career and the characters that she brought to the big screen. It’s always been a dream of mine to work with her. But it’s one of those things that, you know, you think they’re just dreams. You don’t expect them to actually become reality. Even though when we were in Marrakesh, we did talk about how wonderful it would be to work together one day. Once we cast Trace, I sent the script to Patty and offered her the role, and the rest is history.

What was it that convinced you so quickly to accept the role of Eugenia?
Patricia Clarkson: So many different things. The lack of dialogue, the challenge of conveying a dying character with very little words. And also, it was not lost on me that it would give an extraordinary transgender actress an extraordinary opportunity. And that meant something to me.

Trace, what were your first impressions of the script and the character of Monica?
Trace Lysette: Well, I think the first thing was that, oh, it’s the title character and that’s rare for trans actor. And I had been working in TV for ten years, for a while. It seemed like a great opportunity. Then I read the script, and I loved it. Those things that Andrea described earlier, I felt similarly. I started auditioning and eventually they asked for some notes. I gave some notes. We had some dinners. I auditioned more. My favorite thing about Monica was her quiet strength and knowing that this was a well-lived trans character—not a transition story. It was not a story about youth, no shade! This is a woman who has lived on her own for a long time without the love from her biological family. And that’s a theme that is unfortunately common in the trans community. I think we all experience it to varying degrees. If you don’t, you’re lucky. And that was what struck me the most about her.

I imagine as an actor it’s a privilege if the director actually wants notes and wants your input. But also as a director, if you have somebody who’s lived a character that you haven’t lived, it’s probably also a privilege to have that input.
AP: Absolutely. It’s the most extraordinary opportunity for the creative process, to be informed by the real life. I always want my collaborators to bring that to the work.

TC: I think the collaboration was wonderful. I mean, I felt safe with Andrea, and he’s a very gentle artist, a gentle person. That made me feel safer to explore and to act and to bring the truth. Finding the truth is what we always want to do.

PC: I didn’t have any notes. I just said, oh God, I’m dying. And I’m going to have no makeup on and have no words. I can’t wait! No, it was one of the most glorious, most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my career. And it’s so near and dear to my heart, this film. I was lucky.

Was there anything that changed in the script after you two met?
AP: Well, yes, absolutely. Even in the production process there were a lot of moments where it was immediately clear to me that Trace’s own experiences and how she saw the character were going to provide even more depth to the character that I had envisioned. And there are a number of moments in the film where her improvisation really surprised me and elevated the material so much. I am thinking especially about the conversations on the phone with Jimmy. With most of them, there was of course very specific information to convey. But most of those conversations actually were improvised.

TL: It’s like a hybrid. Yes.

Patricia, your character doesn’t have a lot of dialogue or a lot of movement in the film.  But you do an amazing job of conveying and communicating while lying in that bed, with your facial expressions. How challenging is that?
PC: I think it’s an organic process in that there wasn’t a lot of okay, you’re going to have this and that and you’re going to be this way. You’re it. It started to oddly come to me. I knew that brain cancer may take you in many ways, but what was most important was the emotional life of this woman. That was first and foremost. Yes, she’s debilitated. Yes, she’s immobile. All of those things are very important. She’s dying. She’s in the last months of her life. But what was most important was her emotional life. And it is the most important part of an actor’s journey with any character you play. Finding that with Trace, which came very easily, was a win-win. I didn’t have to reach. I loved that this character in the last months of her life had this profound experience of finding unconditional love for her child. She dies with that in her heart and her child lives the rest of her life with her mother’s love. We can all relate to that in some way.

AP: I have to add to that because to me, the best moments of cinema are where you can understand a character just by observing them. And without the aid of dialogue, those moments have so much power and let you understand things not so much intellectually, but emotionally. When you work with extraordinary artists like Trace and Patricia, the opportunities to do that and to find those moments happen daily.

Can you talk about choosing the aspect ratio?
AP: We wanted to find a cinematic language that could articulate the sense of claustrophobia and codependence that I wanted to explore through the character of Monica. We explored the various aspect ratios and compositions, and we realized that the one that would convey these emotions and that would enhance this exploration was a very square like aspect ratio. More like portrait photography and one that prioritizes the body and the face over the landscape.

How did you work with your DP, and for the actors, what was it like to be shot so intimately?
AP: Kate [Arizmendi] is an artist with a capital A. It was very exciting to dissect images during the two months of pre-production when we might spend like eight or nine hours a day on location exploring the space, thinking about what each scene and each shot needed to needed to convey. It was really a process of shooting the film in our minds and preparing ourselves for that cinematic language so that when we got to set we felt really sure of that exploration and we were open to new possibilities. But in order to feel that that openness, you need to do the homework and be ready for it.

TL: It was challenging at times. I love Kate. She’s probably the most vocal DP I’ve ever worked with in my career. We found our groove and I appreciated her artistry. We didn’t shoot in sequence and watching it back the first cut, I thought, oh, if I’d known they were going to be on the corner of my lip in this shot, I would have done this instead because I’m trying to layer the character and showcase different parts of her over the course of the film. And what I realized is I didn’t have control over that at all! And so that was something I had to experience and learn while doing this. My road map for the character was different from Kate’s, different from Andrea’s, but it’s incredible how it all comes together at the end, like a true collaboration.

PC: I didn’t know when I was on camera or not and I didn’t care. I mean, I did but I didn’t. I would go into that weird place when I get on the set, where I didn’t know where the camera was and it was maybe for the best. As long as my dog was in frame, that’s all I needed to know!  It was very freeing for me as an actor.