This post discusses plot points from the third season of Transparent.
For most of Transparent, Trace Lysette’s character, Shea, has been on the sidelines. She has served as Maura Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) trans friend and educator, teaching her elder how to to say “yas queen.” But in the third season, released last week, Shea’s story deepens thanks to an ill-fated road trip with Maura’s son, Josh (Jay Duplass). In turn, Lysette gives a heartbreaking and raw performance—one of the show’s best.
Josh and Shea begin flirting early in the season at a birthday party for Maura, so it’s not completely unexpected when he seeks her out to accompany him on a long drive to Kansas, where he’ll tell his son, Colton (Alex MacNicoll), about the death of Colton’s mother, Rita (Brett Paesel). It’s clear they are into one another, but Josh’s inappropriate and offensive comments keep halting the chemistry. When Shea tells him she is HIV-positive, he bristles, and she calls him on his emotional manipulation. Lysette spoke to The A.V. Club over the phone about the wrenching exchange.
The A.V. Club: This is a breakout episode for you. What was your reaction when you got the script?
TL: I read it right away. Sometimes I don’t even print it, I just read it on my phone because I’m that eager when I get new material from Jill [Soloway] and our brilliant writing team. I was ecstatic that I finally had some material that I could sink my teeth into and flex my chops a little bit more. That’s what every actor wants, is something that can showcase them or a different side that may get people to see them in a truer light. Oftentimes, I feel like, because of my cisnormative look or my aesthetics, that sometimes my talent might get overlooked. This was really an opportunity for me to show people my craft that I’ve studied for years. [It was] a chance to also tell a very important story that a lot of my sisters have gone through and pull from my own personal experiences, even—to get real and let people feel the hardship and the struggle that trans women go through. It was such a gift.
AVC: Transparent looks at a lot through the prism of Maura and her transition. We haven’t heard from younger trans women like Shea. What was the importance of telling that story to you?
TL: I think it shows the contrast, and the fact that every trans story is personal to that trans body. Maura’s story and Maura’s journey is similar but different from Shea’s. Getting back to looks, the passability that Shea has is certainly a privilege, but she has other hardships in other areas, such as financial, and maybe a lack of blood family, which is why she sought out chosen family in Davina and Maura. She has disadvantages in other areas. Maura has more life experience, Shea has more experience living as a woman. There’s a nice give-and-take there, which is really beautiful to see. I think it is generational. It’s examining people’s various privileges. We get to explore racial privilege in episode one with Alexandra Grey’s character. Dealing with suicidal thoughts is something that Shea had also addressed in season two, episode eight, which is something that is very personal to me and a lot of my close girlfriends. It’s something that a lot of us have dealt with. I think it’s really important to understand that every trans story is not the same, and we are as varied as any other group of people.
AVC: This episode has an honest discussion about sex work. What did you think about that?
TL: I’m really proud of the fact that she wasn’t just reduced to a one-episode trope sex worker. That’s the pattern that’s happened over the years. We don’t get to see the human side because people who do sex work for a living are working. They are working to put food in their mouths and to survive. A lot of times it’s one of the only options that’s been afforded to them. I know this because of my own history and my own journey, and a lot of my good girlfriends who have chosen or not chosen to partake in that route out of survival. I think it’s a really important topic. I think it’s cutting-edge because people are scared of it, but it’s a very human experience and it needs to be addressed. When you’re not afforded certain resources and your family has turned its back on you and you don’t have money and you don’t have anywhere to go, sometimes all you have is your body. If that’s your only resource, then you’re going to use it. The part I’m really proud of is the fact that in those car scenes when Shea’s talking [about the strip club where she works] and she’s like, “Yeah it’s mostly just sad guys with cocaine problems.” That’s one of my favorite lines because you can tell it’s work for her. It’s not like she is ecstatic to go there every night and shake her ass. It’s like, “I have to get my bills paid, so this is what it is.”
AVC: The Pfefferman siblings think of themselves as these enlightened, accepting people, but you see how Josh’s internalized prejudices come out in those discussions.
TL: Yeah, he’s pretty much an asshole. I think it’s good to see Shea be affected by that, because that also makes her more human. And anything that can humanize a trans character in TV or film trickles down to the mainstream and affects the way people think about us. I was really pleased to see that she was affected by his comments. And ultimately, she read him his right for his ignorance and his privilege, and everything that every woman he’s ever dated probably wanted to say to him.
AVC: What do you think brought Shea and Josh together for this road trip?
TL: I think Josh was having a moment of weakness with having to go talk to Colton about Rita, and Shea was there and she was attractive. There was this chemistry. You see it in episode three. There were some dinner-table scenes that didn’t make final cut but flirting was going on, and then it carried over to the sardines game where they have that moment together when hiding. You can see the spark. The romance is kind of palpable, and really, really sweet—which I applaud Jill for keeping the sweetness there because I think it’s really beautiful even though it ends kind of tragically. There’s some really beautiful moments that I cherish. I cherish that part of my work. It’s like this beautiful, scary roller coaster they go on.
AVC: You obviously don’t look exactly alike, but there is a similarity between you, Kathryn Hahn, who plays Josh’s ex, Raquel, and Brett Paesel, who plays Rita. Did you think about whether Josh sees this in Shea?
TL: I’m not sure if that was intentional or not. I think that if it was, that’s just a part of Jill working her brilliance. We took a trip to D.C. last year, to the White House. And Kathryn and I were on the bus seated next to each other, and we had this kind of revelation that we looked like sisters. I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to Kathryn Hahn, but she’s so animated and so fun to be around. We just call each other sister, whether we’re emailing or saying goodbye. It’s, “Bye, sister.” There’s a playful role-playing that goes on between the two of us. There is that resemblance there, and I’m honestly flattered because I think she’s beautiful outside and in.
AVC: What was it like shooting the scene in the water park?
TL: God, that was like—I don’t know what the word is—I guess it was like acting boot camp. It was like, “Oh my God, if I can get through this, holy shit.” We shot that in Palmdale, where it is completely barren and windy and cold. We shot it over the course of two days. It was windy and freezing, and the sun was glaring. By the second day I had sunburns. We were fighting the elements and it was really a challenge to stay in the work and in the character. I knew that I could get through it because I was pulling through my lived experiences, and some of the hardships that are experienced are very personal to me and a lot of my trans girlfriends. I knew that they would carry me through, and they did. I was thankful for that. Jay and I still laugh about how wretched that environment was. It was so bright in that white pool. It was almost like you couldn’t keep your eyes open, it was so bright. I was really pleased with the way it came out, given all that we endured.
AVC: What has been the response that you’ve gotten to this storyline?
TL: It was kind of overnight. The series dropped a little early the evening of the 22nd. I started getting tweets one after the other right away. I was just like, “What in the world?” It’s been a nonstop barrage of people talking about episode six. Sia, the singer, tweeted at me the other day, saying how amazing she thought the episode is and that it made her cry and that she wants to work with me someday. I’m like, “What? Okay. That’s cool.”
AVC: Maybe one of her dance videos is in your future.
TL: Maybe so. I could get out there and vogue or give her some emotion through her music. That would be amazing. I’m still kind of processing all of it because it’s really the kind of moment that you need as an actor to let people in the industry know, “Hey, I’m here. I’m serious. Let’s get this cracking.”
AVC: At the Emmys, Jeffrey said he would be happy if he were the last cisgender actor to play a trans woman. What do you think having moments like this does for that?
TL: We did a U.S. premiere in D.C. and we followed it with a panel discussion afterwards, and Jeffrey actually said that same quote after I had a chance to purge some of my truth and how much my own journey overlaps with Shea in areas. In the past I’ve talked about my experience with survival sex work, and also with dancing in gentleman’s clubs to pay for acting classes and make all my auditions when I was pounding the pavement all those years in New York City. I feel like it may have affected him, and he actually stated it then that he would not be unhappy if he was the last cis male actor to play a trans female on TV. When he repeated it at the Emmys, I was like, “Wow, okay, he means that.” It’s really special that we have those kind of allies that get it.
AVC: What were the personal effects of the overlaps of your story and Shea’s? Did it make particular moments especially hard?
TL: I did a lot of work in acting class releasing any shame that I have from my own personal journey. I don’t have shame around where I’ve been or what I’ve done to survive to get to where I’m at in my life. When you don’t have shame around something, it can’t hurt you. Being that I’ve made peace with what I’ve been through and my struggle and the good, the bad, and the ugly, I’m okay with kind of digging it up when I need to support a scene or pull from a certain experience to give it the authenticity it needs to bring that text to life.
AVC: Shea tells Josh she’s not his “adventure.” What does that line mean to you?
TL: That line was really personal for me. I think, in a nutshell, it’s saying that trans women are deserving of love, that HIV-positive people are deserving of love. For Josh, his lines were very dismissive, and it really was a slap in the face for Shea. There’s this long history of hetero cis men admiring and being attracted to and indulging with trans women. For me, I just pulled from that, from all of my experiences with not being good enough or appropriate or worthy of being loved publicly, and I applied that to the fact that he was having this moment of ignorance around her disclosure of being HIV-positive. I feel like they can be linked in a way. That was a really personal line for me because I feel like trans women often are the adventure. Even cis women I feel like can relate to that when a man treats them—or anyone treats another person—like a toy.
AVC: He says some really fucked-up, horrible things to her throughout the course of their journey before the blow-up following the HIV disclosure. What brings her back over the course of the episode? Outside of just attraction, what do you think Shea sees in Josh?
TL: I think that trans women have endured a lot and they compromise a lot when dealing with cis hetero men. I think that’s what she was doing, staying in the hope of, “Maybe this is a good guy, and maybe he can love me. Maybe I am deserving of love, and maybe I just have to compromise a little bit more and a little bit more,” until finally she couldn’t and she broke and she exploded. I think that what kept her in that place was just hope, hope of wanting to be loved.