By Connor Dalton
25th February 2024

Patricia Clarkson has long endeared herself to moviegoers through her work in films like 'The Station Agent', 'Easy A' and 'Pieces of April'. The Academy Award nominee is one of those rare performers where any role is a strong fit for them. She can find the wit and or elegance to any character, and in a career of predominantly supporting roles, has never been unable to stand out. This statement applies mightily to her latest film, 'Monica'. In the film, Clarkson plays the titular character's mother, Eugenia. With her health deteriorating rapidly, Monica (Trace Lysette) reunites with her after years of estrangement. However, due to her condition, Eugenia no longer recognises her daughter. But despite this barrier, unspoken amends begin to spring.

The role is another excellent showcase for Clarkson. Due to Eugenia's plight, she is very restricted in movement and speech. But she is able to amass wonders in her finite dialogue and some almighty glances. While overall, the film is a dextrously authentic portrait of trans existence led by a towering performance from Trace Lysette. For all those reasons, Clarkson wanted to be involved. She loved the challenge of the part and the chance to champion a trans story and performer. She and Lysette have an incredible synergy, which director Andrea Pallaoro utilises to craft a staggeringly important film. And when speaking to her about it, her pride is palpable.

Before its Australian premiere at this year's Mardi Gras Film Festival, Clarkson and I discussed her bond with Lysette, awards campaigning, and the film staying with her long after shooting wrapped. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This story contains spoilers for the film.

CONNOR DALTON: Where did your journey with 'Monica' begin?

PATRICIA CLARKSON: I met Andrea at a festival, and we talked about working together. Then, several years later, I got a call from my agent, and he said, "Andrea Pallaoro has a movie for you! He's just cast Trace Lysette from 'Transparent'. He finally got his lead and wants you to play her mother." He then said, "I'm not going to tell you more; I just want you to read it," and Trace is beautiful, so I'm envisioning myself as the hot mum (laughs). I read it, and thankfully, it was so much more. There was gravitas and a really brutal journey I had to take in this film.

We were attached probably two years before we got it made. It was not easy getting this film made, and it's sad that this beautiful, one-of-a-kind film, shot on film in portrait style, had to kind of rake through the muck. It was brutal to raise the money for this. Then, finally, we did with a lot of Italian money - god bless the Italians - and we all gathered in Cincinnati to shoot. I had spent a lot of time with Trace and Andrea by then, so we were thankful and ready to go. I knew how important this film was. I knew there was no money, but to give a great transgender actress a chance to lead a film was deeply important to me. Everyone who signed up for the film knew what this was.

DALTON: Your character, Eugenia, has very limited mental and physical capabilities due to her illness. As a performer, that must have posed a unique challenge for you. How was the process of portraying someone so restricted in ability?

CLARKSON: It was brutal. If you look back, I'm a very physical and verbal actress. Eugenia robbed me of all my assets, but it was also great to take on a woman in the ninth hour of her life, has very limited time left to live, and has decided not to go through other rounds of treatment. Brain cancer is brutal, and it can affect you differently every day when you wake up. I realised I had to rethink how I lived on the set. When I got to the set, I stayed very quiet and limited. I just stayed in the bed or the bedroom. Most days when I was shooting, I didn't leave, really. And Eugenia's dog is my dog, Isadora Clarkson, so we'd just stay in the room. She wasn't a show dog, but Andrea fell madly in love with her as he got to know me. He would say, "Patti, I think your dog should be in the movie!" And I was like, "Andrea, she's not a show dog." He would reply, "But I love Izzy! I love her," and I would say, "Well, I love her, too, but I don't know if she's going to be able to do take after take," but she did. She was such a sweetheart, and she helped me in ways. Sadly, she's passed, but she lives on in this beautiful film.

It was a tough journey for me, but I'm always up for the challenge. I've done a lot of work and was thankful to be challenged. One of my dearest friends saw the film, and he went, "Patti, there were times when you and Trace were like silent screen stars. All you had was your face." I said, "I know! Damnit" (laughs).

DALTON: Thank you for sharing that. There are many moments in the film that require you to be quite vulnerable, especially the scenes of you being assisted in the bathtub. What were they like to shoot?


CLARKSON: It's tough. I joked with Andrea that I was naked, crying, and dying. But this is the reason I took the part. I knew the vulnerability, and that's what I loved about Eugenia. I love that this woman who was raised a certain way, lived in a certain house, and had certain judgements, at the very end of her life, comes to the most important realisation - she will die knowing her child knows she loves her and your child is your child is your child. I wanted to do the part because of this reckoning and forgiveness and rapprochement. It's not about validation; it's about recovery and making someone's life better as they move through it. I think she knew the acceptance and love she had for her daughter would change her daughter's life going forward.

I think it made her death easier, I do. It's very emotional, and I had a very deep emotional connection. Sometimes, as actors, we can only create so much. Sometimes we have to really have it. It's still hard for me to talk about it. I still get a little choked up because I have such a profound connection to Trace. From the moment I met her, I felt very maternal, and I got to know her well. She's a lifelong friend; I just texted her yesterday. I'm a lucky gal.

DALTON: A sequence that stood out to me was when Eugenia screamed out to her mother. It's such a drastic shift in energy from her. And with the house so dark, it looks like she's trapped in a void.

CLARKSON: She knows she's dying. She knows she has charted this path for herself and is feeling, I think, incredibly lonely. I think the first person we want is our mother when feeling frightened and lonely. Death is upon her, and the person she wants most is her mother. My mother couldn't watch. She loved the movie but struggled with that scene. But the beauty of it is Andrea and all his brilliance, energy, and emotional fluidity. He has a true connection to what really happens without sentiment. There is drama, of course, but it's done in a way that only Andrea can do it.

DALTON: There is so much unspoken history between Eugenia and Monica. Did you ever discuss with Trace what you both think happened aside from what is briefly mentioned?

CLARKSON: There was more stuff in the script; it involved the hostility and rage from the father. We knew I was a very good mother and I loved my children, but it became complicated as Monica grew and became a woman. We didn't discuss it in deep detail and, of course, never said the dead name. [Eugenia] had to really understand that Monica was always Monica. That's something a more sophisticated person, like myself or you, knows, but this woman didn't understand. But in the end, she is what is most important, which is love. It's corny, but it's not (laughs). It's what we all truly need at the end of the day.

Trace and I shared a lot of personal stories and moments, and we also work in very similar ways. We're not people who care about what they had for breakfast. We don't need trauma to act. We were just right there, ready to go. I really loved that we didn't need to discuss a whole lot, and Andrea didn't rehearse, which I love, love, love. We got the blocking down, but we didn't rehearse the scene and overthink. It was very honest, fresh, and immediate.

DALTON: In my research for our conversation, I've read and watched a lot of interviews you have conducted for this film. I have to say, I don't think I've ever seen you so proud of a project. Is that a fair assessment to make?

CLARKSON: I've loved a lot of movies I've done, but I'm a deeply political person. I'm proud of this film for many reasons, but mainly because of its subject matter and that I could be a part of it. Do I wish we were going to the Golden Globes or the Oscars? Yeah! But I cannot tell you how greatly my texts and emails are flooded with the most beautiful messages I've received. People love me in 'Sharp Objects' or whatever, but there's something special about this film, and putting Trace on this national level was just glorious to be a part of.

DALTON: I've seen you and Trace on the campaign trail to hopefully get the film into the awards race, albeit not through studio assistance. I've read some events have been out of your own pockets.

CLARKSON: We had a small distributor, so there wasn't any money or outreach. We had to do it pretty much our own way. We did a fundraiser and raised some money. Thankfully, there were great people there who showed up and bought a lot of dinners and things with us. But it makes me sad on one level that we didn't have a big company behind us. We didn't have a big distributor, and that's just what happened. IFC did the best they could, it's just not that kind of company. So I think we were ready to tap dance at any moment (laughs).

DALTON: How do you feel about awards campaigning in general?

CLARKSON: How do I feel? How do I genuinely feel? Well, there's the movie you make and the movie you open, and hopefully, that's all glorious. Then there's the movie you have to campaign for, and it becomes a whole different beast. It becomes a massive project in itself, and it's brutal. But you do it for something you love, and you hope maybe you have a shot. Sometimes, these very independent films can rise, and sometimes, they can't because there are just big, exceptional films in Oscar contention. And even a small movie [for the Oscars] such as 'The Holdovers' or 'May December' is still like $40 million. You know what I mean? They are still big films with big distributors, and then there's us. Sometimes, small movies can rise, and that's what we were hoping, but it still did rise. A lot of people saw this film that I don't think would have seen this film ever.

DALTON: Nonetheless, I think what you've all accomplished is very important. A film like this can form a shift in trans representation in Hollywood, and speaking more broadly, we are living in a time where it feels like hostility directed at the trans community has never been higher.

CLARKSON: Well, that's why it's shocking to me. Even my mother was like, "Patti, this is one of the most important subject matters in the world today. This is crazy. This film is so important. It should be everywhere." And she's right. I think so many people in our liberal Hollywood society don't realise just how big it was to have a beautiful, real film led by a transgender actress. I think it escaped some people's zeitgeist. But it meant so much to so many people, and that I know. A lot of people were deeply affected. I'm always thankful, but I'll be thankful forever and ever for that.

DALTON: Awards are wonderful, but film is eternal.

CLARKSON: No one will ever be able to take this film away from me. Nothing can ever mar it or tar it. It is what it is. It exists, and it's a beautiful film. It's for all to see and will live on long past award season.

DALTON: That feels like a perfect note to wrap up on. Ms. Clarkson, I'm so appreciative you have taken the time to speak with me today. I loved the film and am a big fan of yours, so this has been an absolute delight.

CLARKSON: You were the best part of my Friday. Be well, and thank you so much. You gave a beautiful interview.

'Monica' will have its Australian premiere at the Queer Screen's 31st Mardi Gras Film Festival on the 27th of February.

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