Trace Lysette has come a long way from Scores, the notorious Manhattan strip club where she used to perform before breaking into acting with roles on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Transparent. Now she’s returning to the world of lap dances and champagne rooms in Hustlers, director Lorene Scafaria’s film based on the true story of a group of dancers who fleeced their wealthy clientele in the wake of the 2008 recession.
As stripper Tracey, she shares the screen not just with stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, but Cardi B, Lizzo, and the legendary Mercedes Ruehl. The early scenes in the club’s dressing room are a riot of glitter, makeup, hairspray, and sass that, according to Lysette, were as much fun to film as they are to watch. “Those scenes were what we call a kiki!” she says. “When you have all those amazing women in one room, magic is bound to happen.”
How much of that dressing-room scene was improv?
After we cut there was some improv that went on. I don’t know if any of it made it into the movie. I think everything in those scenes was scripted, but I remember Keke [Palmer] and I riffing, continuing the scene even after they yelled cut. That’s how much fun we were having. I love to play like that with other actors.
You’ve talked about working as a showgirl before you started getting film and TV roles. Did you have any reservations about returning to that world?
You know, I didn’t until I showed up to shoot a scene—I think it’s when Constance is looking around the club at all the girls working in pairs. Myself and [actress] Mette Towley, we’re giving a lap dance to a customer, and it’s this club full of men in suits. I had on a rhinestone dress and I was topless underneath. I had a robe on, and when it was time to do the scene, I was like, Oof! This definitely feels real!
I hadn’t been back to a strip club in almost four years, so I did have a moment of reservation. But I had to push through it and say, You’re an actress now. If you were ever gonna come back to this lifestyle it would be for a role like this. Just do your job, bitch. That’s literally what I told myself.
How does the depiction of the strip club in the film compare to your real-life experience working in a club?
The decor was eerily similar! I walked in and I felt like, Whoa! This feels exactly like Scores! It looked exactly like it looked back in the day. That part of it was dead-on. In my eight or more years of dancing, I danced at various types of clubs, from the hood to a place for Wall Street guys to smaller mom-and-pop kinda deals.Every club definitely varies a bit in terms of clientele and aesthetic, but for the most part, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal.
What kind of measures were taken on set to make sure everyone was comfortable? Do you think it made a difference that the film was directed by a woman?
Well, that’s the thing: It was such a loving, warm, female-driven set. I never once felt like I was doing anything I wasn’t comfortable with. Even down to the wardrobe. They gave me tons of options, and it was up to me how much I wanted to push the envelope, and I really appreciated that. I think that speaks to Lorene Scafaria and how she runs her ship.
Your character’s gender identity never comes up. Was that an intentional choice?
It honestly never came up, probably because when Lorene and I had lunch to talk about the film, I expressed to her that I had danced at the actual Scores for eight years, and while I was dancing there I kept my gender history to myself as a safety precaution. So, we left it up to the audience to interpret whether my character is trans or not. And if she is trans, maybe she just doesn’t talk about her business at work, like I didn’t. It’s definitely pushing the envelope. Even though we know how important it is to tell trans stories, I think it’s also kind of revolutionary that we didn’t address it.
Is it important to you to play cis characters?
It is important for me not to be limited. So I guess in a roundabout way, yes, because the majority of the roles that are out there are for cis women. It is important that [trans actors] get to play the teacher or the mother or the sister or the leading lady, and it’s not about that character being trans. We’re good actors and we’re capable.
I’m definitely aware that cisgender actors don’t get asked those kind of questions. Is it tiresome for you to have to answer them?
In a way, it can be. But I also understand the importance of it. So I think that kind of outweighs any part of me that is tired of having that conversation. I understand that we’re just not quite where we need to be yet in terms of equality. As one of the few trans actors working in Hollywood, I know that those kinds of questions are going to continue to come my way until they don’t have to anymore.
You’re in the Transparent musical finale. Does your character Shea have any big numbers?
I do sing in an ensemble piece at the end, but I don’t have any solos unfortunately. I would have loved to have challenged myself in that way. But you do get to see Shea confront Josh and their road trip that went awry in Season 3.
What was it like returning to the show after everything that happened with Jeffrey Tambor?
I was very cautious at first. But it turned out to be healing. Alexandra Billings specifically made me feel very welcome.
How do you think Transparent will be remembered? It was groundbreaking, but some would say it already feels a little dated compared to Pose.
I think it will be a notch on the time line of trans liberation, just like Orange Is the New Black and Dirty Sexy Money, which came before it. I don’t think there would be a Pose if there hadn’t been a Transparent. Hopefully that’s the legacy it will be remembered for.
Hustlers hits theaters September 13.