'Transparent' Star on Josh and Shea's Groundbreaking Romance: "It’s Just Boy Meets Girl"

"There is no blueprint for a cis hetero man who has feelings for a trans woman," Trace Lysette tells THR about her character, Shea, and Jay Duplass' Josh in season three.
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Jay Duplass (Josh) and Trace Lysette (Shea) in 'Transparent'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the third season of Transparent.]

"Dating while trans is a shit show," says Shea (Trace Lysette) in a foreboding moment to Josh Pfefferman on Transparent. "It's a no-win situation."

Not long after, the pair live out Shea's words when their budding romance comes to a screeching halt. After acting on building sexual tension, Shea, a trans woman, discloses to Josh (Jay Duplass), a cisgender man, that she's HIV-positive. His reaction brings about one of the most emotional and, for many, eye-opening scenes of the entire third season of the Jill Soloway-created Amazon series.

"I know they had been toying with the idea of Shea and Josh hooking up since season one," Lysette tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But it just never happened until season three. Jill wrote for me, and that was really awesome. She wanted to explore something."

Initially, Lysette auditioned for the role of Maura's trans mentor Davina, which went to her friend Alexandra Billings. Soloway then created the role of a trans yoga instructor/stripper named Shea. A two-episode arc turned into a larger presence for season two as she helped Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) navigate her new identity as a 70-something trans woman. (Shea memorably coached her on how to say "yas queen.") But it's season three when Shea, like the rest of the Pfeffermans, truly comes out of her shell.

What Soloway explores with Shea and Josh is a cis hetero man falling for a trans woman. The romance, as Lysette says, is "palpable," but most of all it's a real "boy meets girl" love story while it lasts — something rarely shown on TV. Here, Lysette, who came out as trans shortly before landing her role on Transparent, talks to THR about the trailblazing storyline, the stigma attached to dating trans women and all the gender misconceptions she hopes Transparent continues to scorch in its path.

When you first found out about Shea and Josh's season-three romance, were you thrilled?

Yes. I felt immense responsibility to tell it truthfully for all of my trans sisters who are struggling in love and dealing with being HIV-positive and just struggling to get by — by whatever means — and create space for themselves in this world that kind of doesn’t create space for us. It was important to show all of the struggle and pain and how Shea copes with it. I felt an immense responsibility to play it authentically and get it right.

How does it feel to be a part of a groundbreaking TV moment for a trans character? 

It’s unchartered territory for a cisgender man to really admire and showcase his attraction for a trans woman onscreen. In the road trip scene with Josh, you can feel the romance. It’s palpable and so important because there is no blueprint for a cis hetero man who has feelings for a trans woman. There’s this huge stigma that they have to take on and overcome if they’re going to have any kind of relations publicly. It’s something that has been going on for a very long time and it was nice to see, if even for a moment, when Josh is at Maura’s birthday party and he’s engaged with Shea and it’s out in the open. He’s asking Ali about her and flirting with her at the dinner table and hiding together when they play Sardines. That sweetness and romance is really, really important because he’s among his family members and not keeping her a dirty little secret. It’s just boy meets girl. And then in the road trip scene you can feel it as well, until he has his moment of ignorance when she discloses her status.

What was it like to work with Jay in that scene, and can you speak to your chemistry?

Jay was amazing. He was so supportive and kind and caring. I could tell I was dealing with an evolved man, and I think that’s something we need to have more of, so I felt completely comfortable with him. We definitely had some chemistry and that made it easier to film the real moments that people have been responding to. It’s been really rewarding.

In what ways do you relate to Shea as a character, and can you relate to Shea and Josh’s relationship?

Absolutely. When Shea says, “Dating while trans is a real shit show,” that’s absolutely true. I’ve been single for eight years. One of our writers, Our Lady J, and I have this ongoing conversation about: What will it take for cis hetero men to claim their attraction to trans women? Trans women are women, we’re just a different type of women. There’s this misconception that it makes you gay somehow and, in turn, their masculinity feels attacked and often times they act that out onto us. A lot of the violence with trans women happens with people who have been involved with us romantically. It also affects our self-esteem and the rates of suicide, it effects our overall quality of life. In my own personal life, it’s been pretty hard navigating love, and so I’ve found this kind of contentment in loving myself and waiting for the world to catch up. I'm not going to compromise and settle for what I feel is less than I deserve or less than anyone deserves. So I definitely pulled from a personal place when dealing with those scenes. It was extremely personal and important for me to let people feel what we feel.

Josh voices some stereotypes that you might expect a guy like Josh to have — making the comments about how great it is that Shea can’t get pregnant and asking if you can get HIV by kissing. Was it important to show the ignorance to get through to those who are uneducated?

Yes, it’s so important. Showing his ignorance speaks to an audience. There are ignorant people out there who probably do talk that way behind closed doors, and I think it was important to showcase that as a teachable moment. I feel like Shea was clinging to the fact that he might be a good guy and that’s why she endured some of the previous comments prior to the explosion, but I think that need for love is so strong that she kind of brushed off the comment about pregnancy and just chalked it up as stupid thing guys say. Ultimately, there was one too many things and he struck out.

And that leads to your blowup moment where you hit him with the heartbreaking line, “I’m not your f—ing adventure.”

That was a really intense scene because we were fighting the elements. It was extremely windy and we were sunburned. It was also very cold. We shot that out in Palmdale, Calif., and it really was explosive because of all the wind and elements. I have to give credit to Jill for her amazing direction in that scene. She was shouting things as I was delivering lines and we just kind of went for it. It was raw and ugly and real. I was really thankful I had Jill directing me on that episode.

Transparent is coming back for a fourth season. Are we going to see you back?

I certainly hope so! Shea has ties to Maura as well, so regardless of what happens with Josh, I think there’s a bond there so hopefully I’ll be back.

You had to go up against the fans rooting for Josh and Raquel (above). Are you rooting for Shea and Josh, or do you think he’d be better with Rabbi Raquel?

I had this thought that maybe Shea is the one to shake him straight. Or, maybe he has to deal with Shea moving on and meeting someone else and then her still being in Maura’s life and them having to interact and be friends. There’s a few ways the writers can explore, and I’ll leave it to them. But I think it would be really awesome to see love in Shea’s life from a man and what that looks like. Society needs that. We need that blueprint of a trans woman being loved onscreen so that we can finally manifest that in the real world.

Maybe a love triangle? I don’t think Josh is over either of you right now.

He’s kind of a hot mess. (Laughs.) He is definitely a lost puppy who needs training.

The season ended with Maura finding out she can’t have the gender reassignment surgery. Where would you like to see season four go?

That’s an important conversation too because I don’t think that our womanhood is reduced to our genitals. A lot of trans women don’t have bottom surgery or any type of surgery to change their aesthetic, and I think that gender is something that you feel from within. How you express it outwardly is also another thing in itself. I’m not quite sure where Maura is going to land and I think that’s OK, because we need to start thinking off of the binary anyway. And that's really kind of cool that maybe it’s not leaping from one side all the way to the other, maybe she does land somewhere in the middle. 

Transparent paves the way with its storylines. How have you seen its effect in Hollywood and how far do you think Hollywood still has to go? 

I’ve definitely seen the impact. Transparent does a good job of pushing the envelope in a real way, not in a sensational or salacious way. I think it's prompting other networks to up their game and that’s a beautiful thing. Netflix also is on board, so it’s really cool to see what streaming networks have done to the industry. It’s opened up doors and opportunities to more progressive content. I think the viewership has spoken, so it’s a precursor for more change.

How has Transparent changed your life?

I get messages every day from trans youth telling me how important it is that they can see an actual trans body on TV and how much it means for them that a trans actor is playing a trans role because they can finally see themselves. So many trans people are just trying to be seen for who they really are in true depictions that are sometimes so elusive in Hollywood. I really take the messages to heart; it lets me know that my job is worthwhile.

Going forward, I don’t want to be boxed into trans roles. I started in the industry by auditioning for cis roles. Years ago when I first started taking acting classes, my acting teacher told me not to disclose to anyone and to go out for normal cis female roles. There was no work for trans actors back then — we had Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money and that was it. It wasn’t until 2013 that Orange Is the New Black hit and I started having these feelings of wanting to live out loud and not compartmentalize anymore. There was a girl in Harlem who was murdered, Islan Nettles, she had been catcalled and then beaten to death for being trans. It just rocked me and made me question everything. Laverne Cox is a good friend of mine, and she told me about this LGBTQ acting class and I went with her and it was my first time being out in an acting class. It was kind of purging all that I had been through and had bottled up. Shortly after that, Transparent came along and I snagged my first trans role. It’s changed my life, completely turned it upside down in the best way.

Do you think there are still acting coaches who would give that same advice today?

I think trans actors should go after cis roles, I just don’t think you should limit yourself. That first acting teacher was doing it out of protection of me. It wasn’t coming from a bad place. It was her saying, "You may as well not tell anyone because the world hasn’t quite caught up yet. So let’s just go for what you can do and see where it goes." But I don’t know if that’s something we have to subscribe to anymore. I think the notion of passing is problematic. I just don’t think we should subscribe to cis normative standards of appearance. If someone is giving that type of advice, perhaps it’s out of wanting the best opportunities for that person. But for me, the best opportunities were ones that allowed me to live in my truth.

Now we’ve gotten to the point where Jeffrey Tambor gave a speech at the Emmys on his hopes of being the last cisgender male cast in a trans female role. Do you think the audience even knew the word cisgender two years ago? 

Even now. There was all this chatter behind me among other people at the Emmys, and I heard them saying, “What did he say?” But it started this dialogue, and that’s what the revolution is about. When a leading man can get up there and say something like that, it really pushes the conversation forward in a way that needs to happen. I was applauding and really ecstatic that he took that leap and spoke out in that way.

How do you react, then, when you see Matt Bomer being cast in a trans role?

My heart sinks a little because I wonder if actual trans women were optioned for that role. From what I heard, that wasn’t the case. I’m not going to say he could never play trans, but what I will say is that if you’re not involving trans people in the casting process for trans roles, you’re doing a disservice to the narrative. You’re not exploring all the corners of authenticity that you could. Anytime you afford a trans person an opportunity, especially an opportunity to be ourselves, you’re promoting a shift in the way society sees us.

Transparent season three is streaming on Amazon.

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