Kelly Marie Tran: ‘I thought sitcom sidekick was as high as the world would let me go’

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Robbie Collin
·8 min read
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Kelly Marie Tran - Tawni Bannister
Kelly Marie Tran - Tawni Bannister

When Kelly Marie Tran was working the Hollywood audition circuit, she kept a suitcase in her car boot full of frumpy clothes. They were the kind of things she thought a lead character’s unattractive best friend might wear – bright, unflattering tops, boot-cut jeans and so on – and she’d change into them before driving to screen tests from her office job in western Los Angeles.

Tran, the daughter of Vietnam War refugees, had decided in her teens that her future as an actress lay in comic bit parts, though not because these were a lifelong ambition. “Honestly, I didn’t even think I was that funny,” she says on a video call from her LA apartment. “But I saw that the only people who were working that looked like me were playing those roles.

“There’s a part of me that loves comedy. There’s also a part of me that decided to focus on it knowing that maybe one day, by some miracle, I might get to be the sidekick on a sitcom. That was as high as my dreams got, because that was as high as I felt the world would let me go.”

Now her dreams are struggling to keep up. Tran, 32, shot to fame in 2017 after being cast in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as the lion-hearted resistance fighter Rose Tico; next week she returns as the voice of the heroine in Disney’s latest fantasy animation.

Raya and the Last Dragon stars Tran as a young adventurer prising her kingdom from the grip of a squirming, creepily pandemic-like curse. Inspired by southeast Asian folklore, the film reworks the time-honoured Disney princess formula into a rousing and ravishing warrior epic – imagine the studio’s recent seafaring musical Moana with martial arts battles instead of songs.

Tran auditioned for the film in early 2019, but the lead role initially went to the Canadian singer and actress Cassie Steele. Yet in the following months, the character of Raya was significantly rewritten: Steele subsequently left the production, and a few hours before the UK premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that December, the studio asked Tran if she would like to step in. She quickly said yes.

Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya in Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon - Film Stills/Disney
Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya in Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon - Film Stills/Disney

Then along came Covid. While Disney’s animators left their Burbank headquarters and got to work in their homes around southern California, Tran spent the next few months recording dialogue in her apartment in a makeshift soundproof booth – “really just a fortress of cushions,” she admits.

For obvious reasons, there has been no formal premiere, and when we speak, Tran still hasn’t seen the finished film – which launches on Disney+ next week. With LA still in lockdown, she remains at home, taking painting lessons on Zoom or bingeing old series of The Great British Bake Off (Chetna from 2014 is a favourite).

If circumstances allowed, she’d be almost anywhere else. “These kinds of projects feel so much bigger than me that I need a bit of time to mentally deal with what’s happening,” she explains. After making Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she went to Vietnam for three months, working in an orphanage before flying out her mother and father, Kay and Tony, to join her. It was her first visit to their homeland, and the first time her parents had set foot there since fleeing 40 years beforehand.

Her father had been homeless between the ages of 11 and 19, and one day the three of them cycled to his village together: “It was extraordinary to see my dad walking around the same streets he’d slept on during his childhood,” she says. When her parents arrived in the United States, they settled in San Diego, and throughout Tran’s own childhood, their former lives seldom came up.

“I don’t want to generalise about Asian immigrants, but I think my parents had a mentality of keeping their heads down, getting on and not dwelling on the past,” she says. Her father worked at Burger King and her mother in a funeral home; as a girl, Kelly sang in their local church choir, which kindled an interest in becoming a performer.

“They’re still confused by my career choice,” she laughs. “But at first they were like, what are you doing? It seemed like such an insane, impossible thing to pursue.”

In the early days, an improv troupe Tran founded with friends served her well when it came to securing parts in online sketch shows. But it also stood her in unexpectedly good stead in her first, improv-heavy Star Wars audition – to which she wore a knitted tank top, white shirt and novelty Hogwarts school tie, all pulled from that suitcase in her car boot.

She hadn’t seen a single Star Wars film beforehand: as per the neckwear, Harry Potter was more her thing. Nevertheless, director Rian Johnson took a shine to her, and after her fifth and final audition in London, he offered her the role of Rose. The operation was so secretive that Tran told her parents she was working on an indie comedy in Canada, a ruse she maintained by taking them home souvenir bottles of maple syrup.

The Last Jedi was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews, and became the most commercially successful film of 2017. Nevertheless, a small, toxic puddle of the Star Wars fan base took issue with Tran’s newly prominent presence in “their” beloved franchise, and the ensuing poisonous tide was grim enough to drive her off social media. The abuse had her dwelling again on the thoughts she’d had while driving to auditions – that people like her belonged in the margins of Hollywood, and that she’d somehow ended up in the wrong place through some wrinkle in fate.

“I became caught up in this idea that I had to be grateful all the time – that being in Star Wars was some impossible thing that had been gifted to me and that I was so undeserving of it,” she says. “And it’s taken me a while to recognise that I worked hard for it, and that maybe I am good at what I’m doing, and have something to contribute.”

Even so, her role in the subsequent instalment, 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker was much reduced – a result of director and co-writer JJ Abrams’s decision to keep Rose at Resistance HQ with Carrie Fisher’s General Leia for a subplot that was ultimately cut, after it proved too hard to assemble from the very limited available footage of Fisher that had been shot before her death.

Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega in Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Jonathan Olley/AP/Lucasfilm
Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega in Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Jonathan Olley/AP/Lucasfilm

Last September, Tran’s co-star John Boyega criticised Disney and Lucasfilm for shuffling their white castmates to the fore for this final chapter. “You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know f--- all,” he said.

Does Tran agree? She pauses for a long time: long enough for an anxious PR to materialise on the line and ask to move on. (“I’m just trying to figure out how to answer,” Tran reassures them.)

“It’s complicated,” she eventually begins. “Star Wars is such a cultural touchstone, and I feel the things that happen in those worlds genuinely matter.” Another pause. “Can I ask what you thought about it?”

I tell her I was sorry not to have seen more of Rose, but thought the story worked well enough on its own terms, so hadn’t read too much into it – though as someone who’d seen people who looked like me in Star Wars since childhood, perhaps it was easy not to.

“Right,” she says. “And I think unconscious bias is a very hard thing to measure, though we’re getting better. So I think what you make of that comes down to your experience – what are you able to see. And we have to realise that we’re all seeing the world through very specific lenses.”

Would she go back to Star Wars – for another film, or perhaps a spin-off series? The question seems to take her aback. “I haven’t thought about it at all, honestly. I feel like Star Wars was a weird fever dream. I don’t know. But I have not had that call.”

The pioneering aspect of Tran’s career is something of which she’s proud, but it also makes her uncomfortable. (Incredibly, when she appeared on the cover of the summer 2017 issue of Vanity Fair – in a costumed group shot with her Star Wars colleagues – she became the first Asian woman to have done so in the history of the magazine.)

“I do my best acting when I’m not thinking about the pressures of it,” she says. “When you start dissecting it, what it all means can get a little heavy in your head. I mean, I almost didn’t pursue acting as a career because I didn’t think it was realistic. Even after Star Wars and Raya, sometimes I still don’t. That’s just the truth.”

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available on Disney+ with Premier Access from Friday 5 March