Image Source: Getty / Slaven Vlasic
Kelly Marie Tran's career thus far has consisted of one groundbreaking role after another. She was the first-ever Southeast Asian Disney princess as Raya in Raya and the Last Dragon, and prior to that, she was Rose Tico, the first lead character in a Star Wars film to be played by a woman of color. And while she hadn't intended on only playing trailblazing characters, she certainly doesn't take the responsibility lightly. "Before Star Wars, I was an assistant working a full-time job, picking up dry cleaning and picking up copies," she told POPSUGAR.
"I feel like I'm finally coming into my voice, who I am, and what my mission is."
A child of Vietnamese immigrants, Kelly didn't know anything about the entertainment industry when she first entered the scene, so when she was given the opportunity to have what she describes as an "impossible career," she knew she had an important mission: to use her power to make space for those who would never have gotten a chance otherwise, the same way she had. With that goal in mind, every choice the actress makes is intentional. From the projects she chooses to participate in to the designers she wears, she consciously works to amplify not just the Asian and Pacific Islander American community but underrepresented groups in general, in every aspect of her career. She's also acutely aware of her privilege in being a part of so many celebratory projects. "Most actors don't get to be in a position where they're financially sustained by their art," she said, which further drives her to bring power and opportunity to others.
Just last week, she was recognized for these efforts by Gold House, a nonprofit collective of APIA leaders, in its 2021 A100 list honoring prominent leaders in the APIA space for amplifying positive APIA representation in media. Acknowledged among the likes of Kamala Harris, Chloé Zhao, and Naomi Osaka, it's a "big honor" that Kelly admitted is "a really big deal." But even with such accolades under her belt, the actress is only just getting started. Coming off the heels of her Raya and the Last Dragon press tour in March, she's laser-focused on her vocation to "uplift the voices of those who have historically been silenced." "I feel like I'm finally coming into my voice, who I am, and what my mission is," she told POPSUGAR.
The actress recently chatted with us about the impact of Raya and the Last Dragon, the slow progress of APIA representation on screen, how she regained her strength after enduring vitriol and hate, and why she's so proud to be Vietnamese American. Read on for our full chat.
Image Source: Nelson Youssef
POPSUGAR: Your role in Raya and the Last Dragon was the first time you were able to represent your heritage in your career. What was that experience and the response that followed like?
Kelly Marie Tran: It was amazing. It was absolutely life-changing. I never thought I would ever get to be a Disney princess, much less have that movie be inspired by the part of the world that my family's from. It was such an incredible experience not only to be part of that cast and to have had a film that was written by two Southeast Asian writers, but also to participate in the press tour in a way that I felt was also giving me the ability to shine more of a spotlight on Asian designers. It just felt like a wonderfully celebratory and healing experience to be able to do that.
I feel like I'm finally coming into my voice, who I am, and what my mission is, and that press tour was such an example of that. When I first came into this world, I just didn't know how it worked. It was almost like a baby opening their eyes for the first time and being like, "Whoa, too much stimulation, I don't know the rules, what is happening?" Now I'm sort of like an older toddler and can walk on my own. I'm figuring out what I like and how to move about in this world.
PS: I love that. In the past few years, we've certainly seen more APIA representation on screen — Raya is obviously an important example of that — but as someone who's in the industry, do you feel like you see change happening before you?
KMT: I want to first acknowledge that I'm in a very privileged position. You're talking to a person that has had an impossible career thus far. Most actors don't get to be in a position where they're financially sustained by their art. I just want to acknowledge that I'm looking through a very specific filter when you ask me that question.
But like you said, there has been progress, and that's a wonderful thing. I'm going to quote my very talented and intelligent friend Daniel Dae Kim, who I just love and adore. He said, "The goal is for the next generation to not have to talk about representation." That it is just so equal, so prevalent, so progressed that for our kids and our kids' kids, it's not a topic anymore that they'll have to discuss. But the fact of the matter is despite there being some progress, there's still much more to be made. I'm in a position where I'm celebrating the things that are happening, and I'm also very much on the ground wanting to fight for continued representation and for populations who are still underrepresented. I'd love to see more representation, specifically for the LGBTQIA+ community and for persons with disabilities, the list goes on and on. I could list things forever because we're not living in the world that I want to live in yet and the world that we should all want to live in.
PS: How would you like to see APIA specifically represented in films and on TV?
KMT: I want [me and my colleagues] to be in a position where representation is not so rare, so we no longer have to make decisions on roles based solely on race. What I mean by that is, in the past, I've had roles come to me that I maybe wouldn't have had an issue playing if the burden of representation wasn't so heavy. For example, let's say that there is a character that is "nerdy" or character-y or quirky. That character existing in a space with other Asian Americans is fine, because then I'm not saying, "All Asians are like this." But if that's the character that exists to support a white lead, then that's a problem and I can't take that role. What I hope for my colleagues and for representation is that we no longer have to make decisions solely based on, "Oh, are we going to perpetuate a negative stereotype about our people?," because obviously we don't want that to happen. If we had more representation equal across all forms, we wouldn't have to think about that. I wouldn't have to think, "Oh, well, this is a really cool project. It's a really cool role, but I don't want to be the nerdy Asian sidekick to the white, straight, conventionally attractive lead." That's not something I want to say about Asian people.
PS: Right. Can you talk about the types of projects you've had to turn down?
KMT: There are instances where you're going to have to say no to things, because for me, I know that I have a responsibility. I did Star Wars. I am a Disney princess. I have a very specific audience that's looking at my body of work, and I don't want to perpetuate any negative stereotype about any group of people. I absolutely think very hard about everything that I take on as an actress. This year for me has also been a big year in terms of getting into producing. I'm producing a documentary that just won the jury prize at South by Southwest, which is an incredible film about the Chinese American adoptee by the name of Lily Hevesh, who is truly someone, who at the age of 9, fell in love with dominoes, decided that she wanted to pursue domino art, and now is the number one domino artist in the world. That is something that I am so proud to be a part of because you watch this documentary and here's this young woman existing in this space. There's this one specific scene where she is talking to a group of white men about creating her own domino line and it is the most empowering thing for me as someone who grew up in a world where I didn't see anyone who looked like me, just existing in those spaces without having to justify it. That to me is a very positive representation of an Asian woman existing in a space being proud of who she is, knowing exactly what she wants, not being afraid to ask for the things that she knows more about than these men.
I've said no to a lot of things. I've also said yes to things that I really want to uplift on the other side of that. I think it's a two-way street — you want to say no to the things that perpetuate negative stereotypes, and you want to say yes and put your full power behind the things that uplift the voices of those who have historically been silenced and who are a positive representation for what an Asian person is.
Image Source: Everett Collection
PS: What kinds of roles and projects are you looking to be involved in at this point in your career?
KMT: I think about this a lot. After the Raya press tour, I was like, "OK, I need to go into a cabin in the woods and look at a tree and think about my life," because I never thought that I would be where I am, and that's just the truth of it. Before Star Wars, I was an assistant working a full-time job, picking up dry cleaning and picking up copies. I had no idea that I would get to be in Star Wars and then get to be a Disney princess. First of all, just acknowledging the impossibility of that and hoping that any of your readers recognizes that, if they are wanting to pursue something impossible, they should. Because I am an example of someone who knew no one and is now here doing these things. That's my first thing. My second thing is I am not specific to genre. All I know is that I really want the stories that I am involved in to remind people that impossible things are possible. That's the only rule. I want to read a script and feel a little bit of magic. I know that doesn't make any sense to anyone, but I am just constantly pursuing this idea of a better world, a world that I want to live in. I think, one, is this a good story? Two, am I going to make sure that I'm not perpetuating a negative stereotype? Number three, is this piece of art going to help move the world into a direction that makes it the world that I want to live in?
My mission statement goes back to that [New York Times] op-ed that I wrote in 2018. I refer to it all the time. When I look at a project, I think, this is the world I said I wanted to live in. I want to be honest and true to that. I don't want to just take jobs to be on posters. I really want to be careful and selective, and I have been, and it has been the most magical, empowering experience.
PS: That op-ed was so inspiring, and you were deeply honest about the racist and sexist trolls you encountered online in the past. What ignited you to speak up and use your voice after dealing with that undeserved harassment?
KMT: Seeing the ways other people have been able to overcome their own fears, their internalized racism, and all of the things in the world that tell us that we're not enough and that we shouldn't speak up. I'm so inspired by my friends, my colleagues, and also just the youth of today. All of these incredible individuals who are in a place where they're willing to put themselves on the line for something bigger than them, and I want to do that. A lot of times, the experiences in our lives, the things that hurt us the most, become our mission. My past experiences with racism, sexism, classism, and all of these things have really made me into the person that I am and made me realize the things that I cared about and wanted to stand up for.
PS: Who have you been inspired by specifically?
KMT: There's this movie, Summertime, that I'm executive producing, and it's directed by Carlos López Estrada, who directed me in Raya. The experience has been so f*cking inspiring. Truly, I am learning so much from these kids who are all from Los Angeles, who come from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented. Carlos has made such an incredible film and really given them a megaphone to share their art on a public platform. I have been going through poetry workshops, learning from them, and hearing about their stories. For me lately, the most inspiring thing has been seeing the ways in which these young artists are really coming into themselves and just being truthful, honest, and so supportive of each other. It's such an example of what I think the world could be. The movie is full of underrepresented voices. There are people from the BIPOC community, from the LGBTQ+ community, in front of as well as behind the camera. Every poet is making their acting debut in this movie. The entire mission behind this film is to give people a chance that wouldn't be given one normally. That is really my mission statement. That's how I felt going into Star Wars. I felt like the person that didn't belong in this world, that I had never seen before, that would never be given a chance. Suddenly, I was given one, and as much as is possible, I want to do that for other people.
Image Source: Everett Collection
PS: What words of advice do you have for rising APIA talent?
"I really know what I want to do with whatever power I have now, and that feels really empowering."
KMT: My advice is twofold. The first thing is impossible things are possible. I was someone who did not know anyone in this industry, was working four jobs, and putting myself through college. My dad works at Burger King. My mom works in funerals. I had no idea how to do this, and now, I'm very much an active member of the entertainment industry. I'm working towards a mission that is a very impossible progression, and I want young people to know that it's possible. I also want them to know that you never have to follow someone else's path. A lot of times in life, we're given this predetermined path of, go to college, get a job, get married, have a house. You can make your own path. Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean you can't do it. Don't listen to the voices that crowd out your own. The most important voice to listen to is the one inside of you, because what is inside of you is more powerful than anything outside of you. That is what I try to tell myself every day.
PS: What do you love about being Vietnamese American, about being APIA?
KMT: It's so funny because growing up, I think for a lot of people of color growing up, there's a lot of uncertainty. If you're ever in a position where you feel like you are experiencing something that other people can't understand or relate to, you feel very isolated. But as a grown-up and surrounding myself with such a wonderful community, I feel so much more empowered. The things that, as a young girl, I wanted to hide are now the things that I'm the most proud of. I want young people to know, and I want young Kelly to know that it gets better. The things that are traumatic in your younger years really do become your mission.
I'm so proud of being Asian American. I'm so proud of getting to wear an áo dài for the Raya press premiere. This whole year for me has been the most focused because I know what my mission is, in the midst of all of these horrible hate crimes, this racial injustice, and this endless violence that's constantly happening. I really know what I want to do with whatever power I have now, and that feels really empowering.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.