Raya and the Last Dragon actor Kelly Marie Tran on being a Disney princess, boom of onscreen Asian representation

Kelly Marie Tran doesn't take lightly the milestone of being the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to play a lead role in an animated Disney movie: 'I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility'

The New York Times March 09, 2021 14:36:07 IST
Raya and the Last Dragon actor Kelly Marie Tran on being a Disney princess, boom of onscreen Asian representation

Kelly Marie Tran in Los Angeles. (Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times)

There are two Kelly Marie Trans in this story.

One is self-assured, confident and eager to show young Asian American girls that, yes, women who do not have long blond hair, big doe eyes and porcelain skin can get major roles in films.

The other is a distant, if prominent, memory.

When Tran wrote a scathing essay in The New York Times in August 2018 excoriating a culture that had marginalised her for the colour of her skin, she’d just deleted her Instagram posts amid online harassment from Star Wars fans. Her performance as Rose Tico, the first lead character in a Star Wars film to be played by a woman of colour, had been a proud moment for her. But then, she wrote, she started to believe the racist and sexist comments from online trolls. “Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life,” the Vietnamese American actress wrote. “That I was ‘other,’ that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them.”

But recent box office successes like Crazy Rich Asians and critical hits like Minari that have focused on Asian characters have brightened her view of the film industry — and contributed to her own empowerment. “I’m finally asking for the things I want and learning to trust my own opinion,” she said in a video interview from Los Angeles last month. “And I wish so badly that I grew up in a world that taught me how to do that at a younger age.”

Raya and the Last Dragon actor Kelly Marie Tran on being a Disney princess boom of onscreen Asian representation

Still from Raya and the Last Dragon

Tran voices the starring role of warrior princess Raya (which rhymes with Maya) in the animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, out Friday on Disney+ in the US and Disney+ Hotstar in India. That makes her the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to play a lead role in an animated Disney movie, a milestone she doesn’t take lightly. “I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility,” she said. “To be honest, I haven’t slept in, like, two weeks.”

In a conversation, Tran discussed how the Star Wars films prepared her for the pressure that comes with being a Disney princess, the boom in Asian and Asian American screen stories, and the pros and cons of life without social media. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Do you intentionally target barrier-breaking roles?

I wish! I never thought in a million years that I would be doing what I’m doing now. I was the first woman of colour to have a leading role in a Star Wars movie; I’m the first Southeast Asian Disney princess — these are things that no one that had looked like me had done before.

In your New York Times essay, you spoke out about the harassment you experienced after your role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Given the recent slate of successful Asian and Asian American films, does it feel like things have shifted in Hollywood?

I’m so [expletive] excited that more of these movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite and Minari are being made. I’m really proud to be part of that change in terms of making movies that honour people from those parts of the world. But there have also been a lot of anti-Asian hate crimes recently, so there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Would you still have done Star Wars knowing the harassment you’d face?

[Long pause] I think I would’ve done it anyway. Doing that first movie was so fun — it was like being admitted to Hogwarts. It was like, “This is impossible,” and then I was doing it. I don’t really look back with that much regret anymore. Star Wars feels like I fell in love for the first time, and then we had a really bad breakup, and then I learned how to love again, and now I’m in a better relationship with Raya. I’ve moved on, and it feels great.

Raya and the Last Dragon actor Kelly Marie Tran on being a Disney princess boom of onscreen Asian representation

(Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times)

How are you a different person than you were three years ago?

I was so afraid and put so much pressure on myself starting out. You feel like you have to do it the right way or else no one else is going to get a chance. But I’m a much stronger person now, and I have the tools to react to those situations when they happen. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m finally making room for myself and asking for the things that I want. God, I wish I knew how to do that 10 years ago!

What are some of the things you feel comfortable asking for now?

I’ve been very, very loud about the projects I do and don’t want to be involved in. I never want to further a stereotype or take a job that makes me feel like I’m perpetuating some sort of idea about what it is to be Asian. And I’ve been really, really adamant about my boundaries. Leaving social media was so mentally healthy for me, even though I’ve been told over and over again, “Kelly, you’re not going to get brand sponsorships.” I just don’t care, because I know what’s best for myself, and I know that I’m happier than I ever was being on it.

What is most encouraging to you about the entertainment industry right now?

I’m most inspired by the people who continue to fight in order for their voices to be heard, and not just in the Asian community, but in the Black, trans, LGBTQ and other underrepresented communities. On my dark days, when I feel sad and insecure about myself, those are the shows that I watch and the stories that I turn to. It brings me so much hope that people are speaking their truths and actually having people listen.

Raya and the Last Dragon actor Kelly Marie Tran on being a Disney princess boom of onscreen Asian representation

(Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times)

Are microaggressions something you still encounter?

I haven’t recently experienced outward racism in the way I experienced it when I was a young child, but now I experience subtle racism in terms of people who are publicly allies but privately complicit. In Hollywood, there are people who outwardly are like, “We believe in this,” and then when you’re actually in the trenches with them, they do things that show you they are actually complicit with white supremacy, and with institutions of power that have allowed specific types of people to get away with injustice over and over and over again.

Your Vietnamese name is Loan. When did you start using the name Kelly?

The name on my birth certificate is actually Kelly. My parents, who are war refugees from Vietnam, adopted American names when they started working — my dad worked at Burger King for almost 40 years, and my mom worked at a funeral home. And they gave their children American names. I didn’t realise it until I was older, but it was them protecting us so that people wouldn’t mispronounce our names. But I didn’t realise until later on that it was also an erasure of culture. It makes my heart hurt a lot to think about it.

What advice do you have for young Asian American actors?

Do not blame yourself if someone is not educated enough to understand that there are different types of people in the world who exist and who deserve to be heard. Do not internalise racism, do not internalise misogyny, make space for yourself and ask for what you want, because no one else is going to make space for you.

Sarah Bahr c.2021 The New York Times Company

Updated Date:

also read

Jason Momoa, Lisa Bonet separate after 16 years together: 'The love between us carries on'
Entertainment

Jason Momoa, Lisa Bonet separate after 16 years together: 'The love between us carries on'

Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet started dating in 2005 and officially married in late 2017.

Oscars 2022 to have a host first time since 2018, broadcaster ABC says
Entertainment

Oscars 2022 to have a host first time since 2018, broadcaster ABC says

The 94th Academy Awards, scheduled for 27 March, will be the first since the 90th, in 2018, to have a host.

Rust armourer sues film's ammunition supplier over mixing dummy and live weapons
Entertainment

Rust armourer sues film's ammunition supplier over mixing dummy and live weapons

Rust armourer sued the film's ammunition supplier, accusing him of leaving real bullets among the dummy cartridges, resulting in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer.