Kelly Marie Tran thought she'd quit acting — then The Last Jedi put her dream into hyperdrive
Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi
To read more on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, pick up the new issue on stands now. You can buy the set of four covers here, or purchase individual covers featuring Kylo Ren/Rey, Finn/Rose, Poe/Holdo, or Luke/Leia now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
You have this dream. You want to be an actor. But that possibility seems far, far away. You have talent, but zero connections. You love movies, and TV, and comedy. They’re a part of you. So you want to be a part of them.
You go for it.
You leave everything you know and move to where they craft movies and TV. To make ends meet, you take jobs you wouldn’t mind losing if a better gig comes along. Years go by. You book a few small roles. But you’re tired. And you’re worried. It’s not happening.
Then one day, after all that grueling work, a miracle happens. You get your break.
It’s a big one. Almost too much to believe.
You get the lead in a Star Wars movie.
It happened for Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Hayden Christensen, and Daisy Ridley. With The Last Jedi, it has happened again for Kelly Marie Tran.
The 28-year-old San Diego native landed the role of Rose Tico, a problem-solving Resistance mechanic, just about a year after she was ready to give up chasing that dream forever.
“There was absolutely a moment,” Tran tells EW. “When I turned 25, I had been at it for some years and I was struggling to pay my bills. I was tired. I had been working [my day job] 40-plus hours a week, plus sometimes I’d have two auditions in the day and then I would write a sketch or do improv at night, or rehearse for the next auditions the next day. So, my days, I would get up at 5 a.m. and then I wouldn’t be home until 11:00 p.m. The days were like that for years.”
“I remember thinking, ‘This could be my life forever,’” she says. “Like, I could just never make it. I could work this hard for the next 20 years of my life and still be struggling.”
This was her twin suns moment. Think of Luke Skywalker standing in the Tatooine desert and staring off at something much bigger and more wondrous than anything else he knows.
There may be struggle ahead. But also great adventure.
Do or do not, there is no ‘try.’
Tran definitely heeded the wise words of Yoda.
“There are so few times in life where you are passionate about anything,” she says. “And I think that if you can find that, you should just hold on to it and protect it at all costs and just follow it, because it’s so rare.”
During her years in Los Angeles, Tran trained at the improv groups iO West, Second City, and Upright Citizens Brigade, and did guest spots on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! while writing and starring in digital shorts. Her biggest hit was the 2013 web series Ladies Like Us, an awkward-fest about a group off oddball friends in an epic struggle against everyday life.
Auditioning for Star Wars felt like a longshot. But the first round went well, then the second. Then came a long run of callbacks. The more real it became, the more unreal it seemed.
Tryouts don’t pay the rent, however. During this time, she was punching a clock for a company called Syndicatebleu, a temp agency and recruitment firm.
“I worked in an office. I was like an assistant. So, I would just answer phone calls, coordinate events,” Tran says. “It was a great day job. I worked with amazing people, but obviously whenever you are doing something that’s not your dream, you kind of feel like, ‘Oh, I’m on this grind.’”
Finally, writer-director Rian Johnson scheduled another meet-up, right in the middle of her regular 9 to 5.
In her first official Star Wars performance, she had to keep playing the role of Kelly Marie Tran, office assistant.
“The day I found out, Rian was like, ‘Oh we want you in this movie,’ I had just left work on my lunch break to go to this meeting,” she recalls. “Afterward, he told me that I couldn’t tell anyone, so I went back to work and answered phones and answered emails, like nothing happened. It was the most bizarre experience. Inside I was like, Ugh! Crazy!”
Then came the announcement. Then came the production. Then came a whole cascade of happy-happy, joy-joy that struggling actors are unaccustomed to dealing with. “I still just sort of live my life the way that I was before,” she says. “I don’t know when I will feel that it’s different. Definitely, when I saw the action figures, I was like, ‘This is insane,’ but it still hasn’t sunk in or registered on me.”
One thing that has registered for this daughter of Vietnamese immigrants is the significance of being the first Asian-American woman to land a lead a Star Wars movie. “Growing up I watched a lot of [pop culture] and didn’t really get to see a lot of people that looked like me,” she says. “I think that I’m really lucky to be this person, and I get to be part of this franchise. I hope that it is a move in a better direction.”
Despite being a Star Wars hero, she can’t shake this stubborn feeling: Are these guys punking me, Tico?
“I still don’t really believe it’s real,” Tran says. “Like when I’m driving past the place I used to work, or when I’m driving past the comedy studio where I used to take photos in exchange for classes, or when I’m driving past the yoga studio I used to clean on the weekends. It’s not that far removed from me yet. I get very sentimental over things like that.”
That’s the bizarre thing about dreams. When they come true, you can still feel like you’re dreaming.