Kelly Marie Tran on being the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a Disney animated film
The Raya and the Last Dragon star chats with EW about what it's like following up Star Wars with another huge project.
For Asian Americans across the country, the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians was an event: People bought out theaters, held watch parties, and celebrated its box office triumph. And it was no different for Kelly Marie Tran. The Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker actress says she and all her Asian girlfriends giddily reserved tickets for the 2018 movie, which became a pop-culture sensation and revitalized conversations about onscreen representation.
"I just cried and laughed through the whole thing," Tran tells EW. "I didn't know that I was yearning just to see someone who looks like me."
Now Tran hopes her upcoming Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon will allow Southeast Asians, who are rarely featured in Hollywood, to feel seen on the big screen. (While set in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians featured a majority East Asian cast.)
Tran is making history as the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to lead a Disney animated movie, and Raya (slated for release March 21, 2021) also happens to be the first feature from Walt Disney Animation to be inspired by Southeast Asia. EW exclusively revealed a first-look image from the film Thursday, and spoke to its filmmakers.
In the movie, Raya (voiced by Tran) is the daughter of the Chief of the Heart Lands, one of the five lands in the fictional kingdom of Kumandra. Years ago, dragons and humans lived in harmony, until monsters known as Druun invaded, forcing the dragons to sacrifice themselves and save humanity. Raya's father was also killed, and the film follows her journey as a warrior to find the last dragon, who she believes can save Kumandra.
Given her love of Crazy Rich Asians, it almost seems fated for Tran to work with two of its alums on Raya: Awkwafina, who voices Sisu the dragon, and Adele Lim, who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Qui Nguyen.
Raya, like her predecessor Moana, will continue to reshape the definition of a Disney princess.
"She is someone who is technically a princess, but I think that what's really cool about this project, about this character specifically, is that everyone's trying to flip the narrative on what it means to be a princess," Tran says. "Raya is totally a warrior. When she was a kid, she was excited to get her sword. And she grows up to be a really badass, gritty warrior and can really take care of herself."
The Vietnamese American actress emphasizes that the film's representation isn't just lip service. Disney employed whole teams to do research and make sure Raya would accurately reflect its influences, and Tran says that diligence showed up on the page.
"I remember having this experience of recognizing some of the words and recognizing some of the names and the locations and even certain characters and our job descriptions of what influenced them to be a certain way," Tran says. "I felt so seen, and it was such a blissful feeling. I don't know if I can even explain it, but it was this surprise. I've worked on some things before which obviously weren't as culturally specific as this, and I don't think that I knew that I needed that."
The actress has experienced a meteoric rise in the industry in just a short time, going from mostly short films to acting in one of the most famous franchises of all time as Star Wars' Rose Tico. In discussing how she's gone from one "impossible and miraculous" project to another, Tran says she still deals with feeling "like an imposter," adding that her own journey is similar to Raya's.
"Any time I step on set or I get involved in something new, there's always this [nervousness]," she says. "The best thing that I was able to do was trust in the process and trust those involved just knowing that this thing is bigger than us… Strangely enough, that's also one of the things in the movie, is Raya, to get through this journey, she needs to learn how to trust."
Tran adds that Raya "is such an incredible example of really finding yourself again after something defines you." For Raya, it's moving on from what she went through as a child, and for Tran, it's figuring out her career and narrative post-Star Wars.
At a time when COVID-19 has sent the world, including Hollywood, into a tailspin, Tran says she feels lucky to keep working and recording from home. It wasn't that long ago that she was working day jobs and struggling to get auditions, and it grounds her to think about where she comes from.
"To be able to pursue your dreams at all is a privilege. My parents lived in a world where they didn't have that luxury of even thinking about what it was like to have a dream," she says. "They just were trying to put food on the table. And so the fact that I get to pursue my dreams and then get to work as an actor — I feel like my mind's always exploding, trying to wrestle with the fact that it's reality. It doesn't make sense to me."
Raya and the Last Dragon