There’s something to be said for people who are always the first in their field—groundbreaking, trailblazing, revolutionary—and Kelly Marie Tran is all of those and more. The 32-year-old Vietnamese American actress made waves around the world with her starring role as Rose Tico in the Star Wars franchise’s The Last Jedi in 2017 and The Rise of Skywalker in 2019, being the first Asian woman to hold the distinction. She was also the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2017. Since then, the actress has been closely watched both on and off the silver screen, and this year marks another first that Tran is proudly adding to the list.
Taking the honour of being Disney’s first princess of Southeast Asian origin, the actress plays the title character of Raya, a warrior-princess from the fictional kingdom of Kumandra. Drawing on cultures across the region, including those from Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the show is a culturally important touchstone for people of the region, and the significance of such a role is not lost on Tran, whose parents were Vietnamese refugees who moved to the United States when she was just a young girl.
“I’ve never had an experience before where I’ve walked into a recording session, looked at a script and recognised some of the words and references as being part of something that I grew up with. That was such a wild, beautiful experience,” she says.
That’s not to say that the entire experience was smooth sailing. As with the rest of the world, the production of the film was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tran shares that the movie had to be made in a very specific way with the crew geographically separated because of quarantine. Learning to trust in the people around her, and also to trust in herself, was crucial.
“In a creative environment where you’re creating a character together, it already takes so much trust,” she explains. “And I think it takes even more trust in order to make a movie this way because everyone is physically separate and you don’t have that sort of immediate rapport, physically being there together and playing around.”
“We’re all living in a world today where there are a lot of really hard things happening all of the time, and if you are a human being, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like, or any of those things that divide us”
The whole process coincidentally mirrored Raya’s journey in the film, observes the astute actress, which is veritably action-packed compared to previous Disney princess movies, but it is the heart and message of the movie that Tran hopes will resonate with audiences.
“If there’s one thing that I would like people to take away from this movie, it would be that we’re all living in a world today where there are a lot of really hard things happening all of the time,” she says. “And if you are a human being, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like, or any of those things that divide us.”
It’s worth mentioning that Tran has had personal experience with this as well. In 2017, after appearing in The Last Jedi, the actress faced horrific online harassment and abuse that led to her eventual withdrawal from social media in 2018. She had to attend therapy to work through the traumatic experience and eventually emerged stronger and more resilient, writing about the ordeal in a powerful op-ed in The New York Times.
“Every person in the world knows what it’s like to deal with something traumatic, or to have a painful experience, and we have two choices moving forward: one of those choices is allowing that painful experience to filter the way in which we see the world, and the other choice is to try and process that trauma and work through it, and still try to find goodness in the world,” she says. “I think it’s really hard to say because I think that that’s something that I’m trying to do every day, but it’s proving to be really difficult.”
Looking to the future, Tran is not sure what she wants to do next—a prospect that is both “horrifying and exciting,” she says with a laugh. She adds: “I feel like I’m in a place where I want to explore new things and try something totally and completely different. Any role that makes me look outside of myself, helps me to learn more compassion and helps me to be a better human—in terms of breaking my own biases and pushing my own boundaries, that’s a good thing and that’s what I constantly want to be doing.”
Well, we definitely can’t wait to see where else this brilliant star will blaze a trail to next.
Photograpers: Mark Williams & Sara Hirakawa
Fashion director: Desmond Li
Styling: Wayman Bannerman & Micah McDonald
Hair: Derek Yuen