There are two Kelly Marie Trans in this story.
One is self-confident, confident and eager to show young girls of Asian-American descent that, yes, women who don’t have long blonde hair, big doe eyes, and porcelain skin can get it. major roles in movies.
The other is a distant memory, though prominent.
When Tran wrote a scathing essay in The New York Times in August 2018 excoriating a culture that had marginalized her for the color of her skin, she had just deleted her Instagram posts amid online harassment from ‘Star Wars’ fans . Her performance as Rose Tico, the first main character in a “Star Wars” movie to be played by a woman of color, had been a proud moment for her. But then, she writes, she started to believe the racist and sexist comments of online trolls. “Their words reinforced a story I had heard all my life,” the Vietnamese-American actress wrote. “That I was ‘other’, that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, just because I wasn’t like them.
But recent box office hits like “Crazy Rich Asians” and critical hits like “Minari” that have focused on Asian characters have informed her vision for the film industry – and helped her own empowerment. “I’m finally asking what I want and I’m learning to trust my own opinion,” she said in a video interview from Los Angeles last month. “And I wish so much that I grew up in a world that taught me to do this at a younger age.”
Tran stars as the warrior princess Raya (which rhymes with Maya) in the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon”, released on March 5 on Disney +. This makes her the first Southeast Asian actress to star in a Disney animated film, a step she doesn’t take lightly. “I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility,” she said. “To be honest, I haven’t slept in two weeks.”
In a conversation, Tran discussed how the “Star Wars” movies prepared her for the pressure that comes with being a Disney Princess, the story boom on Asian and Asian-American screens, and the perks and the downsides of living without social media. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Are you intentionally targeting roles that break down barriers?
I wish that! I never thought in a million years that I would do what I do now. I was the first woman of color to have a lead role in a “Star Wars” movie; I’m Southeast Asia’s first Disney Princess – these are things no one who looked like me had done before.
In your New York Times essay, you spoke about the harassment you suffered after your role in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. Considering the recent list of successful Asian and Asian-American films, does it seem like things have changed in Hollywood?
I am so [expletive] excited that more of such movies like “Crazy Rich Asians”, “Parasite” and “Minari” are in the works. I’m really proud to be a part of this change by making films that honor people in these parts of the world. But there has also been a lot of anti-Asian hate crimes recently, so there is still a lot of work to be done.
Would you still have done “Star Wars” knowing the harassment you would face?
[Long pause] I think I would have done it anyway. Making that first movie was so much fun – it was like being admitted to Hogwarts. It was like, “It’s impossible” and then I would. I don’t really look back with so much regret anymore. “Star Wars” feels like I fell in love the first time, then we had a really bad breakup, then I learned to love again, and now I’m in a better relationship with “Raya”. I have evolved and it feels good.
How are you a different person than you were three years ago?
I was so scared and I put so much pressure on myself at the start. You feel like you have to do it the right way, otherwise no one else will stand a chance. But I’m a much stronger person now, and I have the tools to respond to these situations when they arise. I’m not afraid anymore. I finally make room for myself and ask for the things I want. God, I wish I knew how to do this 10 years ago!
What are some of the things that you feel comfortable asking now?
I have been very, very strong on the projects that I do that I don’t want to be involved in. I never want to promote a stereotype or take on a job that makes me feel like I’m perpetuating some sort of idea of what it’s like to be Asian. And I was really, really adamant about my limits. Quitting social media was so mentally healthy for me, even though I’ve been told over and over again, “Kelly, you won’t get branded sponsorship.” I don’t care, because I know what’s best for me, and I know I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
What are you most encouraging about the entertainment industry right now?
I am most inspired by the people who continue to fight for their voices to be heard, and not just in the Asian community, but in black, trans, LGBTQ and other under-represented communities. In my dark days, when I feel sad and insecure, these are the shows I watch and the stories I turn to. It gives me so much hope that people are speaking their truths and that people actually listen to them.
Are microaggressions something you still encounter?
I haven’t recently experienced external racism like I experienced when I was a young child, but now I experience subtle racism in terms of people who are allies publicly but who are accomplices in private. In Hollywood, there are people who outwardly say to themselves, ‘We believe in this’ and then when you’re actually in the trenches with them, they do things that show you that they are in fact complicit in supremacy. whitewash and institutions of power that have enabled specific types of people to cope with injustice over and over again.
Your Vietnamese name is Loan. When did you first start using the name Kelly?
The name on my birth certificate is actually Kelly. My parents, who are refugees from the Vietnam War, adopted American names when they started working – my father worked at Burger King for almost 40 years and my mother worked in a funeral home. And they gave their children American names. I didn’t realize this until I was older, but they were the ones protecting us so that people wouldn’t mispronounce our names. But I didn’t realize until later that it was also an erasure of culture. It pains my heart to think about it.
What advice would you give to young Asian-American actors?
Don’t blame yourself if someone isn’t educated enough to understand that there are different types of people in the world out there who are worth hearing. Don’t internalize racism, internalize misogyny, make room for yourself and ask for what you want, because no one else will make room for you.