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Kelly Marie Tran On Carving Out New Ground In Hollywood With ‘Raya And the Last Dragon’

“I wish I could have brought every person who's a Disney fan along for this experience, because I know how rare it is."
Image: Tawni Bannister

It wasn’t her first time attending, or even presenting at the Academy Awards, but Kelly Marie Tran still felt like a fish out of water when she stood on stage at the 2020 Oscars. “I fully didn’t know what was going on,” she laughs now. “I didn’t know that awards season was a thing until I became an actor. It felt like moving to a different planet.” 

To make the trip to Mars less daunting, she took her Dad as her date. “It was the best! I mean, Dad and I were drinking tequila and just having a great time. We sat right next to Joaquin Phoenix, right in front of Elton John and on the left was Oscar Isaac, who I just love so much. It was crazy. I’m so grateful that I got to share that experience with Dad.” 

It’s been an extraordinary few years for Tran. In 2015, she was cast as fan-favourite, Rose Tico, in Star Wars:The Last Jedi (it was her first feature film, no big deal), and followed that up with a role in Croods: A New Age. Despite this intense success, she says she can “still go unnoticed at Trader Joes” and live a relatively normal life despite the occasional extraordinary experiences like drinking tequila with her dad at the Oscars. “Most of my life is normal,” she laughs. “The other day I was just talking to my boyfriend about having to unplug the shower.” 

Kelly Marie Tran at the Oscars (Credit: Image: Getty)

Now, she’s joining Disney as the voice of Raya in Raya and the Last Dragon. The film centres on a woman from the kingdom of Kumandra, where people and dragons once lived together peacefully, before the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the humans half a century ago. When Kumandra is once again invaded by monsters, Raya must find the last dragon to help her save her homeland. “Raya’s technically a princess, but she’s also definitely someone who is a warrior and a survivor as someone who goes through a lot of traumatic experiences early in her life. She sees the world through this sort of lens of not trusting anyone,” Tran explains of her character. “I think that’s very different to what we’ve seen before in terms of Disney princesses.” 

Raya as a character is not wholly empowered, or even happy, to begin with. She’s angry and distrustful and “sees the world as broken”. Tran says the movie asks audiences to consider: “how do we view the world in a way where we’re not just seeing our pain? How do we view the world where we are able to see the goodness in people again? How do we do that?” She laughs, “I don’t know that I know how to do that. Let me just be clear. But going on this journey with this character, and seeing her try to learn that; it’s really, really powerful.”

The filmmaking process, Tran says, was inherently defined by COVID-19. “It was basically me in a makeshift voiceover booth at home that my boyfriend built. You know when you’re a kid and you build forts with pillows and blankets? That’s what I recorded in” she says, describing how they managed to make an entire Disney movie remotely. “How all these people who had to work separately in 400 different locations were able to make something as beautiful as this movie is pretty spectacular. It’s an incredible miracle that it got made.”

Raya (Credit: Image: Disney)

The film is particularly momentous because it’s the first Disney feature inspired by Southeast Asia, and Tran is the first Southeast Asian actor to lead a Disney animated film. “It’s been truly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” she says, talking about the significance of a film that is specific in its cultural representation. “The writers are both Southeast Asian and that’s an experience I’ve never had before. I can’t even explain what it felt like when I got into that room, looked at these scripts and had them bring up specific words or things that I remember from growing up. It was really magical.” 

While Hollywood still has a ways to go in terms of representation – Tran admits, “in an ideal world, there would be so many different stories being told and every type of person would be so well represented, and so easily represented, that we wouldn’t have to talk about it at all” – it’s films like Raya that need to be celebrated. In presenting a young woman who is a little rough around the edges, and one who doesn’t ascribe to White Eurocentric beauty ideals, they again expand the idea of who can be a Disney princess and in doing so, inspire young generations to be themselves. It’s clear Tran is cognisant of just how special it is, her voice tinged with genuine awe talking about the film: “I wish I could have brought every person who’s a Disney fan, or who loves movies, along for this experience, because I know how rare it is. And I know how privileged I am to have been part of it.” 

Raya and the Last Dragon is in cinemas and streaming on Disney+ now.

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