Kelly Marie Tran’s first recording session for Raya and the Last Dragon involved a leap of faith. As the titular warrior princess, she stood in a booth in Disney Animation’s Burbank offices and performed the dialogue, an incantation meant to awaken a mythical creature that could help save the world.
The taping went smoothly, but right before the scene wrapped, Tran spoke up: “Hey, actually … would you mind if I tried something?”
She explained to the directors, Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, that if she were in Raya’s situation — having extended a gesture of friendship, only to invite a world-ending betrayal — she would feel a lot more conflicted, almost chagrined at reaching out with no guarantee anyone would respond. They told her to go for it.
“We really — we really need your help,” Tran murmurs as Raya, alone in a cave. “To be honest, I need your help. I made a mistake. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have. And now the world’s broken,” she said, her trembling words in a near-whisper.
Says López Estrada, “There were five or six of us in the booth on the other side, and we all had tears in our eyes.”
The final cut features Tran’s own words. “[Raya] sees the world in this doe-eyed idyllic way, and then the world sort of breaks, and it changes the way in which she interacts with the world,” she says now, just before the film’s March 5 release in theaters and on Disney+. “That was my way [into the character]. I’ve definitely in the past viewed the world through rose-colored glasses, and now I feel like I’m in the back, smoking a cigarette, [saying], ‘I’ve seen things.’ “
When the world first met Tran, she was the girl who had won a golden ticket — and wanted to bring everyone along on her tour of the chocolate factory. The unknown actor who had catapulted from improv stages to Star Wars, the biggest movie franchise in the world, met her moment with pinch-me glee. She felt grateful to be chosen.
Not that she was some starry-eyed naïf. As prerelease publicity for Episode VIII — The Last Jedi got underway, she started an Instagram account and used it to poke holes in the Hollywood mythos that makes the unfamous feel like lesser mortals. “I never thought I’d be in a world where someone would pay for people to dress me, do my hair, do my makeup. We spend our whole lives trying to hold ourselves up to a standard that is truly unattainable,” Tran wrote in the caption to an October 2017 post in which she juxtaposed a red carpet photo with a snapshot of herself posing on the street in a Jaws T-shirt and novelty oversized glasses. “This chick on the left is who I am 1% of the time. That girl on the right is who I am 99% of the time. And you know what? They’re both worthy of love.”
“TBH, this is the only way to behave when you become famous,” BuzzFeed declared in an article celebrating her account in December 2017, a week before The Last Jedi‘s premiere.
Everyone knows what happened after the movie came out. Rian Johnson’s vision of a galaxy far, far away divided obsessive fans, and Tran, as the franchise’s most prominent newcomer and first woman of color in a lead role, bore the brunt of the haters’ ire. (John Boyega and Daisy Ridley faced similar harassment when they were introduced in Episode VII.) They polluted her feed with racist and sexist insults, she deleted all her posts, and by the time The Rise of Skywalker premiered in December 2019, the girl who happy-cried her way down her first red carpet two years earlier had been replaced by a woman who stared down the cameras at the El Capitan Theatre, lips sealed in a defiant pout.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to find Tran, now 32, closed off and unwilling to engage with a public that returned her goodwill with bile, so it’s a relief instead to peer through a Zoom screen and find her barefaced, smiling and game to process the unique set of life experiences that brought her from obscurity to Star Wars trailblazer to Disney princess, attended by dual torrents of intense scrutiny and toxic fandom.
Tran’s decision to wipe her Instagram — all that remains is a one-line bio: “Afraid, but doing it anyway” — in June 2018 made headlines, to her consternation. “What’s interesting to me about working in this industry is that certain things become so public, even if you don’t really mean them to be, [like] the succession of events in which I left the internet for my own sanity,” she says. “It was basically me being like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good for my mental health. I’m obviously going to leave this.’ “
At the time, she was in the final week of production for the first season of the Facebook Watch drama Sorry for Your Loss, a meditation on grief in which she plays a recovering alcoholic. “She was very candid about being in a real uncharted territory,” says creator Kit Steinkellner of their conversations on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City. “It’s a rare and awful thing to have that level and volume of hate come at you so relentlessly. I was really impressed with how she dealt head-on with the intense and complicated feelings that anybody would have about this, while continuing to really give as an artist and friend and human.” (Steinkellner likens Tran’s performance to a chiaroscuro painting — “all the lights and the darks.”)
Tran says the whole experience felt like she “fell in love very publicly and then very publicly had an embarrassingly horrible breakup.” She leaned on her tight-knit pre-fame circle of friends, including the members of her all-Asian American female improv troupe Number One Son, and went to therapy, where she learned, “If someone doesn’t understand me or my experience, it shouldn’t be my place to have to internalize their misogyny or racism or all of the above. Maybe they just don’t have the imagination to understand that there are different types of people living in the world.”
Other than an op-ed in The New York Times, in which she penned an assertive, moving declaration of renewed purpose to combat the “lies” that society teaches about women and people of color, Tran also withdrew from the spotlight altogether.
“I left. I said no to a lot of things,” she says. “It felt like I was just hearing the voice of my agents and my publicity team and all of these people telling me what to say and what to do and how to feel. And I realized, I didn’t know how I felt anymore. And I didn’t remember why I was in this in the first place.
“Any time that happens, I have to close up shop and go away for a while and really interact in the real world — read books and journal and go on hikes and look at a tree and remind myself that there was a fire that burned inside of me before Star Wars, before any of this. And I needed to find that again.”
Considering the lengthy gestation period for animated features, Raya and the Last Dragon lands with some timely parallels. Although a sinister atmospheric force (much like a virus) provides the overt threat in the film, the story’s true antagonist is disunity, as the fictional land of Kumandra has been fractured into five kingdoms while people give in to their impulses of power, greed and mistrust. And with disparate Asian American communities in real life offering a variety of responses to the spike in hate crimes over the past year, Raya, the first Disney animated film to be directly inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, takes on additional resonance (even as the movie has also received criticism for casting East Asians in several key roles).
During development, Disney added new members to the project’s creative team — directors Hall (Big Hero 6) and López Estrada (Blindspotting), plus playwright Qui Nguyen (Vietgone) to join screenwriter Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) — who tweaked various elements of story and character, including Raya herself. Originally voiced by Degrassi: The Next Generation alum Cassie Steele (who is of partial Filipino descent), the title character was recast when she shifted from stoic loner to a warrior who possesses a bit more levity. “For a comp we looked at Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of having a little of that swagger,” Hall says. “I don’t remember exactly the moment when we threw out Kelly Marie[‘s name], but we all lit up, just knowing that she’s got improvisational comedic gifts, lightness and buoyancy, but also badassery.”
For Tran, the role was not only a bucket-list item for a diehard Disney nerd (her email handle in high school was “lil_disney_dorko”), but also an opportunity to represent her heritage for the first time in her career. “I’ve never had this experience before where I’ve looked at sides and read words that were taken from the Vietnamese language,” says the actor, who worked with Nguyen to fine-tune and offer suggestions on pronunciation and slang used in Kumandra.
As the first woman-of-color Star Wars lead and first Southeast Asian Disney princess, Tran is well aware that she is a symbol of representation, and is getting better at wearing the mantle without letting it suffocate her. “I understand why there’s that sort of label on the things I’ve done. As a kid, I saw people working in this industry and thought they were somehow elevated human beings, and that if I ever got to that place, I would never feel any insecurity or doubt, and that’s just not true,” she says. “So I acknowledge and validate the label of these things being historic, and I’m so grateful to be part of them, but for my own sanity I have to not think about that too much.”
Says activist Amanda Nguyen, a close friend who found kinship with Tran over being rare Vietnamese American young female public figures in their respective fields, “It’s a constant tug of figuring out, ‘I’m doing this because I love doing it,’ but also being so cognizant of the lack of representation and because of that, all of a sudden you’re the de facto person representing the whole group of people. That’s an immense amount of responsibility that quite frankly is a little unfair to people, and Kelly has handled it with so much grace.”
Ask the filmmakers and creators who have worked with Tran what she was like on their sets, and they all volunteer a specific version of the same anecdote: “She would introduce herself to everyone on the crew,” says The Last Jedi‘s Johnson. “She’d poke her head in departments and ask, ‘What do you guys do in here?’ I’d turn around and she’d be helping sew in Porg feathers.”
Steinkellner says, “You hear of divas and superstars, and there are also [actors] who just come in and do the work and are polite and courteous to below-the-line crew. But Kelly makes a point of really seeing people. To use a woo-woo L.A. word, honoring everybody. She’d ask in a respectful way if she could just shadow and observe the other parts of the machine that normally an actor doesn’t [get involved with].”
Raya is an animated film whose production took place remotely during the pandemic, but Tran was “embedded in our family more than actors usually are,” says López Estrada. She was a part of the crew’s extracurricular activities throughout production, from participating in a Laotian Baci ceremony of blessing to kick off the project, to interviewing multiple crewmembers for making-of featurettes, to recording a goofy duet of “Mockingbird” à la Dumb and Dumber with López Estrada as a wrap gift for the animators. “I think if we hadn’t done the work from home, she probably would’ve come like once a week to the studio to just hang out with everyone,” he says.
When told that her behavior is unusual for an actor: “That makes me want to die,” says Tran. “Maybe it’s because, to this day, I still have worked longer as an admin assistant than a working actor, and because I didn’t grow up in the industry. Going into my first movie, I remember people being like, ‘Oh, you’re hanging out with the PAs on the weekends,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, so?’ I still don’t ever want to believe these made-up status titles we have in Hollywood. I tell my agents all the time: ‘The day that becomes me, I will go back to college and become a scientist.’ “
Tran was an outgoing theater kid from San Diego, performing in local musical productions and an active participant of too many high school clubs. Her parents were refugees from Vietnam who did what they had to in their new country (including working at a funeral home) to provide for their three daughters.
Tran, the middle child, studied communications at UCLA and then joined Los Angeles’ aspiring actor ranks. While working a day job as an office assistant, she honed her comedy chops in local improv shows and video sketches, where the opportunities for an Asian American trying to act onscreen in the early 2010s yielded her roles like “Daughter,” “Boba Chick” and “Full Asian.” Still, while working on spec scripts in Koreatown cafes on days off, it became a running gag among friends that Tran would always inevitably pipe up: “You guys, look at us. We are doing what we want to do for a living! Isn’t it cool?”
Comedian and writer Jenny Yang, a close friend who met Tran through an Upright Citizens Brigade class 10 years ago, recalls the first time she saw the future star take the improv stage. “She was a shiny button,” Yang says. “Her energy, purity, enthusiasm, smile — you could tell she was just so happy to be there, and I think that’s what attracts people to her, because she’s in an industry that can get people very jaded.”
Yang believes those aspects of Tran’s nature became a lightning rod for the polarized responses to her involvement in Star Wars. “Do you remember ‘Protect Kelly Marie Tran at all costs’? That was a line people felt compelled to say over and over again, because she embodied relatability. She came from such a humble path and became a movie star,” Yang says. “I think it also makes sense that the worst of the internet would latch onto that and say, ‘Yes, bitch, you should be grateful.’ That’s the easy flip that people can make off of the energy that she conveyed, which is her gratitude and vulnerability.”
Tran is unlikely to return to social media. “I’ve truly just been so much happier without being on the internet,” she says. “I’ve had my agents tell me [I’m] forgoing brand partnerships, but I’m not here to sell flat-tummy tea to young girls.” She admits she engages in what she and her friends call “one-sided social media,” in which she’s very aware of current events and trending topics, but she self-imposes “extreme limits” when looking up reactions to her own work.
“We can talk about the interaction between mental health and social media, but also mental health and this idea of fame and what it does to you. It is not normal. For me, that navigation is about how I protect myself in a way where I can continue to work in this world, and continue to lift the stories that I feel like the world needs to hear.”
Those stories include Lily Topples the World, a documentary Tran is executive producing that will premiere at SXSW this month. The feature follows college student Lily Hevesh, a Chinese adoptee and the world’s most accomplished domino artist (her YouTube channel has amassed more than 1.1 billion views). Tran describes a scene in which Lily runs a business meeting with a group of middle-aged white men about her upcoming domino line: “She’s much younger than me, and here’s a woman in this space doing her thing, without having to be like, ‘How does it feel to be Asian?’ I want to continue to amplify those stories, but I also want to be that person.”
She’s getting there. “Kelly has definitely become more of a shit-kicker,” says Yang, meaning someone willing to “cut through the bullshit” and upend Hollywood norms. “She’s much more willing to draw boundaries, she proactively asks for what she needs and brings to her team the work she wants.”
When she reflects on her intense journey over the past few years, the part that makes Tran choke up now isn’t the public personal attacks that muddied the most thrilling time in her life. It’s this part: “I think we forget as working actors that even being in this world at all is a miracle.” Her voice is heavy with relief that she’s managed to retain the part of herself — that passion for the magic of storytelling — that she treasures the most. “Hope, for me, looks like reminding yourself that to get where you are, you’ve survived some shit,” Tran says. “When the world is moving so quickly and there are all these voices saying ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll never work again,’ if you really come into your power and surround yourself with people who are honoring your voice and their own voices — I guess that’s how I got through it.”
This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.