I'm on hold for a few minutes as I wait for a publicist to patch my call through to Kelly Marie Tran; the muzak playing is “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana—an unusually stirring (but very Disney) detail. Turns out, she’s hearing the same thing.
“I literally laughed so hard listening to that,” says Tran after we connect, still giggling. She then confesses that the animated hit featured heavily on her playlist a few months ago, although she’s more into the Dear Evan Hansen Broadway cast recording these days.
Tran (left) in character with her co-star John Boyega in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Tran’s name might not be immediately familiar to you, but just wait for December 15. That’s when the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, hits theatres and when Tran, a Vietnamese-American, will make history as the first major character played by an Asian woman in the saga. Although details about her character, Rose Tico, have been guarded more tightly than an Imperial Prison, we do know this: She’s a resistance fighter/mechanic who befriends John Boyega’s ex-storm- trooper turned galaxy saver. Rose is also described as a bit of a “nobody,” which could apply to Tran herself—before this, the San Diego native’s biggest onscreen credits were some videos for CollegeHumor.
That’s why the Moana “on hold” music feels eerily on point: This is kind of Tran’s standing-on-the-beach-look-ing-out-at-the-wide-ocean moment, and this 28-year-old is embracing it with joy, gusto and intelligent good humour that feel very Disney princess-like...circa 2017.
Were you brought up on Star Wars? “No, I wasn’t! I think that not seeing the movies actually helped me. I could take myself out of the situation when I was auditioning and create the character. Once I got the part, I watched all of the movies, read as much as I could and went on all of the message boards.”
What dark corners of the Internet did that take you to? “I was everywhere. I’ve been on Reddit and Making Star Wars [a mega-fan website], and I saw Twitter accounts created by people so that they can tweet one another and role-play as the characters. I love it. I’m aging myself, but I wish Twitter had been around when I was 10 so I could have done things like that. But it has been so cool to see pictures and things coming out in the press and everyone trying to figure out what this or that means. It’s really interesting!”
The Star Wars universe has gotten progressively more diverse, and your character is a major part of that. “I just know that when I was younger, there were very few people who looked like me in movies, so I know how much it would have meant to me [to see this character]. I feel the pressure of doing right by the franchise, and then, outside of that, I also feel like so many people are excited about an Asian person being in the movie. It’s exciting, but I don’t take it lightly. Star Wars is something that so many people have loved for so long, and I understand how important these stories are. Storytelling is the one true love story in my life, and it’s gotten me through so much.”
Take me back to your first day on the set. “First of all, walking onto a set like that, where everything is built and looks real, is a whole other thing. It’s such a crazy feeling, being in full costume and makeup and looking up and seeing ‘Finn’ and all these characters that people love. I remember feeling like I was about to play the Superbowl, like I had to go into ‘game mode’ and not acknowledge all these things while I was working—I couldn’t let myself freak out. And then when I’d go home, I was like, ‘OMG!’”
Did you get to know Daisy Ridley and John Boyega before you met them as “Rey” and “Finn”? “I got to hang out with both of them before we started shooting. To have people like that on your side, who’ve already gone through what you’re experiencing, is so comforting. Daisy was so welcoming to me, and she didn’t have to be. That was the coolest thing: Every single person on that set was a very loving, open human being, and that is not something you can say about every movie. I mean, this is my first big picture so I’m just assuming!”
Did you make any new-kid mistakes along the way? “I was probably making them all the time, but everybody was so nice they weren’t telling me. I mostly just watched other people do things and then I’d be like, ‘Cool. That’s what a mark is’ or ‘Okay, so that’s what a stand-in does.’”
What were you doing before you got this part? “I was working as an assistant in an office to support my acting career. I did that for a long time.”
Was the day you got to quit that gig the best ever? “Anytime you want to be doing something with your life but you’re not, and you’re just doing something as a means to an end, you’re counting down the days. That’s not to say I didn’t make friends doing that job! I actually remember that on the day I got the part, I had to go back to work and couldn’t tell anyone. I had to finish the day as if nothing had happened. I answered emails and took phone calls. But, yeah, the day I did quit was pretty historic.”
This article first appeared in the December 2017 edition of ELLE Canada.