Star Wars' Kelly Marie Tran on representation, rejection letters and a certain cliché

Star Wars' Kelly Marie Tran on representation, rejection letters and a certain cliché

A star is made

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Disney,
Getty Images

In Singapore on her first press stop for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Kelly Marie Tran shares what it's like to reach that sweet spot between giving in and giving up

Halfway through a Q&A session at Apple Orchard in Singapore, Kelly Marie Tran breaks out in song. "I will not live to see our glory," she belts out, singing a line from 'The Story of Tonight', a song off the musical Hamilton. The 28-year-old actress from Star Wars: The Last Jedi was responding to a question on Asian representation in Hollywood. It's an inevitable one. While we've seen Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in Star Wars: Rogue One in 2016, Tran, a Vietnamese-American, is the first Asian female lead in the science-fiction franchise.

It's been eight films down the road since we were first introduced to this far-away galaxy in A New Hope back in 1977. As female leads go, the late Carrie Fisher was iconic, sealing her place in pop culture as Princess Leia. Daisy Ridley, the then-unknown star of 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, also faced a similar journey — seemingly plucked out of nowhere to become a poster girl. She recently landed a Vogue cover, alongside a blockbuster role in Murder On The Orient Express.

Enter Tran, a San Diego native of similar humble beginnings. Her character Rose Tico joins two other Star Wars newbies: Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo and Benicio del Toro's DJ, who complete a cast that includes household names like Fisher, Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis and Domhnall Gleeson. While not much is known about Tran's character, we know that she's a Resistance mechanic who accompanies Boyega's Finn in a mission to infiltrate the First Order. An underdog who's neither a princess nor a superhero, a cliché ensues when describing her character. "Someone who's not a front-runner or not the star of the show, you can still make a difference if you really believe in something," she shared. Incidentally, it's this cliché that's been a backbone through Tran's career, evidenced by her stroke of luck, hard work, and impeccable timing.

In Singapore, Tran attended the Singapore International Film Festival benefit dinner and inaugurated a new edition of Marina Bay Sands' nightly light and water show in November. Over the course of Tran's tight-lipped press tour, we've learned a few nuggets on her five-month audition process: The Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter fan had never seen a Star Wars movie prior to auditioning, she wore her lucky Ravenclaw tie to her first audition and that she left work on her lunch break to meet with writer and director Rian Johnson, who eventually gave her the role. Another funny tidbit: When she moved to London in January 2016 to begin filming, she had to lie to her family that she'd booked an indie film in Canada, and even convincingly sent photos through Google street view. 

Before landing the role of Rose Tico, the UCLA communications major trained at improv groups and worked as an assistant in a temp agency and recruitment firm. This week, Star Wars: The Last Jedi will open to more than a dozen international markets, launching in some 4,175 theaters in the U.S. and Canada alone. There's no denying it — Tran's days of anonymity are numbered. The actress spared us eight minutes before the weight of international stardom, red carpet formalities and the headiness of flashing cameras sink in.

A still from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

You almost gave up acting at one point in your life. What pulled you back in?
It can feel impossible, especially if you are struggling to pay bills. But I've said this before and I'll always say it: Everytime I felt like giving up, I just remembered how much my parents had done to get me where I was, in terms of where I got to live and the fact that I didn't have to worry about food or shelter. I had the luxury of having a dream which is something they both didn't have. They spent their whole lives trying to get to a country where we could not worry about being killed in war.

It sounds like a joke because it is so dramatic, but it's actually the truth. I have always felt from the beginning that I've been living for multiple generations because I had the privilege of even having a dream. I think a lot of people don't even realise just to get to that point is a lot further than what lot of people will ever get.

Your parents came to the U.S. following the Vietnam War. Did you find any parallels between the struggles your parents had in the character of Rose Tico?
Absolutely, I dug into that a lot. I think Rose has a really interesting relationship with war and so does my family, so I really did try and use that emotion and knowledge when portraying this character. I wish I could tell you more but we'll have to wait.

You've never watched a Star Wars movie before the audition. When you finally did, which was your favourite?
A New Hope. Not growing up with it turned out to be a great thing because it gave me the ability to be open and honest in portraying a character that I didn't feel was influenced by something that has already been done which is a gift. Once you see something, you can't un-see it.

Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico and John Boyega as Finn

Outside of the movies, how else did you research or learn more about the Star Wars universe?
I read a lot of books and things that I thought were particular to my character. And then I went really deep into the Internet. I went on Reddit. I have a Twitter account that is not me. I'm not going to tell you what my name is but yeah, I was totally trolling Twitter to see what people thought of these characters. I love the idea that you can just role play on Twitter with each other.

You're the first Asian female in a lead role in Star Wars. Do you think Hollywood is becoming more receptive or more conscious of Asian representation in the last few years?

I absolutely do. There is a lot of work to be done but I think we are in this special time right now in terms of diversity and the projects that are being made. You guys like Hamilton? That song where they talk about, "I will not live to see our glory" (sings). The part where they're just talking about how it's just these four guys and they believe in this thing and maybe tomorrow there'll be more of them. I feel like we're part of this change right now.

Speaking of recognisable idols, who were yours growing up?
My first idol was probably Jackie Chan. We used to watch all his movies with my dad. Also, there had always been so many amazing women in the industry that I've always looked up to. I love Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey... I love smart, funny women who aren't afraid to be seen and aren't afraid to create their own content.

Speaking of comedy, you had an improv background in groups such as iO West, Second City, and Upright Citizens Brigade. You're even part of an all-female Asian improv group, Number One Son. What aspects of that did you bring into Star Wars?
Improv is such an incredible thing because of this thing called "'Yes-ending', which is the idea that someone gives you a contribution or idea to something and you just agree and add to it. That is something I love to do in acting. A lot of people think that acting is this solo journey and you're just standing there and it's all you. But it's not. So much of acting is just being present with that other person. What are you giving me right now and how do I respond to that exact moment? How do I add on to something that you're giving to me? That's how my comedy training has come into this whole experience.

Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega on the cover of Entertainment Weekly

You share a lot of screen time with John Boyega, who plays Finn. What was it like working with him?
John Boyega is one of my favourite people on the planet. I wish I was exaggerating, but I'm not. He's so funny and naturally so. I had to go to comedy school — John is just naturally hilarious. He was the most open, welcoming and giving acting partner. I never felt out of place and on a really big movie like this, being the new person, I think that says a lot about the people I was working with. They did a lot to help me feel welcomed.

You've mentioned the countless rejection letters you've received from agencies. Are you really going to frame them like what you've said before?
I kind of want to. I have dozens. I could full on publish a book of rejection letters. A lot of people think the rejection part is hard. I think the harder part is really coming to terms with the idea that you might never be commercially successful in a way that you can actually financially support yourself. The rejection itself is not a big deal.

When I was still struggling, some of my friends were getting married and buying houses and I was not there yet — I'm still not there yet. There was a moment where you make a choice, there was a moment when I could potentially never be able to buy a house, pay my bills or go on vacation. But I made that decision that I was okay with not being financially stable, but I was okay with doing what I loved. I think that's the hardest part of all of it — is really just believing in yourself. It sounds so insane and cliché but truly, finding that confidence and ability to put confidence in yourself and love yourself enough to take that risk is probably the hardest thing. Once you've decided that you're going to do it, you'll get there. It's just a matter of time and numbers.

You need to put that in your book with your rejection letters.
Here's all the rejection letters, and here's a motivational tidbit. 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is showing in cinemas from 14 December.