While I was never the biggest Disney fan growing up, I was all ears when I heard about Raya and The Last Dragon. A Southeast Asian-inspired story, voiced by an Asian cast, starring the very first Southeast Asian princess-heroine? I’ve been vocal about how Hollywood hasn’t had the best history of representing Asian culture and stories, but I had my hopes up with this movie. And lucky for me, Kelly Marie Tran, the voice of the ferociously tenacious Raya, sat down with me to speak about the film. If you haven’t heard of Kelly Marie Tran, it might be because she’s kept a rather low profile after her breakout films in the most recent Star Wars movies (although I still have dreams about her incredible The Last Jedi premiere dress). Tran is no stranger to the concept of Internet bullying, but now, she's back and more outspoken than ever about the importance of mental health, Asian-American representation, and addressing our emotions. Ahed, get to know and love Kelly Marie Tran.
Thanks so much for speaking with me, this is so exciting!
Oh, my Gosh! Thanks for having me!
How are you?
Yeah, I’m doing alright! I’ve honestly just been busy doing the press for Raya and The Last Dragon these past few weeks. I’m just excited to just take off my makeup and be in sweats for, like, a month after this,
What does your routine look like while you’re promoting a movie during a pandemic?
Well, as soon as I don’t have to be in makeup, I’m not in makeup! I’m definitely one of those people who usually doesn’t do anything to my face or my hair. I’ll wash my face, put on moisturizer, and put on sunscreen, but I usually just...keep things natural. I like my skin to breath. But during a press tour, I try to drink a lot of water, sleep enough, and try to eat as healthy as possible so I have enough energy to be talking all day. But sometimes, you just gotta eat a pizza!
Tell me your favorite beauty products.
I use Beautycounter’s makeup remover, and I also like this really small brand called Laurel. I don’t know how old they are, but they’re a small company, and I really like their cleanser and spritzer; I use some moisturizer, too. They’re all plant-based and all natural. I love 100% Pure, also. All the brands are all non-toxic, with clean ingredients. I have a lot of skin allergies, so these brands work best for me!
Are there any beauty or wellness products bringing you comfort during this time?
Sweatpants. No explanation needed.
Growing up, did you have any beauty icons?
I'm a lot more interested in the beauty icons of today! Janet Mock, Gemma Chan, Tessa Thompson...I STAN.
I’m so excited to talk to you for so many reasons. I just want to tell you that I’ve been pouring over the trailers to absorb every detail I can find, because I’m just so excited to see the movie.
Oh, my gosh, really? I love that so much!
I just think that when you grow up in the US, it’s really hard to find representations of Asian culture in animation, except for Avatar: The Last Airbender. So now, having this Southeast Asian princess is amazing. How does it feel knowing you’re doing to be voicing a character as game-changing as Raya?
It feels crazy, you know? I grew up the same way you did, not really having representations of myself in the media, and especially not in mainstream media, at a global scale! So to be part of something where it feels like a miracle. It’s just really beautiful to see and recognize the ways in which this movie is part of positive change, in being able to broaden what it means to be a princess or a hero. And, yeah, that’s a big deal to me.
Beyond just how visually stunning the visuals are, this movie feels like this whole celebration of Asianness. And you don’t really see that in mainstream media. Did you watch much Asian animation growing up, like Studio Ghibli or anime?
I did! When I was a kid, Sailor Moon was the thing that we all loved! I watched a lot of that animated media for sure. I mean, the Disney side only really had Mulan, for Asian-Americans to be able to see themselves in.
Yeah, when you’re growing up Asian, the only animated media that you feel represented in anime like Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball.
Yeah, when I was young, I just grasped onto any little bit of representation. Like, the Yellow Ranger in Power Rangers or Katie Leung from Harry Potter, because she was the one Asian character. It felt like there were so few crumbs of representation, that every time there was something, I had to hold onto it for deal life.
I remember the first time I heard of you was right after my best friend had gone to see The Last Jedi, and she mentioned that you were getting a lot of internet harassment about your race and your appearance, and also your character in the movie. And your essay in The New York Times really resonated with me, because I also am so sick of Asian-American women being criticized for being more than just an abstract fantasy.
I think about that a lot because when I look back at who I was and who I am, I guess...that character was supposed to be something that no one had ever seen before in the galaxy. And she was! I mean, there had never been an Asian woman that had a role of such magnitude in that universe. Which is crazy, because it was 2017! Not that long ago!
Not only that, isn’t the Jedi code based off of bushido?
Yes! Yes! Anyways, it was a really interesting experience. I think I’ve learned a lot about who I was then and the world I had grown up in, and the reasons why I internalized all that racism and all that misogyny! My first instinct was blaming myself, as opposed to looking at what is wrong with the world, in this situation. The world already had taught me that I belong in the background, and to have people come at me, reiterated something that I already believed subconsciously.
So, it feels really good now to be in a space where I’m not internalizing that stuff anymore. I took time off this industry and I’ve done all of this mental work to get to a place where I now understand that just because the world doesn’t understand me, and doesn’t have a path for me to follow because there’s never been someone like me, doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. It doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to be here. Maybe I need to look at the world and what’s wrong with it, as opposed to what’s wrong with me. I think about my younger self, and I just wanna give her a big hug. I wish she knew the things that I know now.
What has helped you most throughout this period of healing?
Probably therapy! I come from a family that doesn’t really believe in therapy, and I don’t want to generalize Asian people, but my parents don’t believe in mental health. It was just something that wasn’t accessible to me in my younger years. But I think we’re living in a different world! Gen Z is very, very aware of the importance of mental health, and we now have this shared vocabulary to talk about things on a mainstream level that we couldn’t talk about 10 years ago. And I think that the world is becoming better for that awareness.
I’m not going to lie, it was a really difficult time. But I think that I’ve moved forward and pushed forward in a really positive way. The fact that I’m still existing and the fact that I’m still willing to put myself on a public platform despite the trauma I associate public appearance with says a lot about the work that I’ve done. I’m really proud that I showed up for myself in those moments, because I think it could have gone a different way really fast.
I think that because we’re both Asian-Americans, we’re both hyper-aware of the attacks of Asian-Americans at the moment, especially with the rise of Covid-19. And from what I’m getting from the trailers and Jhene Aiko’s song, a big theme in Raya is about choosing to see the best in people and in the world.
I think that it’s very easy to look from the outside in and say, “Oh, trust and unity, that’s all we need!” But if we’re actually really thinking about what you just brought up, about how broken the world is, and about the pain and the trauma that comes from having to see people that look like you in your community being harassed and attacked...having experienced that, I think the best thing about the movie is that it doesn’t trivialize and simplify these experience and package it up in a “just look for the good” bow.
There’s a scene in the movie where Raya really gets to feel justifiably angry. And I have never seen a Disney princess or heroine in a movie in this genre be able to feel that. To be able to just be able to really sink into what it means to live in a world where things are not going how they should. It’s my favorite part of the movie! She’s just fully, so angry and I think that anger is an okay response to what’s happening in the world. There’s an anger that’s justifiable. There’s a righteous anger.
At the end of the day, Raya’s able to pull herself out of her anger because of her community supporting her. She starts to see, “Oh, look at the way my friends are all still helping,” and how in spite of the way the world is broken, there are people who are still fighting for the idea of a better one without knowing it that better one actually exists. I think that’s the important message. I think just saying, “oh, look for the good in the world,” can kind of trivialize the pain and trauma that people are going through. Being able to play a character who authentically lets herself feel angry...gosh, when you see it, I hope you resonate with it. The movie doesn’t trivialize that pain and trauma, but to overcome those things is still important. It’s so hard to do. The characters in the movie struggle with that in a really authentic way, and I think that’s the most important part of being able to address these issues at all.
That’s amazing. Because when you’re a woman, you’re always told never to be angry and to just take it. And in Asian culture, you’re really taught to suppress your emotions and just swallow things down. And when your community is so saturated with that suppressive culture, it can just take so much time to even come around to the idea of validating emotions like anger.
I know! Girl, we could talk about this all day! The amount of times where I just told myself to take it...when you grow up in a community where suppressing your emotions is so ingrained in the culture and in your subconscious, to constantly push down your own emotions to make sure everyone else around you is okay, it can definitely be a bad thing. I think with this movie, we’re recognizing how dangerous that is and how important it is to let yourself feel the things you’re feeling. Because a lot of times, you’re justified in those emotions, and to be able to still feel them and then process them and move forward is a more constructive conversation than just pushing them down.
What’s it been like to play a character who is so strong, and who has so many barriers up and struggles to trust people? At least, according to the trailers. It seems like Raya has a pretty strong voice, which is such a departure from how mainstream media has historically marginalized Asian voices.
It’s awesome. I think this experience of playing this character has been a really healing one for me. Because I got to live in her skin and recognize the ways that I want to be more like her. It was really healing to just let myself feel all those things and I was just emotionally honest as possible.
Now that you’ve broken boundaries and played the first Asian woman in Star Wars and played the first Southeast Asian princess in a Disney franchise, what’s next for you?
I want to continue to grow into myself, honestly. In terms of career goals, I’d love to get into writing and directing my own stuff. But honestly, I don’t really care about accolades or clout. I’m not chasing any titles, just growth. With every project I take on, I want to feel an increased ability to feel compassion for others. I ask myself if this will make me a better person or will it take me away from that. I want to continue on that path, because I don’t think it’s led me astray so far.