Kelly Marie Tran on Star Wars hate speech: ‘Through the stuff, I always had my friends’

The actor on toxic fanbases, being on ‘an improv team of all-Asian women’ and Croods 2

Kelly Marie Tran is the first woman of colour to be cast as a major character in the Star Wars movies.

Kelly Marie Tran is the first woman of colour to be cast as a major character in the Star Wars movies.

 

The vogue for long-awaited sequels continues apace. The Croods 2 can’t quite compete with Mad Max: Fury Road or Mary Poppins Returns in terms of lost years. But it’s certainly been a spell. The sequel to the hit 2013 animation The Croods was announced within months of the original film’s $587.2 million box office success. The second film’s development and release has been subsequently prolonged, occasionally cancelled, and variously delayed due to corporate wrangling around 20th Century Fox, more corporate wrangling around DreamWorks Animation, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Croods 2 or The Croods: A New Age as it is known in several territories reunites the prehistoric family of the original movie, as voiced by Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, and – in one of her final roles – Cloris Leachman. Meanwhile, new recruits to the franchise include Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, and Kelly Marie Tran, as a rival, neighbouring clan.

“It’s crazy being in this movie,” says Tran. “ I mean, just look at the cast in this movie. Everyone’s so incredible. It still feels very unreal that I’m a part of it. So I’m really excited for people to get to see it and meet the new characters.”

Tran was just starting out in the business when The Croods became the 11th highest grossing film of the year. Growing up in San Diego, she worked at a yoghurt shop to earn money for headshots. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants – her mother worked at a funeral home; her dad, at Burger King – she graduated from UCLA with a BA in communications before finding work on an internet comedy series. As an auditioning actor, she featured in podcasts and Facebook Watch serials. She starred in the indie horror The Cohasset Snuff Film and two episodes of the TV spin-off of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy, while holding down a day job as an assistant at a creative recruiting firm.

“It’s funny, because I don’t know, I still feel kind of new to this world, even though I started working when I was just 16,” she says. “So it has really only been four years that I’ve been a working actor. But the more that I work in this world, the more that I recognise that as an actor, the only thing you have control over is essentially trying to be as honest as possible when you’re auditioning for a project. The things that come to you come to you. So I’m really grateful to have all these projects coming up, but I’m not sitting here with a map. I don’t know what I’m going to get. I was working in an office struggling to be in movies. What happens happens.”

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) in The Croods: A New Age.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) in The Croods: A New Age.

Tran trained in improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the one-time testing ground for Adam McKay and Amy Poehler, when she picked up skills that would later be put to terrific use in Broadway’s annual Miscast gala, in which Tran played both Elder Price and Elder Cunningham in a rendition of The Book of Mormon’s You and Me (But Mostly Me). Comedy, she says, runs in the family.

“My dad is definitely just a hilarious person,” says Tran. “My mama is really boisterous. And I’m really good at storytelling, We’re really good at lying. We used to make up all sorts of stories. I don’t know how appropriate they are. But my dad would make up all these stories he would tell us as kids, with mama sitting in the corner, just shaking her head. Stories were always a big part of my life. But I didn’t know that it was a career that people could pursue, because it just seemed so impossible. Not only was my family from Vietnam, we were very much working class. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to be doing. It seemed so far away.”

She laughs. “My parents still think it’s far away. They still think I’m crazy. Only recently they were like: ‘So you already did the acting thing? Are you going to go back to grad school now?’”

In 2017, Tran scored a huge career break when she was cast as Rose Tico, a Resistance maintenance worker in Rian Johnson’s Stars Wars: The Last Jedi. She was the first woman of colour to be cast as a major character in the planet’s most profitable space opera.

‘Sticking together’

“It’s definitely something that I took on with a lot of responsibility,” says Tran. “It’s so cool to be a part of all of these, all of these established properties and projects that, when I was watching movies growing up, I truly never thought that I would be a part of. Star Wars felt like a miracle, and then The Croods felt like a miracle. It’s a constant source of surprise for me.”

Star Wars was a big deal. Even in the past year, as Chloe Zhao celebrated winning the Oscar for best director for her work on Nomadland, a new study emerged from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative demonstrating that over the past 13 years, just 44 major films had an Asian American or Pacific Islander, or AAPI. Some 14 of those starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is of Samoan descent.

Tran’s Cinderella story was, sadly, soon tainted by an army of alt-right Star Wars fans. The actor was forced to shut down her Instagram account when the premiere of The Last Jedi brought a stream of invective concerning – at best – the character of Rose, and – at worst – Tran’s appearance, gender and race. The page for Tran’s character on the Star Wars fan site, Wookiepedia, was altered to feature some breathtaking (and puerile) vitriol.

Kelly Marie Tran: “It’s important to open up the doors for people who haven’t been seen or heard before.” Photograph: Suzanne Hanover/ DreamWorks Animation
Kelly Marie Tran: “It’s important to open up the doors for people who haven’t been seen or heard before.” Photograph: Suzanne Hanover/ DreamWorks Animation

The toxic fanbase was countered by Tran’s co-stars including Mark Hamill – who took to Twitter with the #GetALifeNerds hashtag – and Domhnall Gleeson, who rightly described the abusive Star Wars fans as “morons”.

Against all odds, Tran maintained her composure throughout the ordeal. She had help, she says.

“I’m on an improv team of all Asian women,” says Tran. “And that’s how we got through the comedy gigs. By just sticking together. With auditions, I have always had a really supportive group of actresses around me, and we just help each other on our tapes and our auditions. That’s the only way to make it. Acting isn’t a solo sport. It’s communal. And through the Star Wars stuff, I always had my friends.”

‘Double-edged sword’

In a thoughtful 2018 essay for The New York Times Tran noted that the hate she’d received “seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of colour already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, only valid as a minor character in their lives and stories. Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life: that I was ‘other’, that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them,” she wrote.

She insists that things are improving, and have continued to improve over the three years that have elapsed since her essay was published.

“There are changes happening, which is really exciting,” says Tran. “Of course it’s sort of a double-edged sword. There’s also a lot more work to be done. But it’s always so wonderful to see different types of people on screen, people who, historically, haven’t been afforded those opportunities before. And at the same time, there are more under-represented groups that, I hope, get to be part of that change. It’s important to open up the doors for people who haven’t been seen or heard before. We need more of them. It’s great to be part of what’s happening. But I think it’s hard because a lot of times the pressure of representing can feel sort of debilitating. It’s just unfair, and it’s impossible. You really need more than one person to represent an entire country. Especially when there are so many great new actresses who I love who are working now.”

Actors that Tran loves include her co-stars in Raya and the Last Dragon, the first Disney animation to boast a Hollywood cast of Asian-descended stars, including Tran in the lead role, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Sandra Oh.

“The more I work in this world, the more that I recognise how hard it is for everyone. I used to think that once you became a working actor, you’ve made it. I remember looking at actors in films and thinking: look how evolved they are; they just exude confidence. But you have to keep fighting for it. And even if you feel afraid as you’re pursuing it, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get where you want to go. So that’s something that I try to tell myself. Especially when people ask me about my experience, because in my, in my discovery of what isn’t working in this industry, and what it needs, I think that we’ve really begun to understand that we’re all a mess, and we’re all trying our best. That is sort of scary. But scary is what has made this whole journey worthwhile.”

The Croods 2: A New Age is on general release from July 16

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