Actress Kelly Marie Tran spoke to Long Beach Students as part of the latest installment of “An Evening With” on April 27, sharing her experience navigating the entertainment industry as an Asian American.
Tran recently made history for voice-acting Raya, Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Tran also starred as Rose Tico in “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker” of the “Star Wars” saga as the first woman of color in a leading role.
For Tran, getting to play characters like Rose Tico in “Star Wars,” or being the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, means so much to her, she said, because growing up, she never saw anyone that looked like her doing what she is doing.
Tran discussed how when she first started working in the industry, she had unconscious biases toward herself built around the fact that she had only seen people that look like her in certain ways. Tran said it affected what she believed she could accomplish.
“I would love to help leave behind a world where people just believe that they can do things that they haven’t seen before because I feel like I’m very much an example of that,” Tran said.
Tran pursued acting even as her parents didn’t think she should be an actor, a sentiment she said she better understands as an adult after realizing her parents’ lack of access to education made them so insistent on hers.
Tran, a first-generation Vietnamese American, shared that her parents came to the U.S. with “the shirt on their backs” and recalled growing up and seeing her dad wake up at 4 a.m. to work at Burger King, his first job in America.
She said her parents worked hard to have food on the table and a roof over their heads, and it taught her a lot about her own work ethic, perseverance and privilege, especially when it got hard for her juggling four jobs and trying to make time to attend auditions and go over her lines.
During all of this, Tran said, she always thought of her parents.
“They worked just as hard and not even for, you know, a dream that they had,” Tran said. “They worked just as hard to make sure that I could have a dream. So I think that I carry that with me.”
Tran said she would tell her younger self to really believe in herself, work hard and surround herself with people who inspire her.
“I really believe that impossible things are possible and that you’ll get there because I am an example of that, I am not a person that knew anyone in the industry…I really do believe that if you love something, that is such a rare thing, having a passion for something is so rare and so unique and I think that if you want to pursue something that feels impossible, just do it step by step, little by little, and I think you’ll be really surprised by the ways that doors start to open,” Tran said.
When Tran joined the cast of “Star Wars,” she experienced online bullying and pushback, people making sexist and racist comments on social media, highlighting toxicity in a fandom that is meant to welcome all.
Though Tran said she was aware of the microaggressions and racism she had experienced as a child, being subjected to this on a constant level made her have to reconcile with these facets of a “broken world” and made her have to learn how to interact with the world again.
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Tran shared how she wants to work toward a world everyone is seen for what they are: human beings.
During the event, Tran said that writing the piece was “one of the most healing experiences of my life.”
In the article, Tran also shared her birth name, Loan, and was asked about it during the event.
Tran talked about how she has thought about reclaiming things about herself that the world “taught her to be ashamed of” and called this reclamation of her culture an “act of rebellion.”
Though Tran said she is in a position to get help for herself, she said that everyone should be able to go to therapy if needed, and said that one day, people who have lived through hard experiences will be able to look back and see how that “informed the things that you want to do now” and called that “powerful.”
But outward perceptions and labels thrown at her by others are not Tran’s only challenges.
Tran explained we have all been raised in a society that has only made space for one type of person, and therefore we have internalized ideas that have not been questioned.
“If I feel like I can’t do something, I’m like, ‘Where is that idea coming from?’ and really digging down deep to figure out is that really something I don’t believe I can do or is that something that people told me I couldn’t do from a really young age, and do I need to help unravel that so that I can really believe that I can do it,” Tran said, calling it hard work.
Tran said that when she is choosing a role, she wants to make sure she is not perpetuating a negative stereotype about a group of people. Now, Tran is moving into executive producing, working on two projects that, being in her position, allows her to lift voices that have been historically underrepresented.
“I really feel like the person that I wanted to be three years ago when I wrote that op-ed, sometimes I go back and I read about the world that I wanted to live in and the person that I wanted to be, and I really feel like I am doing those things and I’m trying as much as possible to contribute to a better world,” Tran said.
When Tran was a “struggling actor,” she explained that she believed once she started working, her life would be easy, often romanticizing a future that then looked so far away to her.
She shared with students that those working in the industry still have fears and insecurities, but they’ve learned how to work with it and encouraged students that if they are afraid, it still doesn’t mean they can’t do things they want to do.
Tran also reminded students to not pay attention to academic institutions with big names or feel that they need to know what they are doing once they graduate, saying that “you are enough.”
“You don’t have to follow the sort of path that people think is the right path,” Tran said. “There is no right path. And I think that if I had followed the quote, ‘right path’ that society had given me, I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking to you about it.”