Star Wars: The Last Jedi 's Kelly Marie Tran Has a Story to Tell
Like a lot of Star Wars fans, I went to see The Last Jedi last December full of questions about newcomer Kelly Marie Tran. And by the time the credits rolled, I was ready to watch her in anything. I’d been excited to see Tran as Rose Tico for months, ever since her casting was announced—though in a series already chockablock with heroes, maybe I can be excused for not fully anticipating just how fantastic and welcome her scene-stealing character would be. Rose is at once a grieving sister, an avenger with a taser, a true believer in the Resistance, and the embodiment of one of the movie’s central messages: you don’t have to be a Chosen One or even a Jedi to make a difference.
For those who don’t usually get to see themselves represented on the big screen, it’s fun, powerful even, to watch a talented young actor like Kelly Marie Tran breaking out in one of the most successful film franchises of all time—I won’t deny how important it is, or how glad I am that kids like mine will get to see it. But what’s truly great about Tran’s performance in The Last Jedi is just the brave, big-hearted realness she brings to Rose, an unassuming maintenance worker who finds her fight and becomes the film’s most unlikely hero. It’s impossible not to root for her as you watch her more than hold her own alongside the magnetic John Boyega—and it feels right that, in the end, she’s the one who saves Finn while delivering the movie’s defining line: “That’s how we’re gonna win...not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”
Tran speaks about her Star Wars persona with obvious affection, adding that some of the praise that’s meant the most has come from people drawn to her because they, too, might do crucial yet less visible work behind the scenes: “Every movement has people like Rose.” She revels in being part of this beloved epic story that is unafraid to change and raise up new heroes like Rose, and Boyega’s Finn, and Daisy Ridley’s Rey. “When Star Wars first came out, it was something no one had ever seen before,” she says. “From its inception it’s been doing groundbreaking things, so to not do that now would be anti-Star Wars.”
Since The Last Jedi, the 29-year-old actor and writer is busier than ever, pursuing creative fulfillment and the stories she has long wanted to see in the world. “I think people can forget that it’s a luxury to have a dream,” says Tran, who grew up in San Diego. Her parents, refugees from Vietnam, “essentially gave up their whole lives” to live in a community where she and her sisters could attend good public schools: “We never went on vacation, they never bought new clothes...It was very much the immigrant mentality of sacrificing so their children could have choices.”
Tran acknowledges how much her life has changed since The Last Jedi, though she notes that she is recognized in public only occasionally (“I look so different from Rose in real life!”). While it’s not yet clear whether Rose Tico will appear in Episode IX, you can expect Kelly Marie Tran to continue doing work she loves and fighting for projects she believes are necessary. “I’m chasing a lot of good stories right now,” she says, “things that matter to me, that I want to have a real impact on society.”
GQ: How life has changed for you since The Last Jedi? Anticipation was one thing, but what’s been your experience since everybody in the world finally got to see the movie?
Kelly Marie Tran: You know, I think my outlook has definitely changed in that I just want to continue to do good work. I’m happy that I let myself feel all of the emotions that came with being in a huge movie like this for the first time, because it only happens once. I think a lot of times people are afraid to let themselves be vulnerable in that way, but I’m so happy I let myself do that.
I think some people think when you get a movie like this, suddenly everything will be perfect, you’ll have made it, you’ll be done—but that’s not how it works. I’m constantly fighting to get stories that I want told to be told. That’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on since the movie came out. It’s been really wonderful that it’s given me [those] opportunities.
What’s that look like you, fighting for these stories?
I think a lot of actors, writers, directors, producers might say it’s always kind of a fight if you want to tell a story that doesn’t fit a certain template we’ve seen before. For me, it’s also about making sure that when I want to tell a story, or when I choose projects to align myself with, I’m very careful about the messages they put across—what they’re saying about the world in general, about human beings. It took me a while to understand you’re defined by what you do, but also what you say “no” to. Saying no is so new to me; as a woman, you know, you’re taught to just kind of be gracious all the time and accept everything and always say thank you. And there’s another layer on top of that if you’re, say, born to immigrant parents—whatever your culture is, that can also play a part in how you interact in the world.
I’m one of those people who’s always working on something, always developing something, always writing something. The one true love of my life is storytelling. I believe it’s such a powerful tool, and can open the eyes of so many people. So I want to tell important stories. I’m always chasing growth, and also always reminding myself of who I was when I was twelve and what I wanted to see in the world.
What did you want to see back then?
I wanted to see women who were happy, who loved themselves, who were comfortable in their own skin, who weren’t afraid to be who they were even if they weren’t quote-unquote “beautiful” as defined by society. What’s wonderful is now I do feel we’re making progress in terms of representation, in terms of body positivity and the idea that “healthy” is different on everyone’s body. For a long time we’ve sort of idolized one shape and one type of one person, and not everyone looks like that, and that doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful! So many people and companies push these images out in the world, saying “This is what you need to be loved, to be accepted”—and we all want those things, but we have to remember these images are being pushed at us so we feel insecure; so we’ll buy things.
I hope I can be part of this redefining of what “beauty” is. I think in ten or twenty years, people might look back on this as a time when a lot of women were really standing up for and defining themselves as opposed to letting society define them. I want to see more of that. There are so many amazing women out there who I look up to, who are doing that, and I want to be part of it.
Who are some of the women you look up to?
Oh, so many! I love Gina Rodriguez, Tiffany Haddish, Tessa Thompson, Ava DuVernay, Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Priyanka Chopra, Tina Fey...I could go on and on and on. I hadn’t fully realized, because I am kind of new to this—I had this normal life, and worked in an office for years—that just being in this world, being in the public sphere, takes courage. It takes courage to put yourself out there where millions of people are looking at you, knowing some people will judge and make comments. It takes courage and so much strength just to be yourself, and I look up to women who do that.
I’m sure there have been many wonderful experiences since you got this role, but has it ever been hard or painful for you to put yourself out there, as you put it?
Absolutely. When I first started seeing these really acidic, misogynistic, racist comments, I remember thinking how unfair it was and wondering whether to respond. But this has been my saving grace: when it starts feeling like too much, I remind myself to look outward. My biggest coping mechanism is just looking out at the world and realizing none of this is really about me...this would happen to anyone who put themselves out there.
You know who had good advice about that? John Boyega. I really look up to John. He went through the Star Wars thing a couple years before I did, and there were little bits of advice he’d give me that would only hit me later. Like, you know, “The haterade just comes with it. Everyone gets it; it’s not personal.” I’m sure he doesn’t realize what an impact that made on me when he said it, but when I was finally dealing with it, I realized he was right. It can feel so personal when someone says something about your race or your body, but those people don’t know you. It’s not about you at all.
It’s hard when you’re in an industry where people don’t know you—they know this idea of you from an interview, or they know a character you played in a movie—and they’ll make judgments so quickly...I think the best thing is to just let myself be honest, not live my life playing a game to make other people like me. I don’t think anyone should have to do that.
You’ve been really honest about the excitement of living through all of this, which I think is one reason why so many people connected with you in this movie. Was there something you’d remind yourself of in moments when it got to be kind of overwhelming?
When we started doing press, Daisy [Ridley] explained it really well. She said, “Get ready, it’s like sensory overload.” I’m lucky to have had a really supportive group of people around me. [Writer/director] Rian Johnson and [producer] Ram Bergman have been so great and supportive. Daisy and John had gone through it before, so I could look at them and think, Hey, they’re still alive. And they’re thriving!
When I got involved in this movie, I never wanted to be that person wishing for it to be over. So even when things were overwhelming, I tried to give myself the gift of experiencing and enjoying everything.
Do you get recognized all the time now?
You know, I look so different from Rose in real life. It does happen once in a while. I still go to Trader Joe’s, or go work out...I get to live this awesome double life. It’s the best of both worlds, because I am afforded all the wonderful opportunities that come with being in a film like this—I can get into rooms I was never allowed to be in before—but as an actor, as writer, as a creative, the most important thing is making sure I protect my ability to observe human nature and be part of that experience. It would be a lot more complicated if I couldn’t just walk out and be a normal human.
You’ve done a lot of improv comedy, and before The Last Jedi, I had seen some of your sketches on CollegeHumor. Growing up, were you always an actor, always drawn to comedy?
I always liked acting. I started as a singer, I was a major choir nerd—I did regional choir, all-state California choir, and musical theater, and I was in a cappella groups at UCLA. So I always loved performing, but I don’t know that I necessarily wanted to be in comedy at first. I think there’s something to be said about the roles that are available to you as a woman of color. The reason I got into comedy was not necessarily because I wanted to be a comedian. I knew I had to be good at that, because I would most likely be playing the friend on a sitcom. While I do love improv and comedy, my dream was always to be an actor, not a comedian.
I don’t think I could have gotten the job without the skills I learned in improv and comedy, and working with CollegeHumor, [which] I love and adore. Improv taught me something so important: how to not be afraid to look silly or to show true human emotion. As an actor, I never want to be worried about what I look like; I want to be in the moment. I want to be so honest with you that if I fail, that’s fine—sometimes the most beautiful things come out of failure, and what’s unplanned.
Learning how to work with people is so important. This is such a collaborative industry. When you watch an actor, you don’t always realize how many people were there helping that actor, taking care of things so you could be in this creative world. I love that collaboration, and that is also something I first learned in improv and comedy.
Rose is so real and fun to root for, and I would have liked her as a character no matter what, but it did feel like a huge deal to so many people that she was played by an Asian American.
You know, I sometimes wish we didn’t have to talk about this, and it’s not because I’m not proud of who I am; I’m really proud of who I am. But I wish the world was different. I wish there was equal representation across races, cultures, socioeconomic classes, gender identities, body types, abilities; I wish all people were represented—as writers, directors, producers, actors! I wish it wasn’t so rare.
But the fact of the matter is, as much as I wish the world was different, it’s not. I mean, you grew up in the same world I did. I never saw myself in anything, so I know how important this is. I also think it’s important to be working behind the scenes toward that change we need, and I’m definitely putting myself in a position where one day I will be part of that change.
This interview has been condensed and edited.