In Raya and the Last Dragon, the new film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Kelly Marie Tran voices the title character, a warrior princess who embarks on a quest to reunite her shattered land, the mythical kingdom of Kumandra, as an insidious evil from reemerges within. A formidable, fearless fighter already, Raya assembles a ragtag team as she goes, including the world’s last dragon (voiced by Awkwafina), who possibly holds the magical key that Raya needs to unite the peoples of Kumandra again.
“It means a lot to me,” says Tran about landing the role of Raya after original star Cassie Steele dropped out (according to Vanity Fair, Tran was cast after the character was changed significantly enough that a different interpretation was needed). As a Vietnamese-American actress, Tran has now made history three times: She was the first woman of color to nab a significant role in a Star Wars film, she was the first woman of Southeast Asian descent to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair, and she is now also the first to play a Disney princess in the company’s first movie based on Southeast Asian culture.
“I think back to moments in my childhood where I didn’t get to see myself represented in anything,” says Tran as we speak on Zoom ahead of Raya’s opening. “To believe that we are hopefully broadening the narrative when it comes to what people think of when they think of the word princess, or when they think of the word hero, or when they think of the word warrior–and hopefully reinforcing the idea that it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from, you can be any of these things. I think young me would have been really proud of where I am today and what I’m trying to do.”
Just over three years ago, however, things were a lot different for Tran. After landing the part of Rose Tico in director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she was the subject of vicious racist and misogynist attacks on social media from a toxic subsection of fan culture, leading her to abandon social media as members of the cast and acting community at large rallied to her defense. “I just don’t think about it that much anymore,” she tells us now about that time. “There’s probably some healing that was done in just being able to work on something else that I cared just as much about.”
That something was Raya and the Last Dragon. With the movie steeped in the culture of eight different countries, including Tran’s ancestral land of Vietnam, Tran says everyone involved in the production was personally invested in representing various aspects of those cultures in the fictional melting pot of Kumandra.
“I think everyone working on the movie had input when it came to that,” says Tran. “It was really an open door policy. Everyone was really meticulous in wanting to make sure that we authentically represented this specific part of the world.”
She continues, “From the martial arts depicted in the movie to the food to the ways in which the characters interact with each other, there’s so much specific to this part of the world, to this culture. And I’m really glad that I got to play a part in that because I was really surprised and really comforted just by how serious the team as a whole was when it came to making sure that we captured authentically what it was like to be a part of these cultures.”
Tran started her voice sessions for the film in a traditional recording studio before moving to a makeshift one in her house.
“My boyfriend made for me… it was sound blankets taped to the wall, and then furniture haphazardly put together to make a rectangular shape,” she says. “That was the glamorous location in which most of this was recorded” She also adjusted her performance to the way that the character evolved over time, something which tends to happen in animated productions.
“I think with projects like this, the look of the characters and the relationships of the characters change a lot,” the actor explains. “For me, I think the most important thing is really the relationships of the characters, because that will affect the ways that they’re interacting with each other, and the ways that the characters even interact with themselves, if something happens early on that affects the way that they see themselves. I was really grateful that Don (Hall) and Carlos (López Estrada), our directors, were really good at giving us the specific circumstances in which our characters found themselves in.”
As is also typical of animated productions, and even more so since this was done last year during the initial onslaught of COVID, Tran did not get a chance to act directly opposite Awkwafina, of whom she was a tremendous fan even before they got to become castmates.
“We had met once at an event,” Tran says. “And then after that, we got to interact a lot more just through doing press like this. Unfortunately, because of COVID we haven’t really been able to interact that much, but I’m such a huge fan of hers. I just respect her so much. I think that she is an incredible force and will continue to do amazing things in her career.”
In one of the strange ways that pop culture and real life seem to connect somehow–which is always odd considering how long films like this are in development and production–Raya and the Last Dragon is coming out with a message about a people finding unity and trust in each other at a time when those very aspects of our own society are arguably at their lowest in more than a century.
“It’s crazy to be part of something that has been in development for so many years and to have the message feel so timely and so relevant,” says Tran. “That’s definitely something that you can’t really plan. But I absolutely understand the significance of that, and recognize that we’re doing a movie where the main character believes that the world is broken, and believes that you can’t trust anyone, believes that there’s danger around every corner.
“And by the end, I think what’s really incredible about her is that she meets all of these characters who she at first doesn’t trust, and then she recognizes that once she opens her heart to them, that they are these incredible people,” Tran adds. “But then she takes it a step further by risking everything to fight for the idea of a world that’s bigger than the one that she’s living in, a world where all of her friends and her community that used to be her enemies can hopefully live in unity and harmony. That is such an important message, and such a worthy cause… I hope it also is something that stays with people.”
Raya and the Last Dragon arrives in theaters and as a Premier Access offering on Disney+ today.