Two years ago, Kelly Marie Tran was working at a temp agency and trying to make ends meet while she pursued — with no small degree of uncertainty — an acting career in Hollywood. Flash forward to now, and Tran is about to be seen by tens of millions of people this weekend alone as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The franchise has introduced beloved actors and characters since it began 40 years ago, and The Last Jedi continues that tradition with both Tran and her plucky and righteous alter ego.
We’re hesitant to say too much about Rose or her place in the Star Wars universe, but we can say that in writer/director Rian Johnson’s movie, she is a mechanic who works on fixing the ships of the Resistance. A twist of fate and a yearning for justice propel her into an incredible journey alongside Finn (John Boyega), with the two of them sent on a risky mission that could determine the fate of the struggling rebels.
We’ll stop there and let Kelly do the talking. Den of Geek sat down with her at the recent press day for The Last Jedi in Los Angeles, where we spoke about her own amazing adventure, her personal connection to Rose and her memories of the late, great Carrie Fisher.
Den of Geek: I understand this came at kind of a tricky time for you when you didn’t know if the acting thing was going to happen necessarily.
Kelly Marie Tran: Yeah. I mean, I think any time you’re pursuing something that’s pretty much impossible, or something that seems out of your grasp you have those moments of doubt, and you have moments of just thinking to yourself how can I logistically make this work? I was in a position where I was still trying to put myself through college, so I was trying to pay off a very large sum of student debt. I was, like everyone else, trying to pay the rent, and health insurance, and car insurance, and everything else that comes up.
I was working a full-time job, but not having anything in my savings account at the end of the month, because of my bills, and because acting in the beginning costs money. You’re investing in yourself, and you’re taking classes, and you’re having to do headshots, and I remember thinking how long can I do this? Will I be happy doing this potentially forever? Because I could potentially never be financially stable off this thing that I loved so much.
So yeah, I think there was definitely a moment, I think there were a few moments. I think that I might continue to have moments. I think that the whole journey has been really unpredictable and incredible, and I’m still trying to figure it all out, but you’re right. It kind of sort of came at a time when everything else was kind of coming to a head.
Do you remember that moment when you got the call?
Yeah, it was a five month audition process, and when I actually found out that I had the role I found out in person. Rian called my agent and said he wanted to meet with me before Thanksgiving, and this was two years ago. In terms of the timeline, The Force Awakens came out in December of 2015. I got the role in November of 2015. I was auditioning and waiting to hear back when their marketing machine was everywhere. It’s like you’re going for something that’s so high stakes, and you try to remind yourself okay, stop thinking about it, and it’s everywhere. It was such an interesting time.
I was still working my day job and I told my boss I was going to lunch and then I went to go meet with Rian Johnson. He told me that I got the part. I was completely silent for probably a full minute and a half, and just shocked by the whole thing. You picture that moment in your mind so clearly so many times when you’re a kid, and you want this thing, and when it happens it was just pure shock. I feel like I was treading water for so long I didn’t know how to get … I never thought that I would be at the edge of the pool. I never really logistically thought what it would mean to get here. I don’t know if that makes sense.
I found out that I got the role and then I couldn’t tell anyone, and everyone was like, “What are you going to do to celebrate?” I was like well, “I actually have to get back to my job.” It’s been a very bizarre experience for sure.
Have you felt a shift in your life? Star Wars fans know who these characters are before they see the movie, so have you felt people respond to you differently?
Not necessarily, because no one really recognizes me outside the context of situations like this. When I’m in association with the other cast members then they’ll be like, “Oh, she must be this person because she’s with this person,” but I’ve never been recognized in my own life, I go to the grocery store still, I go on runs outside all the time. I even go to Target and will look through the Star Wars section and sometimes will buy some stuff with my face on it, and no one has ever recognized me. People actually don’t believe me.
There was this one time I went to Target and I was like, “This toy is me,” and she was like, “Okay, yeah. Move along. I have a long line.” It’s such a far-fetched thing, it’s such a far away, impossible thing that I think that … I don’t know. My life hasn’t really changed yet. I will have to let you know after the next couple weeks.
The actor Michael Shannon said to me recently, “Everyone should have their own action figure, at least once in their life.” Would you agree that it’s fun to have your own action figure?
I mean, I think it’s definitely fun and cool. I think there is still a part of my mind that doesn’t believe it, or can’t associate it with me. Even though obviously I play this character and I was there when they took the 3D scan of my body, I see that toy and I still don’t believe it’s me. I’m sure I will be great when I believe it.
How would you describe Rose?
Rose is someone who has always sort of been in the background of the Resistance. We’re well aware of all these amazing characters in the forefront of the action, Poe, Rey, Finn, all these great characters, and Rose has a sister, who is also at the forefront of the action. She is a gunner who fights alongside Poe, and Rose’s job is the opposite. She works behinds ships, she is fixing the ships so that they can go and fight the First Order. She’s never been someone that’s been out there in the action.
In this movie when she first meets Finn she gets pulled into it and we see how she deals with that. I think she’s for me a metaphor for a lot of experiences in my life currently, the idea that without these people that support you and help you through everything you really couldn’t do anything. Poe and Finn and Rey and all those guys couldn’t really fight the First Order without the tools that they need to do so. There is so many people in the background and we never really hear their stories. I’m really excited for people to meet Rose.
We’ve also heard that in a way she also helps to remotivate Finn after he’s coming back from his experiences in the first film. Would you say that they sort of help and support each other?
I think so. Yeah, absolutely. I think they do a good job, I mean, they’re two very different characters. I think that it’s a really interesting dynamic, and I think that they do really end up really affecting each other in different ways. It will be really cool for people to discover that.
You also spoke with your parents about what their own experiences were escaping from Vietnam during the war, and applied that to your understanding of the war in this film.
Absolutely. I think any time an actor is given a character they want to find ways to relate to this person, or find ways to sort of make them feel more personal. Because my family does have that really interesting relationship with war, I do also think that Rose has the same. Not exactly the same, but I was able to pull a lot from my own personal family history for this character, and it was pretty incredible to learn more about all that stuff. I hope that people can see a little bit of that in her. I personally think that war is…no one wins, you know?
Did you have any major geeking out moments on the set, whether it was meeting particular people, or walking onto a particular set one day?
I think that I was always feeling that way. These sets are so incredible, the creature department, the art department, the production, design, every single person working on this movie is really at the top of their game, and you can really see it. We’re working on a Star Wars movie, and I mean, when you look at all the creatures and their animatronics and they’re actually moving with you in the scene, you just feel like you’re really there, and so there is a lot of those geeking out moments.
It’s a balance between trying to find a way to just be able to work in that environment and not be distracted by all these things, but then like BB-8 rolls up and you’re like, “Oh! It’s BB-8!” Yeah, there’s a constant balancing of those two things.
What was the first Star Wars movie you saw?
Actually, The Force Awakens was the first one I saw.
You hadn’t seen the other ones?
But you’ve watched them since?
Yes, I have. I didn’t grow up with Star Wars, my parents were in a different country when those movies came out. I think that Star Wars is such a family oriented thing, and it’s passed on between generations, and when I was young I didn’t get introduced to them because my parents hadn’t seen them. Then growing up I really hadn’t seen them and it gave me this freedom to create this character without being influenced by what people thought a Star Wars character should be like, which I think was the biggest gift. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know now that by not seeing it and not growing up with it as much, I was able to sort of remove myself from that whole thing and just find a really honest, different type of character.
Could you talk about meeting Carrie Fisher and the impact that had on you?
Carrie, obviously, an icon because of Princess Leia, but also I think because of who she is as a person. She also was just so generous. I think that’s the thing, everyone talks about how brave she was and how funny she was. I don’t think people know how generous she was too in terms of her advice, in terms of her work, but also literally quite generous.
I remember being in the makeup trailer with her one day and being like, “Oh, I like your pants,” and the next day those pants would just show up, or I would be at her house and I would be like, “Oh, I love this little figure that you have,” and then it would just show up. She was so generous and so open and so brutally honest in a way that I really hope that I can be.
I was not on social media for a really long time because I was afraid of being seen. Carrie is someone who is never afraid of being seen, and I think that I hold that in really high regard because it’s a really hard thing to do, especially when you’re involved in something that so many people love.
That is I think one of the rarest qualities I’ve ever experienced in a human. We spend so much time trying to hide ourselves and wear fancy clothes and have fancy cars and all this stuff so that we can hide all of our insecurities and all those imperfections, but she was just all out there and all honest, and I think that I really strive to be that.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now playing.