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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Kelly Marie Tran (Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Raya And The Last Dragon’s Kelly Marie Tran is a big-time musical-theater nerd

Kelly Marie Tran (Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.

Forget “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”—it’s the future that looks bright for Kelly Marie Tran. While Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was a massive breakthrough for the young actor, her casting exposed the toxic side of fan culture, with racist and misogynist Star Wars fans chasing the franchise’s newest hero off of social media. Tran would eventually open up about the harassment she endured in a moving New York Times essay, which ended with the resilient claim that she is “just getting started.” True to her word, Tran went on to book the titular voice role in Disney’s Raya And The Last Dragon, making her the first Southeast Asian woman to lead an animated film for the studio. It’s a distinction the actor takes seriously, knowing what Raya can represent for young audiences in particular. “Whenever people send me videos of their kids trying to fight like Raya or role-playing, it’s an inexplicable feeling,” Tran told The A.V. Club.

Having played a groundbreaking hero twice over, what could possibly be next for Kelly Marie Tran? With a background in improv comedy and her now-apparent status as a “musical theater nerd,” it’s clear she’s up for any challenge, and she’s out to find work that continues to challenge audiences while uplifting voices from historically marginalized communities. With Raya And The Last Dragon’s Blu-ray being released on May 18, the star set some time aside to chat with The A.V. Club and face our gauntlet of non sequiturs, better known as 11 Questions. During our conversation, Tran sang the praises of her collaborator and Raya co-director Carlos López Estrada, pondered the process behind Hot Cheeto dust, and gushed about creating her Book Of Mormon number for the latest iteration of MCC Theater’s Miscast show.

1. What is the best trip or outing you remember as a kid and what made it great?

Kelly Marie Tran: My parents used to take me camping a lot, and it’s truly one of my favorite experiences because my parents are way over-packers. So, we would go camping, and it was like Mary Poppins! [Laughs.] They would constantly be like, “Oh, we have steaks!,” “Okay, I guess we’re having a steak dinner right here at this campsite.” It was wild. And I just loved being in nature and sleeping on the floor and looking at the stars and going on hikes. I think, as a kid, that was a wonderful experience.

AVC: So was this mostly in the mountains or near the beach? What sort of camping was it?

KMT: Oh, I’m partial to the forest. So, yeah, mountains, trees, usually a lake— we love a lake. We love fishing.

2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?

KMT: I think what I didn’t realize coming into this was that every person feels scared and afraid. Before I became a working actor—outside looking in—I always thought, “Well, you know, those guys are evolved,” like, “They’re somehow better humans than the rest of us.” I didn’t understand that, even people who are, quote, “successful,” at making a living, making art, they’re just as scared and just as nervous as the rest of us. They’ve just learned how to work with the fear. And that’s something that I wish I knew coming into this. I wish I could pass that on to any young artists or creators who are still struggling to get by, because I think that would have really helped me as a young artist.

AVC: When did that realization start to click? Prior to your film career, you were doing a lot of improv and had been working at an agency for bit.

KMT: I was working at an agency, but it wasn’t a talent agency—I was working at a creative recruiting firm for, like, web design, graphic design. So it was a very different sort of thing. For me, it wasn’t until I was working with a lot of the people that I looked up to and they were telling me about their struggles as artists, and I was like, “Oh, whoa!” It was both comforting and horrifying to think that—for some reason I thought that, when I became a working actor, all my problems would just be gone, and I would be floating and absolutely happy all the time. [Laughs.] But when I started working with other actors and realized that we really are just people trying to figure it out, that’s when it started clicking for me.

3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?

KMT: Yes, I started painting oil painting, which I have always wanted to do. And then I watched every episode and season of The Great British Bake-Off, which I was late to the party on, but that show is so wholesome, and I recommend it to everyone.

AVC: I’m curious about the oil painting—do you think that’s something you’ll continue to do now that places are opening back up?

KMT: Yeah, I think I would like to. It’s very calming. I mean, I’m very bad at it, but it’s great.

4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?

KMT: Like, in L.A.?

AVC: In L.A. or anywhere—just a favorite spot that you don’t have access to normally. 

KMT: There’s this place called Sarita’s Pupuseria that I actually just got to go back to a couple of days ago with one of my good friends. They have Salvadorian food, and they make these incredible pupusas in Grand Central Market, and it’s just delicious. Highly recommend!

5. What futuristic technology that doesn’t exist now would you like to have?

KMT: Spaceships! I want to go to the moon. So just a very quick [trip], I’d need a spaceship that will take me there. I’m into that. Oh, wait, they exist already!

AVC: Right, but you want one that you can just hop in like a car.

KMT: Like I’m going to the mall, you know? Yes, that’s what I was thinking. I’d be all in on visiting the moon as a day trip.

AVC: I was going to ask if there was any technology from the Star Wars movies you were super into, but then I realized that wouldn’t be futuristic—that’s “a long time ago.”

KMT: I was into everything—every button [on set], I was like, “Press, press, press.” [Laughs.] I was truly nerding out on every little thing. I can’t even choose one thing. I was obsessed. I was helping string the hairs on the Fathiers—that experience was wild. Well, and I wish lightsabers were real. So there’s that.

6. What famous person that you’ve met has lived up to or exceeded your impression of them?

KMT: I keep fan-girling about the same person, but [my answer is] Carlos López Estrada, who I love so much, who directed me in Raya. We’re also working together on his next movie that is coming out this summer; it’s called Summertime, and it’s about 25 spoken-word artists in Los Angeles. I think he and I are very aligned in terms of the mission that we have for our careers. We both really want to highlight stories from people who are from historically marginalized communities, and this movie is just magical. He and I have been going through poetry workshops together for the last couple of months, and he is someone who I’ve respected for a really long time and who I’ve become really good friends with. I think the world of him.

AVC: What was it like when you first met? Did you immediately have that connection?

KMT: I think so, but we were on Zoom. Actually, no, I did meet him in real life, but then it became “COVID times,” so then every other session was on Zoom. So it was kind of hard to have a rapport. But I will say that he always complimented me because, every time I was in a recording session, I was always wearing a weird screen [print] T-shirt. Like, I had a Sharknado shirt one day, or I had a David Attenborough shirt another day, and we would always talk about my weird shirts. So I was like, “Yeah, we could be friends.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Where are these shirts from? Because they sound great.

KMT: The Sharknado is from Ross—I remember it was, like, $7.99 from Ross in San Diego. And the David Attenborough shirt was from a vintage shop in London, which I bought when I was living there for Episode VIII. So it has David Attenborough on it with a beetle that is not drawn to scale—it is way too large—and there’s an eagle on his other shoulder. It’s the wildest shirt.

7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

KMT: I’ve had a lot of bad jobs! When I was struggling to be an actor, I did a lot of things. I cleaned yoga studios, I was a nanny, I was an office assistant, and I also used to have to flyer—that one was the absolute worst job. It was for an acting school, but I don’t even know how this was legal? I only did it for one day and then I quit because I was like, “This is too weird.” They would basically have you flyer families in, like, Costcos and Walmarts, and try to get you to get their kids to this acting showcase? It was so weird. That was the worst job I’ve ever had.

8. What fictional family would you like to belong to?

KMT: My friends and I are obsessed with The Bold Type, the show. I’d just really like to hang out with the women of The Bold Type. That’s the fictional chosen family. Or Sex And The City, obviously, that would be awesome. Sex And The City, but with more... people of color. [Laughs.]

AVC: Hopefully that’s something that can be fixed with that upcoming [series continuation].

KMT: Yeah! Yes, I’m hoping.

9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field?

KMT: I think the first musical I ever saw was when I was in sixth grade, and I saw the musical Oklahoma, and it was a high school production. I could not stop singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.” That was absolutely one of the moments in my life where it was like, “I want to do that! Act!” I didn’t know people could do that—just be on stage and sing songs and talk about humanity.

AVC: I think a lot of people online are just learning what a musical fan you are, thanks largely to your incredible Miscast performance of The Book Of Mormon’s “You And Me (But Mostly Me).”

KMT: Let’s talk about it—let’s talk about musicals! First of all, [I’m a] huge Miscast fan, for a very long time. So, to be asked to be part of it at all was such a nerd moment for me. Like, I really freaked out. And then I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go all out! What am I going to do?” I had the best time making that video. It was an incredible experience.

AVC: And it’s got to be fun to act opposite yourself.

KMT: Yeah, that was really cool. What was cool about it was that I have purposely not played nerds, only because I was afraid that if I played a nerd—especially if it was opposite, like, a white, conventionally attractive lead—that I would be saying something about Asian people being nerds. And what was cool for me doing the Book Of Mormon video, was I was like, “Oh, I am the sidekick to my own lead! This is not a commentary on my people!” It was amazing.

AVC: Now people on Twitter are demanding, “Cast Kelly in a musical!”

KMT: That means so much to me—are you serious? I’m going to cry. Somebody asked me a question about a musical today, and I could not even answer because I was so nervous because I just love musicals so much.

10. Who is the funniest person you know personally?

KMT: Kaitlyn Tanimoto, who was my roommate when I got Episode VIII, and who I’ve been on an improv team with for years. She is the absolute funniest person I’ve met in my entire life. She’s going to be huge, and I just can’t wait for the world to catch up because she’s seriously hilarious. And then when she makes it huge, I’m going to find this interview and be like, “I said it.”

11. If a deli named a sandwich after you, what would be on it?

KMT: Bacon! I love bacon, so bacon on that sandwich. Okay, you know what I would do? Bacon, I think we would have some pesto chicken in there, we get some cheese—because you can’t have a sandwich without cheese. And then I’d put some veggies in there because I like crunchy things, maybe some cucumber? Yeah, so that sounds amazing, but there’d also be a lot of chips on the side. Because I love chips.

AVC: Most importantly, what kind of bread is this on?

KMT: It would obviously have to be toasted to be perfect—it would be a lot of bread. I really like seeded bread, too, so maybe there’s some seeds on top? But the flavor from the pesto is going to be really flavorful, so maybe it would be... Am I taking this too seriously? [Laughs.]

AVC: Oh, no, this is exactly the assignment.

KMT: So I think the bread would probably have to be a traditional French bread because of the pesto flavor being so intense. But then the seeds would add a crunch. So there we go!

AVC: Do you put chips on your sandwich ever?

KMT: That depends on the chip. If it was a potato chip, sure, I’d put that inside. But I really love Hot Cheetos, and I feel like those are better on the side.

AVC: People have gotten really inventive with Hot Cheetos lately. I had a Hot Cheeto-dusted fried pickle recently.

KMT: Whoa, wait, how did they get that dust?

AVC: My assumption is that they’d probably just crunch up a bag, right?

KMT: No, no, no, no, no. When I was a kid, my sisters and I would fight over the bottom of the bag where there’s the little pieces, because they had the most dust on them. So my mom one day was like, “Oh, don’t fight, I have some more crumbs!” And it was clear that she had crushed them—it’s not the same consistency as the dust. So, what I’m saying is, there’s no way they crunched the Hot Cheetos to make the dust, so they had to get the dust separately. So, anyway, I am very curious about the dust and where it comes from, and how they get the dust from the factory.