On the eve of Raya and the Last Dragon hitting theaters/Disney+, star Kelly Marie Tran covers The Hollywood Reporter, discussing her period away from the spotlight after racist and misogynistic bullying drove her off social media in the wake of The Last Jedi, and her return as Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, Raya. It’s a great interview in large part because Tran is so enormously likeable, but also because she comes with the frankness and lack of prevarication of a survivor. “I've definitely in the past viewed the world through rose-colored glasses,” she says, “and now I feel like I’m in the back, smoking a cigarette, [saying], ‘I’ve seen things.’” Tran is talking about how she relates to her character, Raya, who suffers a devastating betrayal and must regain her confidence and ability to trust afterward. But it’s also a perfect summation of her journey over the last few years, from the person so excited to be in Star Wars to the woman who left it behind with revenge fashion and a searing op-ed.
In the interview, Tran says something that hit me hard. Of what she learned in therapy about her Star Wars experience, she says, “If someone doesn’t understand me or my experience, it shouldn’t be my place to have to internalize their misogyny or racism or all of the above. Maybe they just don’t have the imagination to understand that there are different types of people living in the world.” That rattled around in my bones. I sat with that sentiment for a while when I first read this interview. It is a spot-on description for how white people expect BIPOC to constantly explain their humanity, but there is something about acknowledging the small-mindedness of racists that hit me, too. I feel like we’re constantly dragging the worst of humanity behind us, trying to publicly shame them into acting right—especially after all the sh-t that’s gone on the last few years—but they have no shame and so we’re engaged in this pointless Sisyphean task of trying advance society against the wishes of (some of) our neighbors. Can we all just internalize Kelly Marie Tran’s message that it ISN’T us, it IS them, and just move on? Imagine the free time we could have!
In the wake of The Last Jedi and the vitriol she was exposed to, Tran famously wiped her Instagram, while behind the scenes she went to therapy and leaned on her friends, including her all-female, Asian-American improv troupe (Number One Son, great name). Besides that op-ed she wrote back in 2018, Tran has been largely silent until she started promoting Raya last year. That doesn’t mean she has been invisible, though. Along with Raya, she voiced a character in The Croods: A New Age, appeared in the Hulu series Monsterland, and co-starred alongside Elizabeth Olsen in the Facebook Watch show, Sorry For Your Loss. (No one watches Facebook Watch, but that is a good show. If you like WandaVision for its take on grief, check out its real-world cousin, Sorry For Your Loss.) It reminds me of Oprah asking the Sussexes if they were “silent, or silenced”. I don’t get the impression that Tran, despite the online bullying, was silenced. It sounds like deleting her Insta and removing herself from the toxic sphere of Star Wars—which doesn’t deserve her anyway—was simply the right thing to do for her mental health, and she is happier today for it. It’s hard to deny at this point that quitting social media, or at least limiting exposure to it, is good for us. I limit my time on weekends and it feels great.
Despite everything that happened with The Last Jedi and the sheer disrespect of The Rise of Skywalker, Tran has emerged whole. She’s got a new, ground-breaking role as a Disney princess, and she seems to have sorted her Star Wars experience and moved on—she is premiering a documentary she produced, Lily Topples the World, at SXSW later this month. As with John Boyega, I bet Star Wars ends up being merely the introductory chapter to the story of her career, and I hope the industry comes through with worthwhile roles and opportunities for her. After Star Wars let her down, Kelly Marie Tran showed up for herself. Now it’s time for Hollywood to show up for Kelly Marie Tran.