'Raya And The Last Dragon' Star Kelly Marie Tran Shares How Her Personal Experiences Changed The Newest Disney Heroine [Interview]

Kelly Marie Tran unsurprisingly sees a lot of herself in Raya, the newest Disney Princess and the tough heroine of the upcoming fantasy epic Raya and the Last Dragon. Not just because the lone warrior's honeyed skin and Southeast Asian-inspired garb indicates a shared ethnicity with the Vietnamese-American actress, but because Tran "imbued a lot of myself and my past experiences in specific scenes."

"I think if I leave a project and I've done it the right way, I won't be able to see where I end and where Raya begins, and vice versa," Tran told /Film in a Zoom interview ahead of Raya and the Last Dragon's release in theaters and on Disney+ Premier.

Playing Raya may have seemed like fate for Tran, but she came about to the role in an unusual way — replacing original voice actress Cassie Steele — and performed the voice for the film in an even more unusual way, forced to turn her house into a makeshift recording studio amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But it was the only way it could have turned out for Tran, who described the fateful day in January 2020 that she walked into a recording booth to try her hand at voicing Disney's first Southeast Asian Princess. "I walked into that room, and it really felt like — this is gonna sound crazy — but it really felt like someone was looking out for me," Tran said.

Read our full Kelly Marie Tran interview below, in which the actress talks about improvising her lines, father-daughter dynamics, and how she hopes Raya and the Last Dragon can open the door for more Southeast Asian representation.

Can you tell me how you came on board Raya and the Last Dragon after original voice actor Cassie Steele left the lead role?

Originally, I just really wanted to be a part of it. And I really had no control over whether I was cast or not...for actors, you go into the room and you do the best you can with an audition, and then you hope for the best. But I guess there was a sort of changeover in terms of what the character was — in movies, those things are constantly changing. And so I was brought on later, and I'm just really grateful to be a part of it.

There have been a lot of stories told by the directors and producers about how when you stepped into the recording booth, they immediately knew you were Raya. Can you talk about that fateful first recording session?

I was so nervous. I remember parking my car — this is before lockdown —this was January 2020, before all of this happened. I remember being in my car and just journaling and meditating and praying that this would go well, because it's a big project. And it felt so much bigger than me, it's a lot of legacy to live up to. And I walked into that room, and it really felt like — this is gonna sound crazy — but it really felt like someone was looking out for me. It went to a lot better than I thought it would go. And [co-directors] Carlos [Lopez Estrada] and Don [Hall], and everyone involved just fostered an environment that just allowed me to feel comfortable enough to play, and to improvise, and to go off script, and to really play around with what Raya actually became. So yeah, it was a really, really special moment, it continues to be a really special experience.

So once you got the part, were you involved at all in shaping Raya as we see her onscreen? Like other than little performance parts, but actual input into her character?

There were so many discussions, it was a totally collaborative process. I think if I leave a project and I feel like I've done it well, then I won't really know who came up with what. Like the process should be so messy, and so collaborative, and so creative that we're all just coming up with stuff together in the moment. I really feel like that's how it was here. I mean you have [screenwriters] Qui [Nguyen] and Adele [Lim] who are coming up with lines in the moment, and then sometimes I'm improvising lines in the moment. And then you have Don and Carlos who are coming up with new ways to deliver these lines, and new and different things to say. We all just came together to create this character. So I feel really proud of what we made and who Raya is. And I think I see a lot of myself in her, because I imbued a lot of myself and my past experiences in specific scenes. And again, I think if I leave a project and I've done it the right way, I won't be able to see where I end and where Raya begins, and vice versa.

What specific scenes and moments did you specifically imbue your personal experiences into with Raya?

I keep referencing this one moment, but I think the moment for me that really hit home was there's a lot of the relationship between Raya and Benja that reminds me of me and my own father. And then anytime, Raya is feeling desperate or afraid. And I think I talked about that prayer before. But yeah, I really used parts of myself in those moments, because I wanted to really feel her desperation and to feel what it was like to feel like there's no hope in those moments. It's important for me to authentically represent those emotions and those feelings because it really does feel like if the character doesn't get to where that needs to be, then the rest of the movie wouldn't feel as authentic. I think that scene is an emotionally great scene for her as a character.

Speaking of authenticity, your career has been one of so many firsts — first Asian-American woman with a main role in Star Wars, first Southeast Asian Disney princess. Have you been specifically pursuing these kinds of roles after you earned that platform with Star Wars?

I never go into pursuing a project thinking I want to be the first "fill in the blank." I go into a project thinking I want to tell a good story, and I feel like I have something to contribute here. And it doesn't always work out, to be honest. As an actor, like I said before, you go into a room and put everything in it and you're hoping that it somehow resonated at some point. But for me, I feel like I grew up in a world where I didn't see myself represented that much. So I don't know that I even believed that I could get to where I am today. I continue to just chase stories that I believe are important, that I believe in telling, and that will make me a better person and a more compassionate person. And yeah, I've been fortunate enough to be part of these, what seems like miraculous projects. And I hope to continue to work in this world, and hopefully, make things that resonate with people.

Raya and the Last Dragon is notably a melting pot of Southeast Asian cultures but would you personally wish for a specific Vietnamese story to be told on this scale?

Sure! There's nothing bad that can come out of that! I think that equal representation and more representation for anyone who feels underrepresented is a good thing that can only make the world better. I think those things are sort of twofold. When you have a story that not only validates a person's experience and makes them feel seen, it makes them feel — especially young kids — like they can do anything. And that's such an important thing. And on the other side of it, recognizing that I'm in a very rare and privileged position to be part of this production that is that is doing that, and also hopefully, being the first means not only that I get to open the door, but hopefully that I get to keep the door open for others to follow so that I won't be the last. So yeah, more stories and more stories from underrepresented voices. Yes, absolutely.

Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters and Disney+ Premier on March 5, 2021.