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Kelly Marie Tran’s journey to becoming a fighting Disney princess: ‘It feels like an absolute miracle’

Kelly Marie Tran, pictured at the Academy Awards last year, has returned to center stage in her new Disney film, “Raya and the Last Dragon.” (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

If the remarkable life and times of Kelly Marie Tran were a Disney movie, the opening scene would not spotlight the young, hungry unknown hustling to yet another post-college audition in her Honda Civic, or the multi-hyphenate talent being plucked from relative obscurity to become the most prominent actress of color in a Star Wars film. It would not show the swirl of red-carpet events for “The Last Jedi” she posted on social media, or the vile online abuse that followed.

Instead, the opening shot would zoom in on Tran as a bright-faced kindergarten singer, performing in her church choir and getting struck by something more life-altering than any radioactive Disney/Marvel spider. This was when and where she was first bitten by the performance bug.

Tran, 32, is best known globally for playing mechanic Rose Tico in the most recent Star Wars trilogy. And with this weekend’s release of Disney’s animated “Raya and the Last Dragon” (in theaters and streaming), the talents of Tran will be on full display in a title role, as she deploys her trained voice in an emotionally resonant and rounded performance.

Several years ago, Internet harassment surrounding Star Wars left her recalling the social messages she had internalized for years: that she “existed only in the background” of other’s stories. Now, “Raya” marks Tran’s first major feature film as the lead — in which she is proud to be “honoring this part of the world” by playing the first Disney princess of Southeast Asian descent.

In “Raya,” Tran’s character — more Disney warrior than throwback Disney princess, the filmmakers emphasize — is entrusted by her father to become guardian of a supernatural gem. After a cataclysmic event, she spends much of the movie trying to reunite with Dad in a fantastical land (Kumandra) inspired by countries and cultures in Southeast Asia.

In real life, Tran’s father and mother, as refugees from Vietnam, landed in Southern California prepared to sacrifice so that their children might bloom in America.

Tran’s family took root in a San Diego bedroom community running through a gently sloping valley. More than two decades ago, back when Tran slept in “Little Mermaid” sheets, the freeway running fast to the beach did not yet go through. Even her high school had not been built. Theirs was a life under construction from the ground up.

“My parents gave up everything just to make sure that I was in a place where we had food on the table and a roof over my head,” Tran says from Los Angeles during a Zoom interview last week. Her folks struggled to assimilate as they found service work — as immigrants who got the job done.

Looking back, Tran realizes her parents lacked the luxury to dream about other things, so that their children might follow professionally fulfilling lives. Even Tran didn’t think the performance career she wanted to pursue was quite possible. In some ways, she says, it felt impossible.

Yet her ambition grew as her community did. She studied voice and drama and piano in high school when not serving frozen yogurt in a local shop. And an older singer from the area, Adam Lambert, soon found his way to fame.

When asked about Tran’s teenage years, her Westview High educators unfurl a string of superlatives: Energetic. Positive. Likable. Humorous. Hard-working. Tran performed in all-state honor choir competitions — her concert standouts included the ’50s hit “Orange Colored Sky” — and musical director Doreen McCarty recounts Tran’s turn as Miss Adelaide in a production of “Guys and Dolls”: “Her sense of character and comedic timing were spot-on.”

Tran made her way to Palomar College and then UCLA, singing in a cappella groups. She created videos for CollegeHumor, studied improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade and joined the all-Asian American female improv troupe Number One Son. She also took a nonperformance job in creative recruiting.

“I wasn’t thinking about what my career would potentially be,” Tran says — everything was about the next step, the next day, the next gig. She was working up to 45 hours a week, keeping a bag of versatile clothes in her Honda as she shoehorned in the auditions.

For all her talent, she wasn’t dreaming too big: “My best-case scenario: I thought I would play the quirky friend on a sitcom.”

Yet also in Tran’s mental makeup: She had adored tough Disney princesses for years, especially the animated Mulan: “She was the first [Disney] warrior who looked like me. Seeing myself represented for the first time — at age 9 — I couldn’t put into words what it meant to me.”

When at 26 she got the shot to play a Disney space warrior, the Rebel mechanic in “The Last Jedi,” the casting felt like a once-distant wish fulfilled. “That whole experience playing Rose for the first time felt like falling in love for the first time,” she says. “You have no idea what you’re doing — like this beautiful experience that sweeps you off your feet.”

By the time the film was released at the end of 2017, though, she had endured an online barrage of racist and misogynistic remarks. By the following summer, she quit Instagram, writing in her account’s bio, “Afraid, but doing it anyway.” Later that summer, she wrote a poignant New York Times essay headlined, “I Won’t Be Marginalized by Online Harassment,” disclosing that the comments led her down “a spiral of self-hate.”

Through that crucible, many members of her Star Wars family — including director Rian Johnson and co-stars John Boyega and Mark Hamill — vocalized their support, as did many other celebrities and members of her inner circle.

“To have the support of your community is the only way you get [through] this,” she says — the very thing that helped her endure years of leaner times professionally.

“Community is still the most important thing now,” she says, smiling in stylish black against a clean pale background. “When I’m in a position of being able to celebrate successes, the one thing I want to do the most is share those with my community. It meant the world to me — and it still means the world to me — that I can call these incredibly talented people my friends.”

Tran says she wasn’t sure exactly why Johnson chose her for Rose, but the filmmaker tells The Washington Post via email that he “felt lucky” to cast her for the same reasons he considers himself fortunate to be her friend: “She has an inner strength and confidence that shines through. It isn’t a tough front or facade — she’s not afraid to be herself with all her fears and vulnerabilities — but it takes true strength to own those things and still face the world and say, ‘This is me, I can do this.’ ”

And Hamill tells The Post via email: “Not only is she a genuinely nice person, she’s a deeply gifted actress. Since she’s only getting started, I can’t wait to see what comes next.”

Tran’s newer supporters include the “Raya” filmmakers, including directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. The actress says she cherishes that they “cultivated this space of openness” to let her improvise. On the page, Raya was originally written to be more nonverbally stoic, then her character became quippy, bristling with swagger. The film needed Tran to find the appealing balance between those extremes.

Tran and Hall both point to their first “Raya” recording session as a pivotal moment that uplifted the rest of the production. Raya has spent six years trying to find a mythical dragon named Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), and the scene turns confessional as Raya is reduced to her last hope, chanting a tuneful prayer.

Tran suddenly said to her directors: Mind if I try something? “She improvised a lot of what is still in that scene — someone questioning their faith,” says Hall, recounting how Tran infused these new lines with awkwardness and vulnerability, “letting this hardened warrior crack a little bit. We were in tears.”

The actress says that whether they are religious or not, many viewers can relate to feeling so lost that they pray to someone or something for help. She says that scene was important to her because of knowing how it felt to be desperate: “I imbued my own personal experience into that moment.”

And in the tale of Kelly Tran, that’s how the Disney version of her life might close this act. What began in a church choir as a kindergartner now finds a cinematic bookend in Tran’s 30s, with a role and a prayer.

“It feels like an absolute miracle to get to do what I’m doing,” Tran says of her career. “There is lots of dream fulfillment happening.”

Read more:

Kelly Marie Tran’s real-life resistance means telling her own story, starting with her name

Kelly Marie Tran deletes Instagram posts amid online harassment

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