San Diego’s Kelly Marie Tran is Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess
If you’re a Disney princess, chances are you have an iconic, character-defining song — Ariel has “Part of Your World,” Tiana has “Almost There,” Mulan has “Reflection” and, of course, Elsa has “Let It Go” and “Into the Unknown.”
But there’s no song for Raya, the newest princess from the film “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Instead, Raya is more of an action hero, a warrior — fighting to save the legacy of her land, battling to protect dragon magic.
“I’m really excited about what Raya is because it’s an action movie, and that’s not something we’ve seen a lot in the Disney world,” said actress Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya. “It’s really cool to be a part of that change.”
In this latest movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios, the people of Kumandraare living apart and at odds with each other. But when an ancient evil returns, Raya is tasked with finding a mythical dragon and reuniting her fractured homeland.
The thing is, though, if Raya had been given a song, Tran would’ve been able to sing it.
The San Diego-bred actress grew up in the local theater community, playing coveted roles at Westview High School like Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” and Connie in “A Chorus Line.”
She also performed and sang while she was a student at Palomar College, and when she transferred to the University of California Los Angeles, she joined an acapella group.
“I wasn’t even majoring in performance, I was majoring in communications,” she said. “I think I knew I wanted to perform, but had no idea how to do it. I was absolutely afraid of it.”
Even now, after a film and TV career that includes high-profile roles like Rose Tico from the recent “Star Wars” movies, Tran continues her voice training. She takes regular lessons in Los Angeles, where she lives now, and occasionally (before the pandemic) when she visited family, she’d pop in to see her San Diego teacher.
“You know what, I’m really hoping for a musical in my future,” she said. “We’ll see.”
Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess
Without the added challenge of singing a princess anthem, Tran was instead able to focus all her energy on something much more significant: being Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. It’s an honor and a distinction that the Vietnamese American actress takes very seriously.
“Southeast Asia is a part of the world that is just not celebrated that often,” she said. “It means a lot to me, and I think it would have meant a lot to me as a young girl, watching someone like this. ... The importance of it is something that I think about a lot.”
Though it wasn’t planned this way, she said it’s especially important to have “Raya and the Last Dragon” get released now, when hate crimes against Asian Americans are spiking.
“It’s such an emotionally difficult time for anyone in the Asian community because there are these horrific attacks that seemingly are not ending,” she said. “And one thing I’m so excited about is that in the face of all of that horrendous news ... we get to release something on such a big scale that is celebrating where we come from. And I think that in a world that teaches you to be afraid, in a world that teaches you you don’t belong, the more we celebrate and find joy in an experience like this, it’s like a rebellion in its own way.”
Of course, anyone familiar with Tran through the “Star Wars” movies knows she’s had firsthand experience in harassment.
Her character Rose was the first woman of color to have a major onscreen presence in the franchise, and though that came with a lot of excitement, it came with even more hatred. Tran endured so much racist bullying that she deleted her popular Instagram account in 2018 and still hasn’t returned to the platform.
“That really taught me to think about the way in which I interact with the world, the way the world interacts with me, and maybe to ask myself in those moments where you’re feeling doubt or feeling afraid, ‘OK, am I the crazy one or is the world the crazy one?’ ” she said. “There’s this poem that says even a butterfly feels ugly if it’s amidst moths, because you just want to feel like you belong. I think that this experience has taught me not to internalize anyone else’s hate, but to recognize that there are parts of myself that I’m really proud of, and I hope that other people can experience that, too.”
The land of Kumandra
Though “Raya and the Last Dragon” takes place in the fictional land of Kumandra, it draws on the traditions from countries including Thailand, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam.
And because much of the creative team and the cast is also Southeast Asian, the portrayals of everything from the dragons and scenery to the wardrobe and music are based in authenticity.
“The one thing that has been such a blessing during this entire experience is that a lot of the creators are also from Southeast Asia — so many people were making sure that this movie was going to authentically represent this specific part of the world,” Tran explained. “Everyone was being so cognizant of that, and being so careful about what messages we were putting out to the world ... because it is a Disney movie, and we know what kind of global reach it has.”
The dragon, for example, has a distinct serpentine look specific to the region. And unlike European dragons that breathe fire and are feared, Asian dragons are connected to water and life, symbolizing luck and fortitude.
Because Raya is a warrior, the fighting styles are also based on traditional methods including hand-to-hand fighting from Malaysia and Indonesia. Even Raya’s sword was inspired by a kris, or keris blade found on weapons from Southeast Asian countries.
Still, even though “Raya and the Last Dragon” focuses on specificity and authenticity, Tran said her main focus was making her character universal.
“My job is creating a character that is so honest that people can see themselves in it,” she said. “When you’re an actor and you play a character, you think, ‘If I’m doing it right I’m going to leave changed.’ And I left playing this character changed. Raya taught me that despite the world being broken and it being hard and scary, she still puts herself on the line and risks everything to fight for a world she’s not even sure can exist — a world that’s better than the one she lives in. And that is something I want to live by, too.”
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