Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran spreads her wings in ‘Summertime’
Vietnamese-American actress embraces executive producer role in film that highlights diverse issues, emerging voices
Kelly Marie Tran has recorded a lot of firsts — first Asian-American female to play a “Star Wars” lead (as plucky Resistance fighter Rose Tico in “Return of the Jedi”), first Asian to be on the cover of Vanity Fair and first Southeast Asian Disney princess. She gave voice to Raya, a warrior princess, in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Tran’s first film credit actually occurred at San Diego State University when the 2011 short dramedy movie, “Untouchable,” was shot on campus.
Now the former San Diegan has added executive producer to her resumé with two new projects.
One is a spoken word movie, “Summertime,” that shines a spotlight on 25 young poets in Los Angeles. The other is a documentary titled, “Lily Topples the World,” that highlights young Chinese-American domino artist Lily Hevesh.
“Lily” debuted March 16, while “Summertime” had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. General release is scheduled July 16 in U.S. theaters, including Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas and Angelika Film Center in Carmel Mountain.
The UCLA grad remains loyal to her San Diego roots. Tran was born and grew up in San Diego, first in La Mesa, then in third grade moving to Rancho Peñasquitos, where she graduated from Westview High School.
Her parents emigrated from Vietnam to San Diego after the Vietnam War. Her dad found work in a fast food restaurant, and her mom landed a job at a funeral home.
“I call my parents at least three times a week,” says Tran, who now lives in Los Angeles. The actress, 32, laughs and says they tell her she needs to phone more often.
Tran is animated when she talks about “Summertime,” directed by Carlos López Estrada, with whom she became fast friends after he directed her in “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Over dinner one evening, they began talking about future projects, what’s important in the world and the need to lift the voices of the voiceless and those in underrepresented communities.
Estrada promised to send her his next movie project inspired by a spoken-word workshop he had attended that featured 27 high school performers involved in Get Lit, an L.A.-based nonprofit. He was so touched by their words, he proposed a collaboration with these insightful, emerging poets to create an interconnected narrative on their lives in Los Angeles.
After viewing the material he sent her, Tran says she had a visceral, emotional reaction to this piece of art, describing it as a shining light. “It really affected me,” she explains, “and we immediately had a conversation about the themes.”
Producer/distributor Good Deed Entertainment describes the film as “a narrative experiment — part contemporary musical and part sociological art.”
Its poetry touches on diverse issues of the day, including racism, with which Tran is all too familiar.
In 2018, she discontinued her Instagram account after meanspirited “Star Wars” fans personalized their dislike of her movie character, Rose Tico in “The Last Jedi.” She got the last word when she was nominated for a Saturn Award as best supporting actress by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, and she returned to the big screen in “The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019.
“Everything that’s happening in the world, the attack on the Asian-American community and what happened to me a few years ago was really sort of an example of how deep-seated racism is,” Trans says.
Even comedian Ellen DeGeneres asked her, during a recent talk show appearance, about the post-pandemic backlash against Asians in America.
“Racial trauma and racial injustice is a conversation I’m having every day, and it definitely defines my mission moving forward,” Tran says.
Being involved in “Summertime” is part of that mission — bringing underrepresented voices to the forefront through the film. Estrada complimented Tran saying: “Her complete devotion to the project and the community involved in it was invigorating.”
Tran went so far as attending a Get Lit workshop to learn how to write poetry.
“These are truly the best months of my life so far,” says Tran, referring to her community involvement and interaction with the young actors’ poetry.
What’s next? “I have other things in the pipeline I can’t talk about now,” she says, but confirms that she will continue to both act and produce. She finds the off-screen perspective refreshing and relishes expansion of her role to film distribution and marketing.
“The more I can be involved in the process, the more I enjoy it. It’s a natural transition to being on other side of camera,” she says. “It’s been a magical experience.”
This is the first feature film role for most of the actors, and it gives them a megaphone and a space they haven’t had before, Tran says.
“They talk about race and about different issues they’re dealing with,” she explains, calling the experience one of most empowering feelings she has ever had. The narrative touches on all social classes, diverse communities, people of color and LGBTQ issues.
“San Diego still feels very much like home to me,” adds Tran, who returns often. “San Diego is where I learned to sing, tap dance, read plays and do community theater.” She is grateful for her traditional Vietnamese upbringing and proud to be a Vietnamese-American.
As for her Instagram account, she has no plans to re-activate that any time soon.
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