The Last Jedi's Kelly Marie Tran is the heroine we've been waiting for

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Dec 8, 2017, 1:03 PM EST

The Star Wars universe has given us a fair number of female characters who have become icons: Leia, Ahsoka Tano, Rey. But watch out, there's a new heroine who's ready to make her mark in the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and her name is Rose Tico.

A principled Rebellion mechanic, Tico is an "everywoman" who ends up becoming the right woman to help Finn find his path. For actress Kelly Marie Tran, Tico is literally the biggest gig of her life. The San Diego native has been acting professionally for the last six years, appearing mostly in shorts, TV movies, and episodes of television series like About a Boy and Adam Ruins Everything. But Star Wars is literally in a galaxy all its own when it comes to changing actors' lives, and Tran is cautious but excited about what it's going to do for her career, and life.

In Part 1 of our Fangrrls sit-down with Tran, we tackle how she got the part, Tico's everyday heroism, and what it means to be the first Asian lead in a Star Wars film.

Let's start with how you came into the project. Was this a blind audition? Did they give you cryptic sides? How did it all go down?

It was supposed to be a blind audition. It was very, very secretive. They didn't tell us what the project was. Normally when you audition, they give you the sides [ed. note -- amended script pages] and the things to study the night before, but this first audition was so secretive that the sides could not leave the office. We didn't get any information before. We had to walk in and do a cold read for the first audition. After that, there were obviously many more auditions with a month in between each one, because I think they were looking everywhere.

As you made it through the auditions, were you getting more of a sense what you admired about her, or how you wanted to portray her?

Yes, absolutely. It was so funny, because when I first realized what the audition was for, I laughed and I was like, "This is funny. That's nice that they are doing whoever a favor and seeing me for this. That's funny," because it just seemed so big and so far away. Rian created such an amazing, strong character who's got so much depth. And when I was reading the part, weirdly, I felt that so much of the things that Rose had experienced were things that I could relate to immediately. It almost felt like I didn't have to do that much. Obviously, these are characters in space, so obviously I'm not exactly like her, but I did feel like I related to her in ways.

So you win the part but can't tell anyone. Did that put a lot of stress on you, to know that you were doing something that everybody would die to know about, but you have to stay in this secret bubble?

What's funny is I feel like I just realized how important it is to keep yourself in a healthy mind-space when you're working on anything as a creative person, but especially when it's something like this that is so universally loved and so huge. Of course, it was hard to lie to my parents and lie to my friends. I moved from Los Angeles to London, and they didn't know where I was. It felt like such a huge lie because I told them I was in North America and I was not.

Did you get calls at all hours because they had no idea that you're eight hours away?

Yes, yes, yes! And then I would just be like, "Oh sorry, I was working." I just lied completely. I had to try to keep track of my lies at one point. I had to be telling these people the same thing. It was so crazy. I think that in the beginning it was really hard to move and to do all these things under the cover of night and not tell anyone. In the end, it felt like a really good thing mental-wise, because I was dealing with the transition myself and I could process it myself before I got all of this feedback from friends, family, and whoever else is on the internet. I remember that first day we actually started filming, and I just had shut off my phone for the first entire week of filming so I could just be there in the moment. You find little ways to keep your mind at peace so that you can, at the end of the day, do the most important thing, which is do a good job.

Let's talk about the first day you were on set.

It felt insane. We had done so many makeup and costume tests before, but going on the set was different because it wasn't just me in costume. It was other very iconic characters, and going onto a set like that, it probably took months to build something that looks that real and it was that tangible. I think a lot of times, in a lot of modern-day movies, a lot of things are CGI, but so much of the stuff in Star Wars is built and created by these artists. It was such an unreal feeling. It felt like you were really there, if that makes any sense. You go on set, and there's characters that everybody loves and knows who they are, and it's like you're hanging out with them and it's crazy.

Let's dig into Rose Tico. Rian described her as an "everywoman." She's like everybody else in the Resistance that's a part of this huge fabric, but maybe not, when we meet her, necessarily of note. In playing that, what was the thing that you really wanted to make her excel at?

In a lot of movies today, we see people that are royalty, or are superheroes, or have magical powers, or something, and just like Rian said, she's this background player. I love the idea of someone who might not necessarily be in the forefront of the action to begin with, someone who is like a cog in the machine that helps the Resistance keep going. But then at one point, you have to face your fears and have to be pulled into a situation and be able to face any challenge.

It's such a huge deal to me, the idea that she's not necessarily special in the way that we have defined special before in other movies, or in other stories. She's not the chosen one. She wasn't born into a situation where it's her versus Voldemort, or something. It's cool to be able to be someone who I think is special because she is like everyone else, and that just says something. She has this humble background. She's a nobody. She just fixes things, and then she has to help Finn on this adventure. To me, that's special.


In The Force Awakens, Finn was thrust into all of this, so it makes sense that in The Last Jedi he wakes up and says, "Maybe I'm deeper in this than I want to be." And it's kind of awesome to have a character like yours look at him and say, "You need to be better." Tell me a little bit about that dynamic and how you and John played that with each other.

I think it's interesting, because Rian has said this before, but it's the idea of meeting your heroes, right? I think a lot of times when we have these role models, or we have people in society that we hold on a pedestal, they're no longer a human or a person, they're kind of a symbol for an idea, or in this case the Resistance. Finn and Rey following The Force Awakens have become these huge heroes. Everybody has heard what they have done. Everyone in the Resistance knows the things that have happened, things that they have overcome. For Rose, when she first meets Finn, that's how she feels. He's not this human. He's a symbol for everything that she's ever worked for.

So they're personal heroes to Rose?

Yes. I imagine that Rose has had tough days and thought to herself, "Well, think of Rey and Finn and all of these people that have done amazing things. That's what we're fighting for." For her, Finn is this symbol. He is this otherworldly being. He represents so much more than just who he is. He represents an ideal, which is the Resistance, right?

When they meet, she sees him as more than he sees himself then?

Yes. It's really interesting to have that be their initial meeting, and then from there to grow, and for her to start to realize that he's not this otherworldly person. He's a human being. He has desires and he has wants and he has fears and he's brave and funny and all those amazing things too, but I don't think anyone in the world, or even in a different galaxy, can be just one thing. It's cool to see them evolve together in different ways.

Now, you don't have to give a yes or a no, but maybe you can give me a "Hmm?" We obviously we saw the bonding of Rey and Finn in the first movie. It sounds very much like your relationship with Finn is going to be very life-changing for him and Rose, and sometimes intense experiences end up creating another level of attraction between each other?

Hmm. (Laughs) I'm just going to say that, "Hmm," and I'm just going to change the subject.

OK, let's switch to the Rose and her sister, Paige, and their relationship. We had Luke and Leia as siblings, and they were very supportive of each other. What's Tico's dynamic?

I think Rose's relationship with Paige is something that defines who she is. The idea that Rose is the younger sister, she's the one who's behind the scenes. It's not very glamorous, whereas Paige is side by side with Poe, and we all know how cool Poe is. It's really interesting, and I can't wait for you guys to find out more about their relationship, but I think that Rose's relationship with Paige has greatly defined who she is. It continues to define who she is throughout the entire film.

Let's close on Rose's impending impact. First off, you are way more than your gender, and you're way more than your ethnicity. However, when this film drops a whole generation of girls will be able to look at you and see themselves. That's a really awesome thing, and it's an important thing. You're the first Asian female lead in a Star Wars movie. What does that mean to you? Are you already seeing the importance of that from those that you're meeting?

In terms of what it means to me, it feels like an honor and also a huge responsibility. There is this feeling of wanting to do it right. I know that there's no way to do it "right," but you still just want to do it right. I think it means a lot to me because I grew up in a world where there were little to no people in movies and television that looked like me. I'm not sure that anyone is aware of that unless they have also experienced it. You search for images, and stories, and movies and music from people that look like you, and sound like you and speak like you, because you want to feel like, "Oh, if they can do it, so can I." There's a little bit of that need for validation, especially when you're younger and trying to look to someone to look up to.

I know for me, I didn't necessarily have that many people to look up to because there just weren't that many people. That's why it feels like a huge responsibility, and it is awesome. It really is. I've met so many people who already have said how much it means to them. I think Daisy said something like this, which I think is so true, is that I feel like Rian wrote and created this character. I get to be the person that got to embody that character, but at the end of the day, we should be thanking Rian and Kathy for allowing me to be in this position. I feel like it's a big responsibility.

Part 2 of our interview with Kelly Marie Tran drops next week.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in U.S. theaters December 15, 2017.

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