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Kelly Marie Tran Explains Why Representation Matters in ‘Star Wars’

Actress Kelly Marie Tran electrified “Star Wars” fans with her breakout “The Last Jedi” debut. Playing engineer Rose Tico, an unassuming member of the Resistance, Tran’s onscreen energy and passion for the space uprising radiated off the screen. Stealing the spotlight from “The Force Awakens” favorites, Tran injected the galaxy far, far away with a dose of pure enthusiasm. And “Star Wars” devotees loved her for it.

Variety caught up with Tran shortly after she returned home from the London premiere to talk life under the Lucasfilm lens. Tran admits she started her emotional journey a bit nervous — she was seen brushing away tears of happiness at the world premiere — and even a little afraid. But the significance of Rose’s role, and what it could mean to “Star Wars” fans across the globe, propelled her forward with a message to cynics: your time is over.

Spoilers ahead!

It’s been pretty fun to watch you go through the “Star Wars” media circus. You posted an image arriving to “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” with the rest of the cast, and you were the only one not camera-ready. That was pretty hilarious. 

I don’t know what the rules are! I’m just trying to figure it out and navigate as I go. I have no problem laughing at myself if I do something weird.

Rose brought a whole new level of representation to the “Star Wars” universe. Have any fans reached out to you about the emotional impact of seeing Rose on screen?

Yes, absolutely. It’s been both an honor and a responsibility. I feel so overwhelmed. I remember what it felt like to not see anyone like myself in books or on film or TV. When you’re really young, you tend to fall in love with characters. If you start seeing the same type of character everywhere and realize that they don’t look like you, or they don’t speak like you, you start wanting to change who you are. That’s something that I did when I was a young kid. I’m excited to be a part of this positive change.

A lot of “Star Wars” fans who are specifically Asian never had a character they could dress up like, or they would and people would always call them “Asian Rey” or “Asian fill-in-the-blank.” I get very emotional when I see people who are able to identify with this character. That means a lot to me and I don’t think it will ever get old.

It feels like a big deal because it’s so rare, I wish it wasn’t. I wish that you and I could be having a different conversation. I wish that all different types of people of all races and all upbringings were all equally represented in this industry that influences so many people. But the fact is that’s just not true, so it is important to talk about it. I’m always thinking about that little girl that never saw herself in things.

Actress Kelly Marie Tran poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' in London, Tuesday, Dec. 12th, 2017Britain Star Wars The Last Jedi Premiere, London, United Kingdom - 12 Dec 2017

What was the origin of your character Rose? How did she grow and transform into who the audience met on screen?

In terms of the dynamics of the character, in the beginning it was someone who was more sarcastic and grumpy. As time went on, [Rose] sort of became more like me in terms of enthusiasm, [specifically] in the beginning scene when you first meet her.

Rian Johnson mentioned that he always wanted to include a sister relationship with Rose’s character. Why was that relationship important to include?

There was always a sister element. Even when Paige was alive, Rose was always someone who believed in the cause of the Resistance truly because of their upbringing. The fact that the First Order destroyed their home and would recruit kids from where they lived to become stormtroopers, all these things were happening to her. So she already had a strong belief in the cause, but once Paige died, she had nothing in terms of her identity. I think she believes in the Resistance’s cause more than she believes in herself. She would much rather do things for the Resistance than do anything for her own ego. I remember talking with Rian on whether we wanted her to be a younger sister or an older sister, but there was always a sister in the mix, absolutely.

You don’t share any screen time with your “Star Wars” sister, Veronica Ngo, who plays Paige Tico. How did you get to know each other?

[Veronica] is from Vietnam, so when she came over to film her scenes and to start training — she was actually in London for a few months — she and I would go out to restaurants. At the time, she was auditioning for a few things, so I would help her put auditions on tape. We immediately clicked, even though I was born in America, my parents are Vietnamese and she is Vietnamese so we had this shared history already.

We didn’t have any scenes together, but I would always come in and watch [Veronica] work. I wanted to see in person what she was doing, I was always around.

This is my first movie, so I didn’t know what it was supposed to be like and I didn’t know what you were allowed, or not allowed, to do. That was almost the best gift because I didn’t know that it was weird to want to be on set all the time. I didn’t know there was this sort of immediate camaraderie that’s very intense when you make a movie, because you’re all in this together. You tend to get really close to people really fast. That was something I shared with Veronica. We would text all the time. When her action figure came out, we would text each other, “this is crazy!”

Rian said he wanted Rose to be someone his 10-year-old self could identify with, and your character’s first words to John Boyega are almost “You’re Finn, THE FINN!” Do you feel like Rose is the embodiment of real-life “Star Wars” fandom?

Oh absolutely, 100%. It’s weird because obviously Rose is a character that I play, but a lot of her is metaphorical to the experience that I just went through. I felt like [Rose] when I was meeting people, and there’s beauty in that.

I think we live in a very cynical world right now. A lot of times people are afraid to show that they’re enthusiastic or excited about something because it might be labeled “uncool.” I don’t think there’s anything uncool about being excited. There are so few things in life that make you feel those emotions, so if you’re feeling them, I just go all in. Which is why I think I was crying at these premieres. I definitely believe that Rose embodies the idea of a fan being pulled into something that’s kind of crazy. She’s a fan of Finn when she first meets him. It’s a very unreal experience for her.

Has anyone asked you if you are “The Rose”?

No! Right after the press tour ended in London, I was having dinner at this pub and this huge group of people came in and they sat right next to me and they were talking about “The Last Jedi,” in minute detail. I was laughing and I had this wonderful moment where I just went up and said, “Hi, I loved listening to your conversation… I’m Rose!”

You deliver a pretty important bit of dialogue in “The Last Jedi” about positivity: “That’s how we’re going to win, not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” Tell me about delivering this line and the importance behind it.

I remember delivering that line with John. First of all, it’s an on-screen kiss which is kind of nerve-wracking, but as much as I could I tried to be thinking what Rose would be thinking in that moment. To have had such a traumatic experience with another human being, to believe in this cause, and to see Finn’s growth throughout the film.

I know what it’s like to kiss someone. It’s scary that first time, especially when you’re the one going for it! That’s what I was feeling, truly. I think it’s one of Rose’s bravest moments. It’s one thing to believe in a cause and to fight for it, but I think it’s a different type of courage to put yourself in a position where you’re emotionally vulnerable. To put yourself out there romantically, for me that’s very hard.

It was a surprising, but sweet kiss.

I think that’s sort of what we wanted? We wanted it to feel as if their relationship was this sort of weird, tumultuous thing. It starts where she’s idolizing him, then she’s pissed off at him for half of the movie. I like that their relationship was messy. That’s what most relationships are.

Was that your first on-screen kiss?

Yes it was! There were so many people on set that day and I remember thinking, “Kelly, just be in this moment.” I couldn’t think of anyone better than John Boyega to have that moment with. He’s just so open and generous in all of his acting and who he is, it felt really good.

Who do you “ship,” personally?

Oh man, I ship a lot of people. [Laughs] But I would say I ship Finn and Poe [Oscar Isaac] pretty hard. I’m excited to see what happens next. I don’t know — I kind of think Finn obviously looked very confused, not sure what he was feeling on his end. We’ll see!

In “The Princess Diarist,” Carrie Fisher writes about the creation of her iconic bun hair and the long road of settling on that look. What was it like developing that part of Rose?

There were many conversations about hair. I remember Rian and [costume designer] Michael Kaplan had a very intense conversation about this hair. We had days of hair tests. I tried on multiple wigs, they shipped in wigs from different countries. My hair was long at the time so they didn’t want to cut it unless they knew exactly what they wanted. It was definitely something that was debated over, but I ended up really loving. They cut my real hair into a shape that would look good in a ponytail, so when I took it down, I had this weird misshapen mushroomy haircut.

You’re a die hard Harry Potter fan. Has Warner Bros. called you up for “Fantastic Beasts 3” yet?

They have not. I’m waiting for that call.

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