Kelly Marie Tran to Star in Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

She is the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a Disney animated film.

She is the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a Disney animated film.

(Photo: Owen Kolasinski/BFA/REX/Shutters)

by The RepresentASIAN Project
August 27, 2020

Kelly Marie Tran has signed on to voice Raya in Disney’s animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, taking over the part from Cassie Steele, according to Entertainment Weekly.

With this role, the 31-year-old Star Wars star is the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a film from Walt Disney Animation.

Raya and the Last Dragon is history-making in itself in that it is the first feature from Walt Disney Animation to be inspired by Southeast Asia. The story, which was co-written by Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and playwright Qui Nguyen, takes place in the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, where, years ago, dragons and humans lived in harmony, until monsters known as Druun invaded the kingdom, forcing the dragons to sacrifice themselves and save humanity. The story follows Raya’s journey as a warrior to find the last dragon, who she believes can save Kumandra. It also stars Awkwafina, who plays Sisu, a dragon in human form who needs Raya’s help to reclaim her power and become her true dragon self.

Tran told EW that Raya, like her predecessor Moana, redefines the classic Disney princess.

“She is someone who is technically a princess, but I think that what’s really cool about this project, about this character specifically, is that everyone’s trying to flip the narrative on what it means to be a princess,” the Vietnamese-American actress told the publication. “Raya is totally a warrior. When she was a kid, she was excited to get her sword. And she grows up to be a really badass, gritty warrior and can really take care of herself.”

She added that the production team has worked diligently to ensure proper representation of Southeast Asian culture on-screen.

“I remember having this experience of recognizing some of the words and recognizing some of the names and the locations and even certain characters and our job descriptions of what influenced them to be a certain way,” she said. “I felt so seen, and it was such a blissful feeling. I don’t know if I can even explain it, but it was this surprise. I’ve worked on some things before which obviously weren’t as culturally specific as this, and I don’t think that I knew that I needed that.”

This history-making role comes after Tran was viciously harassed online in 2018 for her role as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Tran was the first woman of colour to have a lead role in a Star Wars movie). Following the sexist and racist online abuse, Tran deleted all of her posts on Instagram.

In August 2018, Kelly wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, addressing her decision to leave social media and stating she “won’t be marginalized by online harassment.”

“It wasn’t their words, it’s that I started to believe them,” Tran wrote. “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of colour already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.”

She continued, “Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life: that I was ‘other,’ that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them. And that feeling, I realize now, was, and is, shame, a shame for the things that made me different, a shame for the culture from which I came from. And to me, the most disappointing thing was that I felt it at all.”

At the end of the essay, Tran vowed to stop erasing her heritage to please a culture that pushed her to stop speaking Vietnamese and to adopt an American name (“My real name is Loan,” she wrote. “And I am just getting started.”). And it looks like she’s doing just that with this new role.

Raya and the Last Dragon is set to premiere March 12, 2021.

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