SINGAPORE: The force is indeed strong with this one.
When Vietnamese-American Kelly Marie Tran landed the role of Rose Tico, she officially became the first Asian-American woman to star in a Star Wars movie.
The maintenance worker turned resistance hero is also the most prominent new role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Sure, we had a brief glimpse of half-Chinese Jessica Henwick as an X-Wing pilot in 2015’s The Force Awakens. The franchise then upped its diversity by featuring Hong Kong kungfu star Donnie Yen, Chinese actor/director Jiang Wen and British actor Riz Ahmed in supporting roles in 2016’s Rogue One.
But writer-director Rian Johnson’s casting of Tran in what is understood to be a non-race-specific role is a massive step for Asian representation in what is arguably the world’s most famous film franchise.
It’s also another notch on the franchise’s belt of strong female characters, as Tran joins the band of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso.
Be it excitement, pressure or responsibility, Tran told Channel NewsAsia during an interview in Singapore that she’s been feeling a plethora of emotions throughout this whirlwind journey.
“I do feel like everything I do right now is either the first time or the last time it’s happening. And everything feels very important and very emotional,” she explained. “It’s both an honour and a responsibility to be representing.”
But the 28-year-old actress was also quick to point out how long-awaited this has been for Asian actresses.
“I’m so happy that’s finally happening,” she said. “It’s insane to me that it’s me.”
“I remember being a little kid and wanting to be an actor and wanting to write and make movies and thinking that it was impossible because there were rarely any people like me doing that. And I can’t believe that I’m now doing that”
For an actress who was on the verge of quitting the profession just before landing the role of a lifetime, Tran revealed that for a long time, she didn’t think there were roles in Hollywood where she would “get to be a full human in a project”.
“Because for so long I was auditioning for the same sidekick female character,” she said.
Determined to move beyond caricatures of what people assume Asian actresses should be playing on screen, Tran cultivated an all-female Asian improvisation comedy group Number One Son and appeared on the television series CollegeHumor Originals.
“(Asians) can be loud and annoying and crazy!” she said. “I have such an amazing support group in those girls. The best part of it was that because we are all Asian women, we would be going for a lot of the same auditions. It was just all completely supportive all of the time and that is really rare I think.”
Indeed, the pint-sized actress seems to be paving the way for all young Asian actresses. Especially as she seems to have truly embraced the character of Rose, which director Johnson says embodies the notion that even the most unlikely person can step up and become a hero.
So where does Kelly Marie Tran end and Rose Tico begin?
“I think that there is no end and beginning. Rose has taught me a lot of things and sometimes I think that I taught or I informed that character (with) my life experience and my family’s life experience and their relationship with war,” Tran explained. “But there are also things about her that I love that I try to bring into my life ... Like sometimes I think, ‘Oh, what would Rose do in this situation?’”
For Tran, her connection to Rose is a “very fluid messed up kind of messy relationship” which she loves and think it’s “kind of beautiful”.
And hopefully that will help in handling the instant global fame and recognition that will undoubtedly follow as The Last Jedi opens in cinemas worldwide.
“I think I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. Or if I said that I was completely brave the whole time,” she admitted. “I was scared for a really long time. Because you don’t know what it’s going be like.”
But like Rose, she's rising to the occasion and looking forward to doing more in the future.
“I have been dealing with this whole idea about what it’s going be like in my mind for a couple of years now because I first got (the part) two years ago," she said. "Now, it’s more like me learning how not to have any expectations and just be present at the moment ... I don’t feel afraid of it anymore.
"I’m excited to see what happens after the movie and I’m excited to eventually write, direct and produce my own things.”