In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 59th film, Raya and the Last Dragon, the land of Kumandra has been divided for the past 500 years following the devastation caused by the Druun; a monster that has since returned. Raya, a lone warrior scarred by betrayal, travels across the land in search of the last dragon, Sisu, to abolish the Druun for good. Along the way, she must learn the hard truth that trust is key in both accomplishing any of the goals she is seeking to fulfill and in living her life.
Kelly Marie Tran provides the voice of the Disney heroine. Originally starting off in comedy sketches and short films, she rose to global prominence in recent years for her role as Rose Tico in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Her previous voice credits include The Croods: A New Age and she reprises her role of Rose in The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special and Star Wars Forces of Destiny. She is the first actor of Southeast descent to voice the lead in a Disney animated film.
Tran recently spoke with CAAM about the history that is being made in Raya and the Last Dragon, how it was for her to record her dialogue during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as what it means to see this film come out at this moment in time.
CAAM: Can you start by talking about how you got the role of Raya?
Kelly Marie Tran: It was something that I auditioned for and absolutely didn’t think that I would get to be a part of. It’s so much bigger than me, and I [grew] up being such a fan of Disney movies. Definitely was something that I wanted to be a part of, but didn’t know if that was even in the realm of possibility. And then, it came back around and, miraculously, I get to play this character, which is really exciting.
CAAM: This has been talked about several times that this is the first Disney film centered in a world inspired by several Southeast Asian cultures, and you are the first actor of Southeast Asian descent to voice a lead in a Disney-animated film. What do you make of this reality?
KMT: I always feel like it’s two-fold for me. And the first part of that reality is that yes, that is an amazing accomplishment, and I’m so proud to be working in this world and to be part of the positive change in terms of telling stories from underrepresented voices. I think that is extremely important. And the other side of it for me is recognizing that I do feel like I have this responsibility that even though I’m the first, I want to make sure I’m not the last. And so, what does that look like? How do I make sure that I am opening a door and letting other people through?
CAAM: What did your family make of the film’s concept when they learned that you would be voicing the lead?
KMT: They were so excited. Yeah, so excited and so proud. They actually got to see the movie when we had our cast screening, and they loved it. Yeah, it’s been a really, really emotional ride for me and my family, I think, just recognizing the things that we thought were impossible are actually happening. So that’s crazy.
CAAM: So for you, what’s the experience of voice acting for animation like, compared to acting for live-action?
KMT: Animation, for me, just requires so much more imagination. When you’re on a live-action set and you’re working with other actors, and you’re able to just respond to what they’re saying and see their facial expressions, you have so much to work with. Whereas in animation, you really are working in isolation, especially because of COVID, doubly because of COVID. But it’s also just the nature of animation for the actors to work with the directors, and then for the incredible editing teams to edit everything together.
I never got to work with any of the actors on this film, which is crazy to think about. So I think that, for me, it’s just a lot more of imagination work, recognizing that I might be in a makeshift VO booth in my boyfriend’s apartment, where it’s just sound blankets taped to a wall and furniture haphazardly put together. But what I need my brain to be doing is really believing that I’m in the middle of the battlefield and there are monsters, and there are my friends running around in chaos. And what does it smell like? Is there sand blowing? What are all of the specifics that are going to help me get to a place where I can actually honestly, emotionally portray a specific moment? So yeah, just a lot more animation work in making sure that I am painting a real, detailed world so that I can actually get to that authentic emotionality.
CAAM: You talked a little bit about recording from home. I was wondering if you can elaborate more on that. How did you make that work for you?
KMT: It was weird. It was definitely strange. I will say, so grateful that my genius boyfriend was able to figure out a lot of the technical stuff for me. We, honestly, had a makeshift fort, and that’s what recorded in. It was like this, it was a Zoom call. That’s how we recorded all the audio, is me and the directors on a Zoom call.
CAAM: And all this was happening with a construction site nearby?
KMT: There’s just sounds around the neighborhoods. We would definitely have to be like, “Okay, there’s a car honking, there’s a siren going by. We need to pause for a second.” Yeah, definitely a learning process.
CAAM: The film touches a lot on the subject of trust. For you, why is that such an important subject to see presented in a film like Raya and the Last Dragon?
KMT: I think what’s really important about it, for me, is not only the theme, but the idea that we dealt with it in a really realistic manner. It’s really easy to say, “Here’s this broken world, all you have to do is trust.” Makes everything seem easily fixed, and that’s not necessarily the reality of the world that we’re living in, especially when we consider all of the constant barrage of negative news that we’re getting. And it feels like every day there is a new video of a racist attack or a new news article covering some horrific events.
For me, the most important part of dealing with the theme of trust is recognizing that it’s a really painful thing to be living in a world that is that broken. And I think seeing Raya be able to just feel absolute anger is not something I’ve seen in a movie of this very specific genre before. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a Disney princess be absolutely, justifiably, unapologetically, angry at just how broken and how wrong the world is sometimes. That, coupled with then recognizing and looking outside of herself and seeing the ways in which her anger and her pain are blinding her, I think that’s really the secret that gets her to a place where she can learn how to trust, and recognize that taking the leap towards trust is even worth it. It’s such a hard thing to do, and recognizing how brave it is for her to move in that direction, despite not even knowing how it will turn out, or if there’s even the possibility of the world being a better place. Yeah, that’s really important to me, and it’s something that I want to take with me. And I hope that that’s part of the message that resonates with people as well.
CAAM: What does it mean for you to see the film come out in this moment we are in right now?
KMT: It means a lot. I think being part of something that not only does it have a universal theme, but also it feels like it’s so relevant to this specific moment. I think that’s really important to me. I think it’s important for people to, hopefully, be able to recognize through these characters that despite things being really, really bad sometimes, there’s still hope, and hope is a really powerful thing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Raya and the Last Dragon is now playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access.