Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a lot of characters to service, from franchise icons like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) to heroes introduced two years ago in The Force Awakens, including Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac). It’s a testament to Kelly Marie Tran, then, that the character you’re most likely to talk about after you leave the theater is her series newbie Rose, a mechanic who teams up with Finn (John Boyega) to embody the central theme of the Rian Johnson–directed film: A hero can come from anywhere. The 28-year-old San Diego native imbues Rose with such heart that she all but steals The Last Jedi, and offscreen, Tran is just as winning, repeatedly describing herself as a fan who’s hit the jackpot. With her big breakout now in theaters, Tran rang up Vulture to discuss how she’s dealing with her new place in the galaxy.
Tell me what it was like to see the movie at its first premiere in Los Angeles. How were you feeling before you got there, and then what was it like when you arrived?
It all happens so fast, it truly does. It feels like you’re getting married! So many people were going to be there, my friends, my family … there’s a lot of nerves involved. And then when I finally arrived, first of all, I was listening to Hamilton in the car with all my girlfriends, trying to get pumped up for the situation. I was like, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” And then I got out of the car, and it was just madness, immediately. There’s cameras everywhere and people saying my name—first of all, they knew my name, which is very different for me. And then I saw this girl who was dressed as Rose and I just lost it.
Because I know how impossible this is. I had been auditioning for so long and my parents aren’t from the entertainment industry. It just seemed like a dream the entire time, and to have it hit this final moment was a very big deal. It’s still a big deal. I never want to forget that I’m doing an impossible thing.
How rare is it that you get to be part of something people love? It’s really special. It’s a very out-of-body experience to be a part of something so huge.
Now, that was the second time you’d seen it, right? I heard there had been a first screening for all the actors the week before.
It was right after we did Jimmy Kimmel, so if I can paint a picture for you, it was kind of a smaller room. Daisy and Gwen were on my left, and then Oscar on my right. And Laura Dern! Behind us, John and Andy Serkis.
Sitting in that room with all these people that I’ve looked up to before I even got that first audition was a big deal for me, and we were shouting for each other. Every time someone would appear onscreen for the first time, we would all just scream. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. It was a very emotional experience, and one that I will definitely cherish. The most comforting thing about this whole experience of being the new person was meeting everyone else and realizing that everyone was just as excited and pinching themselves.
How has your family reacted to the movie?
They were there at the premiere. My parents are refugees from Vietnam, so they didn’t grow up with Star Wars. I don’t think they know what’s going on in the movie at any given time. [Laughs.] But my dad stayed awake during this movie, and my dad never stays awake when I take him to the movies, so that was a good sign.
So how has the experience of watching this movie settled for you?
First of all, I think it’s different for every actor, but it’s very weird to watch yourself. I actually just watched it again yesterday at the Arclight by myself! I really want to see this movie to the point where I can watch it like I’m not in it, if that makes any sense. You spend so much time watching yourself and picking yourself apart, and it’s not what you want this experience to be like.
Did you pull your hat down low on your head at that Arclight screening, like a full-on superstar?
I full-on was dressed like myself. [Laughs.] I also had a very big backpack because … well, don’t tell the Arclight, but I definitely smuggled in two large bags of chips. A lot of people think that your life immediately changes after something like this and you can’t walk outside, but I saw three different movies at the Arclight yesterday, and it was never an issue. I look so normal, I don’t think it’ll ever be an issue. I’ll let you know.
I saw on Instagram that you were out in London and you overheard people discussing the movie, oblivious to the fact that you were right next to them.
Okay, so after the press tour, I stayed in London for a few days because I just wanted to watch theater and go eat a lot of delicious food in pubs. So we’re at this pub, me and a friend of mine, and we’re having a delicious savory pie when this guy comes up and says, “Hey, we’ve got a big group of people, is there any way we can sit here?” My friend’s like, “Oh, we’ll just scoot over on our table,” and we did, and all these people come in dressed in these adorable Christmas sweaters having a great time. And then it became very clear that they had just seen the movie, they had just come from that, and they were doing what me and my friends do after we’ve watched a movie we love, just sitting there and dissecting every moment. It was an otherworldly experience.
How did that make you feel?
First of all, there’s nothing more rewarding than being part of something that causes a dialogue. Even if someone doesn’t like it, or just likes it for me, storytelling has been the one true love story of my entire life. I believe if you can have an open dialogue about anything, whether it’s a book or a movie or TV show, it’s this door that suddenly opens your mind to new ideas. So to hear people do that right next to me with something I was involved in was a very big deal. I don’t think that’ll ever get old. But yeah, so I sat there listening to them for about half an hour, very creepy. Finally, I finished eating and walked over and said, “Guys, I just wanted to say I’ve been listening to your conversation,” and the first thing they said is, “Oh my God, have we ruined this spot for you? We’re so sorry.” And then I’m like, “No, no, no, not at all.
Hi, I’m Kelly. I played Rose.” And they just were completely shocked by the whole thing.
What was it like to watch that opening sequence of The Last Jediwhere we see Paige, Rose’s sister? Her sacrifice is such a big part of Rose’s backstory, and I’m sure you weren’t actually on set when it was shot …
I actually was!
You know what? Pretty much every scene they would let me go to, I would go. I just wanted to watch people work! I had no scenes with Andy Serkis, but you bet your ass I was there watching Andy Serkis, and same with Laura Dern. It was like someone gave me this golden ticket and I got to the chocolate factory and was never leaving. But yeah, Veronica Ngo, who plays Paige … that moment is pretty incredible, and she does such an amazing job. It’s such a momentous moment for Rose’s character, losing the last living family member that she has after having grown up in a situation where her home was torn apart by the First Order.
Rian told me that you would often wander from set to set, department to department. He even once caught you feathering the Porgs.
I also got to put hair on the falthiers! I think that I was given a gift, in that I just didn’t know there were rules. I didn’t know that it was weird to always want to be there, because literally, even if I wasn’t working, I would just be around. People were like, “Don’t you have things to do?” But I would go on set and watch every day and walk into different departments unannounced, like, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” I went to the costume department, and there’s just a huge room with hundreds and hundreds of costumes, and every single one was so detailed—it was incredible! I don’t know how to explain this experience other than to say it was like someone had told me Hogwarts was real.
It says so much that every department was so welcoming to me, and they really took time out of their day to talk to me for half an hour and explain things to me.
To me, Rose is this background character, right? If she was in The Force Awakens, she’d be running around in the background and no one would ever think about her, because she’s not a hot-shot pilot or a princess or a leader, per se. But just like Rose, all of those people who are in the background making the movie are just as important as the people in the movie who the audience sees. Every single person. Like for example, if the Porgs were unfinished, how distracting would that be? For me, there’s so much appreciation for the people who work so hard. The women who were making those falthiers … putting even one hair in that falthier was so difficult! And they’d be doing this for hours and hours every day. It was a very eye-opening experience and I’m so thankful and grateful that people let me poke my head in all the time. I think I’ll do that on every set I get to be on.
Last question: How do you feel about Kylo Ren’s shirtless scene?
[Screams for several seconds] Oh my gosh, right? Am I right?
I loved everything Rian did with Rey and Kylo. I love that they had these awkward, funny moments but they also were dealing with so many interesting themes, like the idea that they both have the Force in such a strong way, and what does that mean? But that shirtless scene was hilarious and awesome and so surprising and different. [Laughs.] I loved it. I loved it!