Kelly Marie Tran not a fan before nabbing major Star Wars role

Actress Kelly Marie Tran (right) with co-star John Boyega in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Actress Kelly Marie Tran (right) with co-star John Boyega in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Kelly Marie Tran, who plays engineer Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, wants to show that people who work in the background can make a difference

Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran will be taking her Star Wars: The Last Jedi press tour to the land of her parents' birth in a few days.

"My parents tell me I speak the equivalent of street Vietnamese," she says with a laugh. She has been practising to speak in the more formal style for interviews.

"We'll play it by ear and see how it goes," says the 28-year-old, who was speaking at a press conference at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel yesterday.

She has a lot on her shoulders: She is the first Asian in the Star Wars franchise to be seen in more than a minor supporting role, as implied by her press tour of Singapore and Vietnam, organised by production company Disney.

"I did feel a lot of pressure in the beginning, to represent something," she says. "It's an honour and a responsibility. But you just want to do the whole thing justice and that is on top of wanting to do the whole franchise justice - so many generations of people love this thing.

"I grew up not seeing anyone that looks like me in this and now I'm like, 'Oh God, I can't believe I'm now in this'," she says.

In The Last Jedi, which picks up the story from 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tran plays Rose Tico, an engineer in the Resistance.

It took several rounds of auditions spread over five months before she received news that she had been picked.

They were not looking to cast an Asian female in the Rose Tico role; it was open to any race, she says.

The actress, whose resume is strong in comedy parts, reveals that she was never an avid follower of the Star Wars films.

"That actually helps me. Because when I was auditioning, I never had the feeling I had to make her something that I had already seen in those movies," she says.

Her emotional distance from the franchise allowed her to come up with fresh, non-stereotypical ideas for her part, she thinks. "It was a special thing to have, that when I read this part and was creating the character, I was able to see what was on the paper and be honest."

But since landing the part, Tran, who has appeared on television in shows such as CollegeHumor Originals (2014), has binged on Star Wars content. "I've read the books, listened to the podcasts and looked it up online," she says.

She is aware that she will soon be part of a globally loved continuing story, one with exalted characters - such as Harrison Ford's Han Solo - as well as characters that even fans detest, such as the computer-drawn Jar Jar Binks.

"Who wants to be Jar Jar Binks?" she says with a laugh. "Rose is an amazing character and I can't wait for you to learn more about her.

"But if there's anything I want to show in my portrayal of her, it's the idea that even if you are not born a princess or into a position of privilege, if you are a background player and aren't a frontrunner like a star pilot, you can still make a difference."

• Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in Singapore on Dec 14.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Star Wars actress wants to engineer change'. Print Edition | Subscribe