When Kelly Marie Tran was in middle school, a simple question from her dad – an immigrant to the US from Vietnam – changed the way she understood class, race and success in America.
Jenny Yang: We all have that person, usually an elder — an auntie, a friend, a parent — who drops wisdom on us that gets in our heads and influences the choices we make and the way we think. This past year, I've had a lot of time to reflect on the elders in my life who've done just that, contributing to me becoming a labor organizer and a comedian. People like my mom. She was always cracking jokes under her breath, to herself, in Mandarin, she planted this funny, witty seed in me without me even noticing. For this show, I’m talking to 15 incredible people about what they learned from the elders in their lives, the ones who planted the right seed at just the right time. I’m your host, Jenny Yang. And this is Going Through It.
Kelly Marie Tran: When I realized my dad was being shamed for making an honest living, I think I realized that everything is sort of bullshit? Like, we are celebrating the wrong things. And, um, yeah, I think that that experience with my dad really taught me that we live in a sort of upside down world that attaches value to numbers. And I don't want to live that way.
INTRO: Today I’m talking to my good friend Kelly Marie Tran. And I'm just gonna say it, she is the hardest working woman in Hollywood.
Now you might know Kelly as the voice of the first Southeast Asian Disney Princess in “Raya and the Last Dragon” or as Rose Tico in Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi.
But I know Kelly from a humble improvised comedy class back in 2011. Ugh. Just comedy babies back then. I was drawn to Kelly the first time I saw her. She was a fellow round Asian face of smiley energy. And we connected right away — you know, just two women from Asian immigrant families, trying to make it in an industry that didn’t always make it easy for us.
Today’s show is for anyone who has ever been underestimated. Like, anyone who needs the courage to go against the status quo.
The moment Kelly booked Star Wars she bucked conventions. Everyone obsessed over how relatable and un-movie star she was. She’d be doing press tours with Luke Skywalker himself and acting like she was just lucky to be there.
KMT: “And I just feel like I, I hope that I live up to this thing. It feels like a big honor and a big responsibility at the same time, you know, I keep reminding myself that I just want to do this thing justice. So many people have loved this for so long and um, man I hope I don’t mess that up…”
It was a dream come true until Kelly became a target of racist and misogynistic trolls who hated the mere existence of her as a Vietnamese actress in the franchise. So she went against the grain again and deleted all of her social media accounts, just as her star was rising. Like wow no one does that. OK? Then in a boss-ass move, Kelly wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed. She rejected the online hate, declared her mission to keep creating, and proclaimed her love for her Vietnamese and Asian American identity. I love her so much.
I knew of Kelly’s humble comedy beginnings...and that her parents came to this country as refugees from Vietnam. But it wasn’t until talking to her for this podcast that I learned how humble her beginning really was. I didn’t know that Kelly’s dad worked at Burger King to provide for their family. Fast food jobs are some of the lowest paid jobs, and let’s be honest - it’s the kind of work that a lot of people turn into a punchline.
So for Kelly, seeing her father be vulnerable about his work taught her a tough and valuable lesson about what it actually means to make it in America.
Kelly Marie Tran : So I remember when yeah, I was a kid, my dad would wake up before any of us woke up. He'd wake up at four, he'd go to work and then he'd be home after we all were home. So me as a kid, I just remember him working all the time and working really hard. … his first job when he came to the US was really starting as a cashier at Burger King. And he sort of worked his way up and became the district manager of a sort of chain of Burger Kings…. I remember thinking that the Burger King thing was so cool because we would get like cool toys. And back then, Burger King had a contract with Disney before it switched to McDonald's. So we would get all the Disney toys. We had all these like little figures and that was like, obviously huge. And then I got into middle school and I sort of, I really hate admitting this, but I think that I had a lot of shame about what my dad did. I mean, you know, you're in middle school and you're just like awkward and you just want to be liked and you want to be accepted. And there was a lot of classism that existed in the specific neighborhood that I grew up in. My parents sort of saved every penny to get to a place where we could afford to live in that neighborhood. But we were by no means wealthy in that neighborhood.
Jenny Yang: Slowly, Kelly became ashamed of her father’s job, and not because anyone told her to be, but it was the little things that added up, like one time in middle school, when her classmate came over to work on a project.
Kelly Marie Tran : … I was doing the science project with this girl, Amanda and we were testing pH levels of water in different bodies of water in the community. And I remember one day her dad came to pick her up from our house and, you know, he was talking to my dad and they were sort of having this conversation. I remember them laughing and having a good time talking to each other and then I ran upstairs to get some stuff and you know, I don't know, putting coloring books or whatever I was getting together...
Jenny Yang: While Kelly was upstairs, the dads talked about jobs, and Kelly’s dad mentioned that he worked at Burger King…
Kelly Marie Tran: and then it was like...not cool, and there was a heaviness sort of in the atmosphere…
And I mean, even if I didn't know, to feel shame about what my dad did -- after that moment, I did. Do you know what I mean?
Jenny Yang: Oooh. Yes.
Kelly Marie Tran: Cause suddenly you're like, Oh, this is weird. I've just been taught that there, that I should feel weird about this. ...but as soon as Amanda's dad had left, I remember my dad looking at me and just like being really confused. So my dad just said, Kelly, I don't understand why people think that I should feel shame for the job that I'm working. He said that he didn't cheat. He didn't lie. He didn't steal. He was working a job at Burger King, but a job that was honest and a job that provided for his family. And yet he had had this interaction with my friend's dad that sort of made him feel like he was doing something wrong. And I mean, I understood the concept of that because I too had felt this sort of weird shame around sharing what my dad did for a living. And I didn't really understand where it came from. And to hear my dad say that. And to also understand that he, as an adult who came from a different country and was doing everything that he could and doing everything in a very honest way, being taught that he needed to feel shame because he was doing it a way that society didn't accept was so, so strange to me because I was in sixth grade.
Jenny Yang : Yeah.
Kelly Marie Tran: And it was one of the first times my, my dad was really vulnerable with me, I think. And I think he was just processing. Cause I don't think he even understood. Jenny Yang: When did you realize that that incident was significant? Kelly Marie Tran: So, I mean, I think, if I'm being honest, I didn't recognize the significance of that moment. And many other moments like that until I was probably in my mid-twenties when I got to the point where I was, you know, I'd graduated from college and I was fully financially supporting myself. I was paying for my car insurance, for my rent, for my health insurance, for my student loans, all of these things. And then I really started to understand what my dad said about making an honest living and how hard it was and how, what an accomplishment it is just to do that. I think that's when I really started to question the things that we're taught to have shame about… Jenny Yang: So your dad's question to you about why he isn't being respected for his job at the time, didn't make you really change anything.
Kelly Marie Tran: No, not at all.
Jenny Yang: If anything, it reinforced the kind of shame you might have about how different your parents were?
Kelly Marie Tran: Right
Jenny Yang: Compared to your other friend's parents.
Kelly Marie Tran: Yeah.
Jenny Yang: And so, how do you think your identity informed how you reacted?
Kelly Marie Tran: My relationship with my identity as an Asian woman, is very complicated because it is something I was born into and I don't have a choice in the matter if that makes sense. And I am really proud of who I am, but that question is complicated because on the one hand, every experience I will ever have, will be seen through that filter and not necessarily because it's me projecting that, but it's because the way the world sees me and the way that the world treats me due to that identity, I can't hide that. And so, yeah, I think that that played a really big part in every experience. And that absolutely played a part in, in the way that I reacted. I don't want to stereotype about a group of people. Um, but I will say the way that I reacted has a lot to do with the way that I grew up and the way that I was taught to be in this world. Jenny Yang: Which is...how? Kelly Marie Tran: Which is silent… Jenny Yang: Aw that’s so sad to me… [both laugh] Kelly Marie Tran: It is really sad. And it's taken me a lot of years to get to the point where I can actually speak out about things and I can actually, uh, stand up for myself. Yeah. And it's, you know, so much of the way we interact in the world is subconsciously the way that the world taught us to act and unlearning those things and really digging into yourself and figuring out the ways in which the system has taught you to be is exhausting and vital. It's something that I am still working on every day. But yeah, I think that my identity played a lot into that experience, especially because I was 12 and didn't have the words that I have now. You know, I think we are now living in this world where there's sort of a lot of shared vocabulary for things and experiences that when we were kids, we didn't necessarily have things like microaggression, gaslighting, these terms that we all can use. And we all immediately know what they mean. I just remember as a kid feeling weird and not, not knowing why. So I think once I got into my mid twenties and I was able to see that situation differently, it changed my life in many ways. I think it started me on sort of an avalanche of asking questions instead of just accepting the way that things were and these sort of things that I thought were just truths. And then I started to recognize that these things aren't truths, they're just the status quo, and figuring out that I can ask questions and ask why things are the way they are. And also be part of the change if, if things need to change. I think that reframing that specific moment for me was sort of the beginning of all of that. It's kind of wild too, you know, it's it's, uh, sixth grade was a long time ago. And, and to still remember that very specific moment and still reflect on it, it's a big deal.
Jenny Yang: It’s a huge deal! I mean I always wonder like what made you not just go with the flow and go with what’s expected and this was one of those moments, you actually realized that like you can question things and that’s huge, I feel like not everyone gets that moment but now you realize how much this tiny, tiny thing actually affected you...I think it just goes to show what an affect your dad had on you.
Kelly Marie Tran: He did what it took and it makes me sad to think that he didn't feel like he could celebrate coming from, you know, a war torn country, leaving his family for two decades, raising his little brothers and then getting to a place where we had a house that we grew up in and we always had food on the table and we had really good places to go to school, we were driven to school every day. Like the things that he was doing from where he started were essentially impossible things. And yet here he was in the situation where he was being compared to someone who probably started a lot further down the line. Jenny Yang: Yes absolutely,...so then what were some of the beliefs that you started to question in your early twenties? Kelly Marie Tran: Well, I remember specifically graduating high school and going to community college and it was so looked down upon at my school. I remember teachers even coming to me and saying things like, Kelly, why, why are you doing that? You could do so much better people thinking that I was going to have no future because apparently community college was only for quote, like bad kids?
Jenny Yang: And you're going to end up in a ditch somewhere.
Kelly Marie Tran: Yeah, yeah, essentially. And I remember again, feeling shame because this was all coming from authority figures and people who I was taught that I need to listen to. The joke was that once I got to community college, I was like, “Oh, these are just kids who have to help their parents also pay rent while they're going to school.” And it's just a very different experience. And the joke of it all was that once I had transferred to UCLA, I recognized that my education at the community college was better than the classes I took at UCLA --
Jenny Yang: Oop! Oop! Oop!
Kelly Marie Tran: I mean, listen, But do you know what I'm saying? Like this idea of status and this idea of labels and names and being able to say a brand that's recognizable. I, I don't think that that maybe sometimes it's valid, but for my experience, it was not. And I am very angry that as a young 18 year old woman, I was looked down upon because I decided to go to a community college. Like it was my friends, it was my principal, my teachers looking at me like I was doing something insane. And when I got there and realized that everyone was wrong, that was really the first sort of pivot. And I started realizing, Oh, maybe I'm not the crazy one. Maybe everyone else is crazy to use an improv rule. And I think that, that was the first time I broke from the quote path.
Jenny Yang: Yeah.
Kelly Marie Tran: And this sort of thing that had been set for me….
Jenny Yang : Yeah. What’s “socially acceptable,” what’s a “higher status,” easier to brag about way of life.
Kelly Marie Tran: Yes. And thank God, because if I hadn't done that, I would never have pursued acting. And I know I would not be sitting here with you, but it, yeah, it was a journey for sure.
Jenny Yang: I mean, you know, you, you have to, at some point there needs to be a shift. If you grew up being told that you need to be, to walk a very respectable, Orthodox path, right? There always has to be some kind of shift to happen so that you can actually break free and be creative. Kelly Marie Tran: Yeah. I'm so I'm so grateful for that now. Um, but looking back, it's kind of wild because I remember all of the shame that I had and, and now I'm like, “what are you guys doing?”
[both laugh] Jenny Yang: Yeah, that's right! Fools! I love this idea of you realizing that you can question the status quo of how we see things and how we treat each other, because I have lived vicariously and lived for your experiences like, once you got like these big jobs like with Star Wars Episodes 8 and 9 or even Raya, like I love seeing how sort of unorthodox Kelly who doesn't care about what people think as much, has managed to then live in that new culture, like in that new context of Hollywood. You know, can you tell me a little bit of you know, how you've been able to free yourself from doing what's expected? Kelly Marie Tran: So I think growing up as a kid who was taught to sort of fall in line and really follow all the rules and then become a person who was working in this industry, it took me a while to, first of all, even know what the rules were [both laugh] And then to get to the point where I was absolutely willing to break them.
Jenny Yang: Yeah
Kelly Marie Tran: And I think I also had a lot of shame in my early twenties. You know, I, I had shame about wanting to be an actor. I had shame about wanting to do something that was so impossible. There was a lot of sort of imposter syndrome of me being like, why me? Like I can't do this. I'm, I'm such an average looking Asian woman. Like, you know, all these things that you tell yourself. And now of course I know that those are all lies and that, you know, I'm comparing myself to a very specific Western standard of beauty when I say those things about myself. But back then, I didn't know those things. I think when I first, when I first got episode eight, I was very scared of doing anything wrong. I was so afraid of losing that job. I was so afraid of, I mean, God, I didn't kind of really didn't know how anything worked. It was like, you know, those YouTube videos of a baby who puts on glasses for the first time and like looks at the world, And you realize, Oh, that baby needed glasses, that's kind of how it was for me. Like, I was just like, Oh, I don't know. There's just a lot of stimulation happening. I don't know what's going on. Um. What I find strange about this industry is there's this sort of expectation sometimes that you're going to walk into a room and people will sort of cater to you. I never grew up that way.
Jenny Yang: Ooh!
Kelly Marie Tran: I grew up where like, you know, I walk into a room and I was taught to cater to other people. And so I have always been taught to provide for myself because no one's going to do that for you. And so I try to walk into every room with that expectation. Like I deserve to be here. I have important things to say, but at the same time, I'm not going to expect everyone to cater to me or to me with something like I can also provide things for myself. And I think I've gotten to this point now. I mean, it's been years, but I've gotten to this point now where I really have just become confident in the things that I want and the types of stories that I want to tell. And I think that change has been gradual. Um, and I don't think I can really point to one experience to, as like the stepping stone, but I will say starting as an actress and now also being a producer has absolutely changed the way that I look at this industry. And I'm also not afraid to ask for things that I didn't even know I could ask for it before. And it's not even like anything outlandish. It's just me being like, “Oh, I'm doing a movie about Southeast Asia. I'd really love to have representation in terms of the journalists that I talk to.” And like, just like things like that, now I'm really being thoughtful about, or trying to be as thoughtful as possible when it comes to every single choice that I make, because I'm recognizing that whether I like it or not, my journey is very public. And if it's going to be public, I might as well say something while I'm going through it. Um, yeah.
Jenny Yang: I like that, that somehow your way of, um, no longer just going along with the status quo included, claiming your self worth by asking for what you want, but also still countering what the expectation is of a star or talent, right. Where you don't need other people to do everything for you.
Kelly Marie Tran: When I realized my dad was being shamed for making an honest living, I think I realized that everything is sort of bullshit? Like we are celebrating the wrong things. I don't want people to respect me because I'm associated with these sort of like bigger properties. I want people to respect me because I am really trying to invest in populations that have historically been marginalized, that they too can have a megaphone to make important, radical, revolutionary art. Like I think that we live in a world that celebrates very specific capitalistic ideas, you know? And, um, yeah, I think that that experience with my dad really taught me that we live in a sort of upside down world that celebrates, attaches value to numbers. And I don't want to live that way.
[MUSIC] Jenny Yang: What does making an honest living mean to you now?
Kelly Marie Tran: I always wanted to be in a position where I was able to tell important stories and make radical revolutionary art that changed people's perceptions. And I think I'm doing that now. Like, I, I feel very proud of, of what I'm involved in. So yeah, I think for me, that's what making an honest living means.
OUTRO: Y’all I love Kelly so much, Kelly Marie Tran is the best. We have come so far together. I mean listen, radical revolutionary art? Yes!
When I met Kelly back in 2011, I was still working in my first career in politics and feeling super burned out as a labor organizer. I was only a year into doing standup comedy and taking this improv class with Kelly after work was my little oasis in a job that did not make me happy. I was so sad.
Without people like Kelly, comedy spaces were bleak. Every open mic and show felt like a suck hole of young white dudes recycling the same hack jokes about weed and self-pleasure that I could never relate to. Please write better weed and self-pleasure jokes. So whenever I’d encounter an Asian American in the Los Angeles comedy scene, I’d always try to befriend them - it was an act of survival.
Finding people like Kelly kept me going in a culture and an industry that tried to shame me for being Asian American. You know, that told me I had to be the butt of a joke rather than the author of my own story.
When I think about how people tried to shame Kelly’s father and even Kelly herself when she was in Star Wars, I think about all the chances Kelly had to quit on her dreams. But thank god, she didn't.
I hope that everyone can appreciate Kelly’s story, because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been made to feel like we’re not good enough. And what her story shows us is that we all have the power to not internalize that shame. We can turn that around and say: it is the world that needs to change, and I will be a part of that change.
CREDITS: Going Through It is an original podcast created in partnership with MailChimp and Pineapple Street Studios. Executive Producers for Going Through it are Je-Anne Berry, Jenna Weiss-Berman, and Max Linsky. Our managing producer is Agerenesh Ashagre. This season is produced by the all-star team of Sophia Steinert-Evoy, Emerald O’Brien, and Yinka Rickford-Anguin. And we’re edited by the irreplaceable Aaron Edwards. We are engineered to perfection, or very close to it, by Davy Sumner. Our theme music was produced by Raj Makhija. Daoud Anthony also produced original music for this season, with additional tunes from Epidemic Sound and Blue Dot Sessions. Legal services for Pineapple Street by Bianca Grimshaw at Granderson Des Rochers. An extra special thanks to Himie Freeman for his support on this production. And of course, the biggest thanks to my own elders for everything, and being the inspiration behind this show….Mom, Dad, Margaret Cho, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Keiko Agena, Tim Sams, Gena Lew Gong, Quan Phung, Michelle Ko and so many more...and thanks in general to my loud-ass partner Corey Higgs for staying quiet in the house for me. And thank YOU for listening.
This season comedian Jenny Yang sits down with 15 notable guests to reflect on their Going Through It moments and what they learned from the elders who influenced them at just the right time.
This season comedian Jenny Yang sits down with 15 notable guests to reflect on their Going Through It moments and what they learned from the elders who influenced them at just the right time.
Actor Kelly Marie Tran on her father’s example.