When Kelly Marie Tran finally landed her very first part in a film after eight years as a struggling actor, it was the role of a lifetime: fan favorite Rose Tico in "Stars Wars: The Last Jedi." All at once, after almost a decade, she had made it — and making it meant, among other things, paying off her student loans.
Before the offer came to make her cinema debut with director Rian Johnson, the 28-year-old UCLA grad had gotten used to grinding, supporting herself by working odd jobs and at a temp agency while also trying her best to put herself out there to get cast in projects. "She'd wake up at 5 a.m., answer phones and grab coffee, leave for two or three auditions in the afternoon, then come back to the office and stay until 8 or 9 at night," reports Buzzfeed.
Gigs were scant, and she was weary. Her acting experience consisted of a few appearances in CollegeHumor skits, a web series she shot with her friends, and some improv shows. Tran told Entertainment Weekly she thought about quitting.
"I remember thinking, 'This could be my life forever,'" she said. "Like, I could just never make it. I could work this hard for the next 20 years of my life and still be struggling."
Then, when the world-changing news came, she couldn't even share it with her parents, refugees from Vietnam who had brought their children to America in search of a better life. Because of her contract and the secrecy of the shoot, she explained to Buzzfeed, Tran had to tell her family that she was off to Canada to shoot some indie film.
In many ways, Tran's journey as an actor prepared her for the role of Rose.
Rose is a maintenance worker for the Resistance who bonds with the stormtrooper-turned-hero Finn, played by John Boyega, a breakout star of "The Force Awakens."
Rose and Finn embark on a mission to gain access to an enemy ship, which involves a quick stop at a luxurious casino, where they team up with a hacker for hire known as DJ, portrayed by Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro.
While Finn gets swept up in the wealth and extravagance around them, Rose captures the voice of the Resistance. She exposes the ugliness to Finn, showing him that the profits of the wealthy come at the expense of mistreated kids, and tells him that she was once one of those kids. She started from nothing and got where she did by working hard and believing in herself.
That story in some ways echoes her own. Her parents came to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. "My dad was a street kid for seven years — he was homeless," Tran told Buzzfeed. "My parents didn't get to have a dream. Their dream was to live in a country where their kids would have choice."
Tran chose acting. But it wasn't easy. Like many minority actors, Tran was frequently offered roles that just played on her ethnicity. She stars in one CollegeHumor video entitled, "Are You Asian Enough?"
"I had resigned myself to thinking that one day I would be just the weird side character who always talks about being Asian and brings kimchi to the party," she told the Detroit Free Press.
While it's not clear how much Tran held in student loans or made in the role, the average monthly student loan payment for a borrower in their 20s is $351 and the median monthly payment is $203. And Variety reports that newcomers to the "Star Wars" series make between $100,000-$300,000 per film. Enough, Buzzfeed reports, that Tran "finally paid off her student loans."
As Tran writes in one of her enthusiastic, emotional posts on Instagram, "My heart is so full, and my goals are so clear. Let's tell more stories."
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Video by Nate Skid