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Kelly Marie Tran And Carlos López Estrada Talk Teaming Up For Raya And The Last Dragon And Latest Film Summertime - Exclusive Interview

Kelly Marie Tran and Carlos López Estrada first met on the set of the 2021 Disney animated film "Raya and the Last Dragon," which López Estrada co-directed alongside Don Hall while Tran voiced the character of Raya. They immediately hit it if off and are now working together to promote their latest collaboration, "Summertime," a modern spoken word poetry musical set in Los Angeles that follows 26 young Angelinos over the course of one summer day as they weave in and out of each other's stories.

"Summertime" was inspired by a spoken-word showcase that López Estrada attended that featured high school students — and those same performers both wrote and starred in the film. Directed by López Estrada and executive-produced by Tran, the film first premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and will finally be released in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on July 9 before expanding a week later.

The project was something López Estrada worked on after making his 2018 directorial debut with "Blindspotting" and long before "Raya and the Last Dragon" premiered in March 2021. Tran, best known for voicing Raya and portraying Rose Tico in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy, signed on to produce "Summertime" in the spring of 2021.

Speaking exclusively with Looper, Tran and López Estrada discussed the impact they hope "Summertime" has on audiences, reflected on their time working together on "Raya and the Last Dragon," and recalled some of their favorite on-set antics. 

Kelly Marie Tran and Carlos López Estrada hope Summertime teaches the 'power of poetry'

I know the basic premise of how "Summertime" got off the ground — after you, Carlos, attended a spoken word showcase featuring high school performers. But why was it so important for you to get their poetry out there in this form?

Carlos López Estrada: It's more like a personal experience than I think that it was this bigger strategic thinking. I just had such a profound reaction to their poetry and I was really moved by hearing all of their stories. So, "Summertime" has really just been an attempt to share that feeling that I had when I was first introduced to these poets and to share it with as many people as possible. I think that was the thought in my head as I left that showcase, like, "It's a shame that more people won't be able to experience what I just experienced." It's a shame that I feel like such a limited amount of people get to hear this type of poetry. And, really, this whole movie has just been that — an attempt to bring that experience to as many people as possible.

And now, Kelly, what made you connect with this film so much that you signed on as executive producer?

Kelly Marie Tran: So many things. Carlos and I had dinner towards the end of the "Raya" press tour and we had a conversation about things that we wanted to pursue as artists, the type of things that we wanted to make. And it was the first time we really, I think, had a full conversation outside of just doing scenes. He sent me a link to "Summertime" and I watched the film and was fully changed. I didn't know that I needed to see and hear and feel the things that the movie made me feel. And now, having had the privilege of spending time in this community of poets, I just feel like it has forced me to take more risks as an artist and to look at myself and the things that I want to do. I am forever grateful.

I heard it inspired you enough that you went to a poetry workshop at the same place the actors came from. Is that true? And if so, what did you learn from that?

Kelly Marie Tran: [Laughs] Well, yes, the rumors are true. Carlos was also there. What did I learn? So many things. I mean, obviously there was the learning about poetry. What makes a good poem. What makes a good poet. But also, I think the thing that really stayed with me was just the supportive community where these poets are able to foster the idea of everyone just showing up as they are and sharing parts of themselves that are really hard and scary to share and just living in their truths and being okay with that. It was something that I really needed to soak in, and I've learned a lot from them. I hope that after people are able to experience the power of poetry in this film, that they are also able to experience the power of the community around it. It's pretty incredible.

Why Carlos López Estrada thinks Summertime is right on time

Carlos, why is this, the summer of 2021, the right time for this film to be seen by a wider audience?

Carlos López Estrada: Our movie was originally supposed to be released last summer, and for all the reasons that we're all very aware of, it couldn't. But I think that right now is the absolute best time for so many reasons. First of all, thanks to people like Amanda Gorman and Lin-Manuel Miranda, I think that poetry has such a bigger voice in the mainstream — and particularly the poetry that comes from people who belong to minorities and people who belong to underrepresented groups. So for that reason I think that the medium is finding new audiences and it's finding new platforms.

Also just because we've had a really difficult year — last year was difficult for so many reasons — and I think that these poets bring a message of hope in a really beautiful, creative way. And they have conversations that are really important and really timely. I just could not think of a better time for a movie like this that promotes community, that promotes mental health, that promotes radical empathy. I am just very happy to contribute to this conversation and to highlight this community that I think is just so, so, so important.

Kelly Marie Tran believes Raya and the Last Dragon represents a 'better world'

Kelly, obviously you've been in front of the camera doing all kinds of acting work, but now you're moving behind the scenes too. Any aspirations to direct? And if so, what kind of film would it be?

Kelly Marie Tran: You know...

Carlos López Estrada: Do it! Do it!

Kelly Marie Tran: We'll see. I think that as an artist I'm really starting to explore parts of myself I haven't explored before. And wherever that leads me is where I want to go. I don't want to make any plans for my [future]. But, yeah, I can see a world where I experience different job descriptions.

You two met on "Raya and the Last Dragon," which has been a big hit with critics and fans alike. And that story is not dissimilar to "Summertime" in that it's brimming with girl power, for lack of a better term, and Southeast Asian culture. Looking back on that film, how proud are you of what it represents?

Kelly Marie Tran: So proud. Carlos and I talked about this earlier and I think we've talked about this many times before just in life, but "Raya" for me does a really good job of conveying a world that I want to live in. I think "Summertime" does the same thing. And I think that's always the goal with me for anything that I'm involved in. I want to, as an actor, exist in worlds that I dream about, but I'm not sure can exist. I think with "Raya" it was this idea of this character coming from a place of distrust and then towards the end really being willing to give up everything, to contribute to the idea of a better world. That, to me, is such a beautiful arc and journey for a character. It's something I want to do in my own life.

And I think that I've had similar experiences with "Summertime." The idea that here is a film that highlights the stories of so many incredible artists that come from communities that have historically been ignored. Yeah, it's such an incredible movie. And I think that it also has that same through line for me, of highlighting a world that I wish that we saw more of and that we could exist in.

What's it like being a Disney warrior-princess and forever being part of the Disney lexicon? Is it a dream come true or something you never expected?

Kelly Marie Tran: Both! [Laughs] Dream come true, also never expected. I mean, I grew up in a world where I didn't even know that dreams were possible. My parents emigrated from Vietnam and they both didn't have the luxury of thinking about what their dreams would be. I always talk about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. They were definitely in that place where they were like, "Okay, food, shelter, safety." You have to reach a level of privilege to get to the point where you can think about what you would want to do with your life, what would fulfill you. And my parents lived their whole lives helping me get to that place on the pyramid.

So, I never really thought to myself that — I think I would have to be seriously deranged to think like, "Oh, one day you'll be in 'Star Wars' and then you'll be a Disney princess." That is like some deranged thinking. [Laughs] I can say that the entire experience — and I think also the "Summertime" experience — has just made me believe that magic and miracles are real accessible things. And I think that I just want to continue chasing magic. So, I feel insane. It's a really beautiful thing. I wish I could share this experience with everyone.

Carlos López Estrada and Kelly Marie Tran recall their favorite parts of the Raya and the Last Dragon experience

Carlos, what was the most fun scene you filmed for "Raya and the Last Dragon"?

Carlos López Estrada: I think the one that I remember the most is meeting Kelly. It was all voice recording, but the day I met Kelly, I think was one of the most memorable ones for me, just because it was a really great recording session. But I think even if it was brief, we connected on a meaningful level. And I feel like it was just the start of this long collaborative journey that we've been on, now bringing us to "Summertime." That's probably the one that I remember the most.

And what about you, Kelly?

Kelly Marie Tran: I don't know. I'm going to cop out with this answer. I had an incredible time working on that movie, but I think the best part of it has been the ability to share it with other people if that makes sense. Every time someone's like, "Hey Kelly, my kid loves that movie!" I'm like, "Cool, cool, cool. I'm going to send them some stuff." The experience is so wild and it is so absolutely out of my realm of what I believed reality was. I think the more that I can share it with other people, the happier I am. So that's, I think, the whole "Raya" experience for me. It has just reminded me that it's really about the sharing.

And I think "Summertime" has also reiterated that for me. These poets are sharing so much of themselves and they are so brave and so vulnerable. And it is really a gift, I think, when an artist is sharing parts of themselves that are really hard to share. So, I am left endlessly inspired by the "Raya" experience and also by the "Summertime" experience — and also by Carlos López Estrada.

Kelly Marie Tran played a costly Pokemon GO prank on the set of Star Wars

This last question is for Kelly and it has to do with "Star Wars." Can you tell me what that experience was like? Any funny or memorable moments from the set you can share?

Kelly Marie Tran: Oh, yes. I actually have a really great story that came back randomly and really recently. I hope that I don't get in trouble for sharing this. But I think that Rian Johnson will be okay with it. First of all, Rian is one of my favorite humans on the planet and he obviously ushered me into that world because he wrote and directed "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" and created Rose. Some of my favorite memories of being on set was that Pokémon GO just came out and we were all so involved in it. We'd get in trouble because we'd have our phones out. And on a "Star Wars" set, you're not supposed to have your phones out because everyone's afraid that photos will go everywhere. And I was like, "Dude, I'm just trying to catch a Weedle."

But one really cool story ... one day I played a prank on Rian because we were all really excited to catch a Pikachu. And I drew a Pikachu outside in chalk and John Boyega and I — we were about to do a take — and I was like, "Rian, there's a Pikachu outside! You have to go outside!" And we stopped the entire set. I'm going to get in trouble. I don't know how much money we wasted doing this. But Rian went outside to look for Pikachu. And recently he asked me to go on Pokémon GO and help him get more points by becoming best friends. And so I did. Anyway, I have so many stories like that about "Star Wars" that I wish that people could have been there. It's just a magical, otherworldly experience.

"Summertime" will be released in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on July 9 before expanding a week later to more theaters across the United States and beyond.