'Star Wars' Roundtable: Naomi Ackie & Kelly Marie Tran On Privilege, Jealousy, & Being Likable

by Joelle Monique

The Star Wars cast is close. They post tributes to one another, sneak selfies on one others' phones, and give one other piggyback rides. But among the one millionth of 1% of the human population that shares the experience of making a Star Wars movie, two actors share an even more unique bond. Naomi Ackie and Kelly Marie Tran’s friendship goes deeper than knowing top secret plots and being on a group text with Oscar Isaac. It’s the connection between two women of color whose meteoric rise involved stepping into a historically white, male franchise with an often toxic fanbase.

Tran made her Hollywood debut in 2017’s The Last Jedi as Rose, the series’ first leading woman of color. The film was a commercial and critical success, but Tran endured months of online harassment, much of it racist and sexist. (She eventually left social media, writing in the New York Times, "It wasn’t their words, it’s that I started to believe them.") The Rise of Skywalker (out Dec. 20) brings Naomi Ackie — already a rising star for her work in Lady Macbeth, The Bisexual, and End of the F***ing World — to the realm. Ackie is tight-lipped about her character Jannah, but she has been outspoken about how Tran inspired her to “grow a thicker skin” in anticipation of the film’s release.

Ackie and Tran were laughing about something private as they walked off a photo shoot in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month. Still glamorous and in full makeup, they collapsed onto a white couch and simultaneously looked for cameras. When told the interview would not be filmed, Tran took off her shoes. Ackie crossed her legs and turned to face her friend. Over the next hour, Bustle moderated a conversation between the actors about white privilege, battling insecurity with therapy and tarot, and the kind of friendship where every conversation is about everything.

On the first time they hung out

Kelly Marie Tran: How did that happen? Did we meet in person?

Naomi Ackie: We did, but I don’t know who contacted who?

Tran: Anyway, we emailed, and you were like, “Let’s get a drink.”

Ackie: Yeah, and you were in London. [Ed. note: Ackie’s hometown and a shooting location for The Rise of Skywalker.] And I was like, “OK. What place can I take Kells to, like, get to know each other?”

Tran: We had a walk. We went for a drink. We immediately hit it off.

Ackie: I had never, in previous films, met someone who was so on my wavelength.

Tran: We both came from a background where we weren’t born into…

Ackie: Privilege. Money.

Tran: We didn't have any connections in the industry.

Ackie: None.

Tran: Being women of color, we both had to work our way into it.

Ackie: It takes an extra level [of] thought and focus. If you do get that opportunity, what are you going to do with it? We take it so seriously, maybe more seriously than people who are used to, you know, being in that world or, at least, seeing themselves in the world. There are a lot of people that go above and beyond what they see and what they can get. It’s more about what we can do for this community, and how to bring people into it. That’s why you and I were like, zoom zoom.

Tran: We still have moments like that where we're just talking about everything.

On getting famous and feeling… the same

Tran: Before I was in Star Wars, [when I heard celebrities complain] I’d be like, "Oh, stop complaining." Now I'm like, "Oh, I hate myself. I'm that person." It's weird to recognize that, despite how successful a person is, they’re still a human being, which means they still have a wealth of emotions. I used to believe like, "Oh, once I get there I’m going to be so chill and laid back." You still have so many insecurities. You're still dealing with all of this.

Ackie: Also the obstacles are taller and the losses are bigger. I thought if I got Star Wars, that somehow I would feel better about myself, feel accepted by the community at large, and work would come easier. I think we all do that, when we go "OK, if I buy these shoes, my life will be better. If I change my hair, if I lose a few pounds, or whatever, my life will change." But, no, you're still the same person.

If anything, Star Wars encouraged me to think respectfully about myself, because I’m not going to get that from work. And I’m not going to get that from a dude. Not going to get that from even my friends or family.

Tran: I feel the same way about trying to find my fulfillment from inside of me. I hadn't worked that much as an actor before Star Wars. Suddenly I had this job that was immediately very public facing. I don't think I understood how that would affect me emotionally. Now I'm sort of in a place where I only allow specific narratives into my brain, and I get to choose how I define myself.

As an actor, the most important thing is your ability to be vulnerable and honest, and to be seen in a way that's really scary. If I'm listening to voices and suddenly don't want to be seen, that's a problem.

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On the healing power of therapy and tarot

Ackie: It's the hardest thing, how quickly I can go from feeling on top of the world to feeling like I'm worthless, not good enough, not talented enough. It's like, "OK you're 28 years old now. No one can soothe you but yourself. You're an adult woman now." I still look on Instagram, which isn’t the best thing if you’re trying to heal yourself...

Tran: "Oh, I feel good about myself… Never mind."

Ackie: Never mind! I can look at these beautiful women and men, and go, "Wow, they have all of their sh*t together, and I'm a mess." At the same time, I have the audacity to put up photos where I look like I have all my sh*t together.

Tran: You and I have had this conversation about feeling a sense of responsibility, and this sense that we are representing a certain type of person. You start thinking, “Oh, what am I putting out into the world, and is it making the world better? Am I just part of the noise?”

Therapy is great. Highly recommend it. Journaling is great. I think anytime you can, give yourself silence. The second you can't hear yourself because of everything happening, that's when things get kind of crazy.

I can go from feeling on top of the world to feeling like I'm worthless, not good enough, not talented enough.

Ackie: I'm not necessarily a journaler. I did try it, but it’s just not my thing. I talk a lot with my dad. I do tarot.

Tran: You do tarot?! I didn’t know that.

Ackie: Yes! I will read for you. I’ve done tarot since I was a kid. I do it whenever I feel like I need a bit of guidance. It’s not even magic. It's about spiritual growth. Each image [on the cards] is an archetype. It kind of allows me to focus my energy on figuring out what that archetype means to me. Tarot helps me to take responsibility for my feelings, and it helps me to map it out and go, "OK so this is what I need to do. This is what I need to work on."

Recently, I've been going through a bout of jealousy. I’m watching other people and being jealous of them. Previously, I would either bat it down, or try to ignore it, or even go into it and let the jealousy be the fuel for me to be productive, or get to a place where I'm not thinking kindly on behalf of another person. And now, I'm in a place where I'm like, "OK. Feeling jealous? What is that? Why is that?" Because it’s not actually about him or her or them. It has something to do with you.

On avoiding the 'likability' trap

Ackie: Fame, and all the kind of mess that comes from that, can inflate your ego to immeasurable size if you let it. I don’t want that to happen. For one, it makes you not a very nice person to be around. Two, I think it's like a giant wall between you and the truth of the character. Recently I've been doing this thing where I'll see a photo shoot or like, you know, recording of something I’ve done and I think, "Oh, I look so ugly in that shot. I should have did a face that made me look more attractive."

Tran: I do that, too!

Ackie: It's like, no, that's not what acting is about. When I cry, I get snot coming out of my nose. So I’m gonna cry with snot coming out of my nose when I’m on camera.

Tran: I know what you're saying: What is a real emotion and what is my tailored amount of emotion so I can be a pretty crier, or whatever?

Ackie: Or a pretty angry person. Or just present myself in a way that makes me feel...

Tran: Likable.

Ackie: Likeable! This idea of likability is f*cking dangerous.

Tran: Especially for women.

Ackie: I’ve spent all my life trying to be likable. All my life. And you know what, it's gotten me far. It has. But what it does to you to have to constantly compromise your boundaries to seem acceptable and be given opportunities is bullsh*t. On top of that, when you’re a woman of color it’s even harder to speak your mind and to be assertive and clear...

Tran: And to be honest. It’s harder to advocate for yourself.

Ackie: To people who have a problem with it, that is terrifying. There is nothing more terrifying than an honest woman of color.

Tran: You know why? Because people who are afraid to hear the truth from people who have historically been oppressed are the people who have been benefiting from the oppression.

I’ve spent all my life trying to be likable.

Ackie: That’s why I can’t call myself a generic feminist. I call myself either a womanist or an intersectional feminist, because there are privileges that some women have, that other women don't. There are priorities that some women have that other women don't.

Tran: Jealousy and the need to be likable, these are things that we have been taught. We need to be likable because our existence is only valid if a man likes us. Or we have to be jealous because if that woman's winning, this woman isn’t winning. And it’s all...

Ackie and Tran: ...Bullsh*t.

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But back to privilege...

Ackie: The big thing for me is grappling with the idea of privilege, at the moment. [Ed. note: This interview took place before Star Wars star Daisy Ridley's comments about privilege made headlines.] That's where my jealousy usually stems from, seeing people who are privileged continue to be privileged. It’s now a balance for me because I realize that I am now in a position of power. I have privilege when it comes to finance. Privilege when it comes to security of job, kind of.

Yet, I still feel like there's such a huge imbalance. And I wonder how people live ethically. I wonder whether that crosses people's minds. For me, for instance, I am now in a place where, when I look at roles, I'm going, "Is this part written for and should it be played by a woman who has a darker skin tone than me?" Not enough women of a darker skin tone are seen in films playing parts where they get to be soft and vulnerable, or love interests.

As an actor, of course I want to play all the roles, but until we all get to play all the roles... There comes a level where you have to kind of step back a bit and go, "Yo, I'm gonna let someone else come through to do that thing." Or not even let. But, "Let me withdraw myself and make room so that can be the case."

Tran: Yeah, you get to a point where you're starting to read scripts and you're like, "OK. Do you understand that this is a very stereotyped representation of this type of person?" I can't perpetuate that because now I'm in a position of power, which means there are little girls looking at what I'm doing.

There is nothing more terrifying than an honest woman of color.

Ackie: That’s why there’s been such a big push for me to try and start making my own work. This idea of inclusivity and diversity is really lovely. It's also bankable right now. It's also something that's super popular, and popular things can stop being popular at any point. So unless we start changing the fabric of who makes decisions in this industry, and who gets to tell the stories, we are…

Tran: We’re like a fashion trend.

Ackie: You see so much self-congratulatory language when it comes to diversity. Yo, one, this should have been done a long time ago. Two, and I'm going to say it, you’re not putting into place [diversity and inclusion] with the crew and what's behind the camera and the decision makers in the financial areas. Who are those people? What do they look like? What are they fighting for? We do not look at unconscious bias. We are not taking responsibility for all of our unconscious bias, and that's, like, everyone across the board.

Tran: I have that. We all have that.

Ackie: Until people start taking responsibility, it’s going to be something that can shift with political beliefs, and whoever's in power, and who has the most money right now. The biggest gift that Star Wars has given me, the biggest gift that being introduced into this part of the industry has given me, is the scope to see how it's working, the anger to want to change it, and the stepping stones to be able to start doing that.

On equal pay

Ackie: To me, right now, money doesn't matter as much as getting into the space. I feel like I've been blessed to be paid well for a job that I absolutely adore. And, as much as being paid is a great thing, it allows you to do what you enjoy and live, my main thing is being included in a space that can allow other people to be included in that space.

Tran: It's very complicated when we start talking about pay equality, because obviously, yes, in a perfect world of course...

Ackie: Of course!

Tran: ...We’d be paid the same amount for doing the same job. We're both still very new to being in the studio system. And I think what that means is we pick and choose our battles. If you ask me about pay equality in 20 years, I might have a different answer. From where I'm sitting, yes, people should be paid the same for the things that they're doing, but I'm new. I shouldn't be paid as much as someone who's been doing this for decades.

On the life-changing magic of movies

Tran: The most incredible experience of this whole thing was seeing people who get to do creative jobs. You know, my dad worked at Burger King. My mom worked in funerals. I had this crazy dream and thought it was kind of like magic. And now I'm looking at all these people, and I'm like, "Wow you guys just act like this is normal. This is just your life."

Ackie: Yeah. It’s just work. "This is just what you do?"

Tran: That has been a really big, life-changing shift for me.

Ackie: I grew up watching things like Star Wars, and I grew up trying to manifest that kind of reality for myself. So it felt like a full-circle thing when I got onto the set. Suddenly J.J. Abrams is looking at you in your face, telling you that you did a good job. To be honest, it felt like a nibble at a really big biscuit that I want to eat. Like, give me that cookie. Full sugar. Chocolate chips.

Tran: Full. Butter.

Ackie: I wanted this since I was 11 years old, and it lived up to it. The people, the crew, the cast — everyone there wanted to be there. They were passionate about their work, and had such a high standard for their work. It was such a joy. Every day I finished I would be like, "Oh, gosh. I want to continue." That’s what being in a Star Wars movie did for me. Now, I think — for you, too...

Tran: Yeah.

Ackie: ...We’re just looking for the next thing that gives us that fire.

Tran: Give us that biscuit!

Ackie: Give us that cookie!

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Photography by Tawni Bannister; Naomi Ackie's hair by Kevin Fortune, makeup by Georgia Eisdell at The Wall Group; Kelly Marie Tran's hair by Derek Yuen at SWA Agency, makeup by Hinako at The Wall Group.