Tien Tran started workshopping her comedic one-liners mere years after emerging from the womb. It started with her first-ever acting role, when she played the little sister to her actual sister Tram-Anh’s character on the ‘90s kids detective show Ghostwriter. “[My sister’s character] had just gotten in trouble for skipping [school] with her best friend, and she was just coming home to our parents to lie about it,” the 34-year-old writer and actor remembers. “I [was] like five, and I [went] up to her and said, ‘You smell like hot dogs.’”
Growing up watching her sister on set sparked Tran’s own interest in performing and getting a laugh — if not on TV, then during a school science presentation. She samples a few lines of a grade-school parody of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” for me over Zoom. “I think it was like, ‘Stop, collaborate and listen. Everyone’s talking about sleep deprivation,’” Tran raps. “I’m sure someone has a VHS of me and my friends doing just crazy, crazy presentations.”
Tran’s mischievous little sister energy has served her well on Hulu’s highly anticipated How I Met Your Father sequel, her first series regular role. She plays Ellen, a lesbian divorcée — and yes, a little sister — who moves from a small farm in Iowa to New York City to reconnect with her older brother Jesse (Chris Lowell). Her fumbling forays into dating lead to some of the show’s most endearing moments. “I absolutely love that she’s just starting her life over and jumping right into dating again,” Tran says. “I did that when I was first coming out and also after my first girlfriend broke up with me.”
Tran also appreciates that Ellen’s intersecting identities as an Asian American and a gay woman aren’t at the core of her character’s conflicts. “She gets to be just one of the friends, experience the same ups and downs of dating in the city and trying to find a job in a city that is both very exciting but can be unforgiving,” Tran says.
This was especially affirming for Tran, who grew up in the predominantly white town of Erie, Pennsylvania, and sometimes felt pressure to whitewash herself as a kid. “Assimilation can rot your brain,” she says. “I really had moments where I was like, ‘I don’t want people to think of me as Asian.’”
Now, Tran sees her Asianness as essential to her work. “I’m at a time in my life where I’m so, so, so proud to be Vietnamese American and I’m very excited to share that.”
Get to know more about Tran in her Bustle Booth questionnaire below.
In The Bustle Booth
What’s your coffee order?
When I'm feeling fancy, a chai latte with a shot of espresso.
What are the saved weather locations on your phone?
Los Angeles, Chicago, and Champaign, IL.
What’s your sign?
Cancer. I don't know what that means, and I won't look it up.
Favorite overused movie quote?
"Flames on the side of my face" from the great Madeline Kahn in Clue.
What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?
X-Men. Rogue made me gay.
What’s one movie or TV show you’re currently obsessed with?
Alone. There's something about watching others reach their emotional breaking point that is deeply soothing to me.
Who is your celeb idol?
If you had to be on a reality TV show, what would it be?
Top Chef. I'd get knocked out in the first elimination challenge, but to be dragged by Padma Lakshmi is a dream of mine.
Go-to karaoke song?
Nelly Furtado ft. Timbaland, “Promiscuous.” Both parts.
What’s something that’s inspiring you lately?
Moms. The world, especially in a pandemic, would not be able to function without their so often invisibilized caretaking. Love you, Mom!
What is something you would want people to say about you?
“Let's keep her around for now," is something that I hope the people I've teamed up with in the apocalypse say.