Kelly Marie Tran

Kelly Marie Tran in Monsterland, "Iron River, MI" on Hulu


Kelly Marie Tran in Monsterland, "Iron River, MI" on Hulu


Kelly Marie Tran in Monsterland, "Iron River, MI" on Hulu


Kelly Marie Tran in Monsterland, "Iron River, MI" on Hulu

Fill 1
Fill 1
October 14, 2020
Online Originals

Not Your Typical Monster

Kelly Marie Tran on her role on Hulu's Monsterland

Earlier this month Hulu released Monsterland, the anthology series created by Mary Law and based on the collection of short stories called "North American Lake Monsters" by Nathan Ballingrud. Each episode follows a different set of characters as they meet with mythological beings that force them into acts of desperation, redefining what being a monster really means.

Episode seven of the series, "Iron River, MI" follows Lauren (Kelly Marie Tran), a neglected daughter who yearns for the type of life and convention that comes easily to her best friend Elena. As the story jumps to ten years after Elena's disappearance, Lauren seems to have slipped into Elena's elusive life, oftentimes to the suspicions of her friends.

Coming off the blockbuster Star Wars film franchise, actress Kelly Marie Tran discusses the appeal of working in an untapped genre, creating an inviting environment for everyone on set and how the feelings from when you are 16 don't really ever go away, they just evolve.

Monsterland is an interesting transition taking into consideration some of your recent projects. What about the series appealed to you?
I never really thought to myself, "I'm going to do some horror stuff," but after reading the script and also knowing Desi (Director Desiree Akhavan) was involved, I had a wonderful time exploring all of the themes. When I look at projects or read for jobs I never think, "I want to do 'fill in the blank genre'" – I always find myself attracted to specific stories.

Given everything that's transpired since you shot the series, what was it like going back to watch your episode?
Bizarre. We filmed in February in New York, right before quarantine happened. Every time I work on any project, I avoid watching myself as much as possible [laughs]. I enjoy watching all the other aspects of the production – the costumes, the makeup, the creatures – everything that goes into what we do. I don't know if this is true because I still feel pretty new to the game but, I feel as an actor you walk up to a set that everyone else has been on for a long while. Whoever has been writing and developing the story, building the sets, figuring out what the shots are – for me I'm always reminded that everything I'm in is so much bigger than just me. I think that's heightened because of being in quarantine, not being able to see people or interact and creatively collaborate with them.

What was it like playing both the 16-year-old version as well as the 26-year-old version of Lauren?
The last role that I did right before Star Wars [Episode VIII: The Last Jedi] was an Amazon kids show (Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street) where I played a 17-year-old, while I was a 26-year old woman at that point. I remember the kids on that show would say "Hey, we should all hang out this weekend" and I was like "Dude, I can't have your mom come pick me up. I can't hang out with you. I'm a 26-year-old adult, you just think I'm 16." So, strangely enough I felt weirdly close to Lauren in this. It didn't take that much in changing my appearance – obviously I'm wearing a wig and a retainer – but, I do feel the world looks at me, especially when I'm not wearing makeup and walking around the grocery store wearing a T-shirt and jeans, as a child just because of the way that I look. So, it didn't feel like that far of a stretch for me [laughs]!

What I found interesting with both versions of those characters was that when you are a teenager, you so deeply want to be loved and accepted. And that is something with Lauren, when you see her again as an adult, those feelings are still there – they're just sort of different. Doing those scenes when Lauren is 16 versus when she's 26, it reminded me how important it felt to me as a teen to want to be loved. I don't think that ever really goes away, I think it just changes your relationship with these really deep emotions as you get older. But I had a great time playing both versions.

The characters of Lauren and Faye (Joy Omanski) appear to be the only characters of color in his episode. Considering the overarching themes and narrative, is it meant to be intentional?
Desiree and I had conversations about how important it was to have a character who was essentially a woman of color in a fish out-of-water situation, which spoke to me. I don't know if that was writer Emily [Kaczmarek]'s original intent, but it added a layer of feeling alienated, different and misunderstood in a way that is heightened when you are a teenager, especially when you first see Lauren.

I am very proud to be who I am and grow up the way that I did. But, I do think there is an additional conversation that happens when you are a person of color coming to a role that might not have been necessarily written that way. For me it was important to have those conversations with Desiree and Emily. Anyone that grows up living that experience knows it very well - there's so many things that may not be explicitly said, but there's so much underneath the interactions that you have on a day-to-day basis for people, that may or may not be based on your race. It was cool to have that as an added layer, which I guess, I always have in my life.

At the same time, a lot of what Lauren feels is universally relatable as a viewer and there is some level of empathy towards her. Did you find yourself feeling similarly as you were playing the role?
Oh yeah. I think I feel similarly in life maybe – like a lot [laughs]. Especially because we live in a world where everyone can relate to the ideas of, "what if I...?" fill in the blank – What If I was born to a different circumstance? What If I was afforded the privileges that others have that I don't? I think in your teenage years this sort of romanticizing happens especially if it's reinforced by television or the media you're ingesting. What everyone at school is talking about that seems to, at least in my upbringing, always revolve around the same image of the type of person or the same depiction of what a desirable woman is. I think that is pertinent not just in Lauren's story but also my own.

I think we can all talk about experiencing how it feels to grow up in a world that tells you: you need to look a certain way, be a certain size, fit into a certain convention. How do you reconcile that if you don't fit those things? I thought about that a lot in the scenes where Elena (Sarah Catherine Hook) is doing her makeup and hair and she fits a lot of those conventions, while Lauren's sitting on the bed watching. Desiree and I talked about how in high school and middle school, kids are learning to put on makeup or dress a certain way - everyone is trying to figure it out and comes to these things at different ages and times; there's not only one way to do it, but the awkwardness of feeling like you're not there yet when your friend is - all of those things come into play in those scenes.

In addition to Lauren, virtually all the other main characters do not appear to be objectively good or bad – both in character and motive. What is your perception?
Every job I do I ask, what can I learn from this? What part of the human experience can I tap into that I might not be able to experience in another place? Living in the tension of having two truths be true that can also conflict with each other is a very difficult thing. But, I also think it's part of the human experience that we try to avoid. It's easier to put someone in a box and say, "this is a good person." It's easier for me to yell at the person who cut me off and say, "they're a bad person," as opposed to thinking about nuance, subtlety -- the parents they had, what got them to where they are and maybe all these other things that happened to them that day. What are their motivations? Where are people coming from?

Doing that, it's hard for me to define anybody as a villain or the "good guy." I think it's messier and much more nuanced than that. Everybody has a little bit of everything inside of them and we're constantly as human beings in this perpetual inner battle of trying to figure out what are the blinders I'm wearing currently because I'm only seeing life from my experience. And maybe, because my experience is the only one that I know, there are other things that I'm missing.

This is a very female driven episode – both on- and off-screen -- that centers on women's experiences and plays on what defines "monster" from a woman's gaze. How did that shape the filming experience for you?
I don't know if it was because it was all women or if it's because there's this magic formula that only happens sometimes and I don't know how to capture it, but I can say it was there for this episode, because it just felt like a supportive environment with all of these amazing women.

When I was filming a scene with Joy [Osmanski], I remember I was so present in the moment that I started laughing and it became part of the scene. I totally forgot what came next! But having that supportive environment to get into the weirdness and be okay with whatever was coming is critical for me in my approach to acting and in what I want to get from an experience. If the environment is such that the actor and the creators feel comfortable enough to throw in their ideas, it feels like we're making art together.

What was the most surprising thing you learned from filming this episode and/or being on this set?
I still feel very new to this experience because I started working as an actor in 2016. What was fun for me was figuring out as an actor the ways in which I can contribute – how do I not only build an environment where we can feel creative to try things, but how can I do that for others on set who aren't there for the entirety of the episode? I remember only coming in to do jobs with one line and how excited I was, but also how I didn't know anybody. I always want to do the best that I can to create any sort of environment that I touch, open and welcoming in a way where every artist that walks upon that set, who I interact with - they feel comfortable. That's something I've learned and want to continue. I may not always do it well, but I am going to try.

Kelly Marie Tran can be seen as the character Lauren, in episode seven, "Iron River, MI" of Monsterland, currently streaming on Hulu.

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