Vital Thrills got a chance to talk to the Raya and the Last Dragon cast and crew at the virtual press conference for the anticipated film, opening in select theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5. The Raya and the Last Dragon cast told us how they recorded at home, what they brought to their characters, and the message of trust that we all could use right now.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes us on an exciting, epic journey to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity.
Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world – It’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
Daniel Dae Kim, who plays Chief Benja, Raya’s father, spoke about recording from home, something all the actors did. He said, “I love the character a lot. He’s someone that I aspire to be.
“It’s nice when you can really take a lot of pride in the person that you’re playing. It was amazing actually being able to record from home, because, living in Hawaii, any time I try and travel to go shoot something, it’s at least five hours and sometimes eleven by plane.
“So, to be able to walk downstairs in my T-shirt and shorts was pretty great.” He also told reporters that he worked for an hour from home one time, although, as it turned out, nothing he did was actually recorded.
Writer Qui Nguyen, who is also the film’s martial arts specialist, spoke about what makes this cast so special. He said, “I think we’re all aware what this kind of movie with heroes that look like this will mean to so many kids and families out there.
“To have such an A-class group of actors, and to be able to be representatives of that to so many kids is such a dream come true for not just us as filmmakers but just for, like, honestly, the community.”
Izaac Wang voices young Boun and showed up to the press conference wearing a ceremonial Lao traditional accessory. He said, “It’s pretty crazy to think that the 450 people who worked on this movie stuffed a bunch of different cultures to this single movie.
“It’s amazing to see all the things that are included in this movie, including the food and some of the weapons that you see, for example the Kali sticks that I saw, which really stood out to me. And there’s a bunch of other different things that I can’t even name because I don’t even know the name of them because I’ve been centered around a couple cultures my whole life, and just to see all these different cultures is really amazing to me.
Awkwafina voices the role of the dragon Sisu, and talked about seeing parts of the film for the first time. “I saw the first clip that was put together at D-23, and I was a little confused because I was like, ‘Is this a live-action movie? And let me get my agent on the phone.’
“Because it looked so realistic, the rain, and everything. We would come in. We’d do the job. One Croc on, and that’s what we’re doing, but then you realize, all that really goes into this, and we’re recording kind of simultaneously as it’s being animated.
“So when I first saw the human version of Sisu, I was like, ‘Okay, all right, that’s me.’ I’m, like, not even like to show off or anything like that. That looks like me. And so, those nuances are very, very trippy and very, very mind-blowing.”
One of the characters in the film is little Noi, who is a con baby – a baby who’s taken to a life of crime with creatures named Ongis, after her family turns into stone. She spoke about how she related to the character.
“Yeah, playing Noi is definitely nothing like I’ve ever done before because she obviously doesn’t use English words. She speaks in her own language, but that connection she has with her gang of Ongis and even with the relationship she develops with Tong and Raya and Boun and the whole gang, that sense of comradery and that strength within, that group of people and that sense of family is definitely something that I related to personally.
“And I know growing up in a Vietnamese family that family always, always comes first, from the traditions to just everyday life. Family is just such a huge part of it, especially now in quarantine with my family all the time, but it’s just something that definitely clicked with me… for her to be so young and to have her family turned to stone by the Druun and her to have to kind of raise herself with the Ongis and that sense of strength that she has to develop, I think that’s something that’s also very common in Southeast Asian families.”
Writer Adele Lim spoke about the use of dragons in the story. “You know, it was so exciting to be able to celebrate the Eastern dragon, and we realized that this was something that most of the world was not familiar with.
“In Southeast Asia, they’re referred to as nagas. They’re water deities, and they bring such great auspiciousness. So it’s very different from the Western dragon that’s, like, winged and fire breathing, and something you have to destroy and take down.
“And we also love the symbology in our movie because Raya thinks she’s going to bring forth this water dragon who’s going to snap her fingers and just solve all the problems in the world. And instead, what she finds is this zany, crazy creature voiced by Awkwafina, and she’s vulnerable and needs to be protected.
“And also, she’s just, like quirky and always sees the good in people. And Raya, who’s such a driven warrior, is thinking, this is nuts. And at the heart of our movie is this beautiful friendship between Raya and Sisu, and it’s so rare that we get a major Hollywood movie with this special female friendship at the heart of it.”
Sandra Oh voices Virana, leader of one of the groups, and mother of Raya’s antagonist Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) and talked about the characters. “There’s no black and white in these characters, which I greatly appreciated. And, moving it slightly, just barely, into a global aspect, barely, barely into a global aspect, I was extremely moved by the message of this film because I feel myself struggling to learn how to trust as well.
“So to play a section of the film where it seems we are antagonists or the people who are struggling to take power, who are the powerful people, I feel like the storytelling and the characters, particularly Gemma’s character, Namaari, has a very nuanced and more complex look at things, which is where I feel like we need to bring storytelling anyway to a more nuanced point of view.”
Chan added, “I mean one of the things that really drew me to this story and resonated with me is the fact that Namaari is the antagonist, but she’s not a cutout villain. It’s not black and white. I just – I find that really interesting. She and Raya are also kind of two sides of the same coin. You could imagine them having each other’s upbringings and easily taking each other’s place.
“So, similarly to Sandra, I feel like, our world is complex, and the problems of the world are only going to start to begin to be solved if we all work together, and the lack of trust and the division is a huge problem. But again, you can also understand why the people of Fang, are trying to protect themselves. You can understand why we have elements in society that want protect their own self-self-interests, and I think these are really complex themes to explore in a family film.”
Kelly Marie Tran voices the lead character Raya. She spoke about the friendship between Raya and Numaari, and how that changes and develops through the film. She said, “I think setting up these characters as kids and just seeing how authentically they connect at a young age and then cutting forward and seeing the way that they’ve sort of been divided.
“It’s really incredible because, just like Gemma was saying earlier, the idea that we have these two characters that could have switched places at one point. When I really think about my life when things like that have happened to me, I think about just how difficult it is to get out of your own biases when you’re looking at someone who you see as an enemy and then just how incredibly, by the end of the story, Raya and Namaari are then suddenly willing to step outside of themselves.
“They risk everything for this idea of community, this idea of what their relationship could have been this entire time. It’s really, really inspiring. It’s something that I want to do in my own life. But their relationship in this movie is probably one of my favorites, just because of how complicated it is. And, yeah, just a big Gemma fan girl over here. “
There are some epic fight scenes between Raya and Namaari, and Nguyen added credit for Maggie Macdonald, who choreographed all the reference fights they used to help the animators. He explained, “It was important for me to-to bring on a female fight choreographer. And she brought in a female team of fighters to do the reference because our two leads were Raya and Namaari, so I wanted to make sure that the different way a female body moves was right, and we wanted to honor that so it didn’t feel like we had Raya doing a move that The Rock should be doing.
“It should be something that really utilized speed, strength and agility. It was just amazing to have martial arts from Southeast Asia highlighted in this way because you often see in movies like this kung fu or karate. It’s really nice to be able to see martial arts that touched you my culture in here.”
Benedict Wong, who not only voices the role of Tong but dressed as him for the press conference, spoke about the effect this film had on his family. “It was the first time we’d actually sat and watched the film entirely, all the way through. And, obviously, the things about being trusted. My son turned around and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I trust you, Daddy.’
“As Gemma [has] rightly said about our kids when they look at each other and an innocence is there. They see through color and things need to be unlearned. And as Qui has said, I think especially in America and it ripples all over the world, we are living through the remnants of this kind of hate that has permeated through the world. And it’s, again, very timely with our beautiful film showing us that love can really lead the way.”
Nguyen talked about the timing of the fim, coming out in the middle of some horrific attacks on the Asian community. He said, “I don’t think we had any idea of how the world would become by the time this movie came out, especially when it comes to the injustices to the Asian American community right now. And, I guess I’ll just be frank. There have been some times where in the last 365 days there’s been a lot of negative imagery and words said about Asians.
“So it’s hard not to appreciate that this movie’s coming out and-and kind of giving a counterpoint and just telling a positive story that just celebrates Asian American skin and Asian American lives, and Asian American people. Because with any group that’s underrepresented, when you only see stories where you’re seen as the bad guy or a thug or what have you, it starts to paint a very negative picture of you for those who don’t ever get to know you, who never get to be in the room with you.
“And so, I think step one is representation and really being out there, both behind and in front of the camera, with the stories we tell and then just being out there, so we can acknowledge that this world is all of us, not just any one of us. Because without that, I don’t know how we get better, so I’m- I’m appreciative and grateful that this movie’s coming out when it is.”
Tran spoke about the issues and how they handed them in a real way. “There’s a moment for me specifically with Raya when, just towards the end of the movie, she gets to feel justifiably and absolutely unapologetically angry. And, for me, seeing a young woman in a movie like this just get to feel that righteous anger and then recognizing that the thing that pulls her out of it is seeing her friends and how they’re helping other people just feels so real to me.
“I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I can say seeing these attacks happening over and over and over consistently, you do get to that place sometimes where you feel like, ‘Oh, this is a very broken world and I’m feeling a lot of things right now.’ And recognizing, for me, gosh, that moment felt so grounded in reality because… you can’t just say, like, ‘Trust, unity, like, yay, it’s going to be fine.’
“Acknowledging that there’s a lot of pain that happens there and recognizing that, like you said, the only way to really get through it is to look for the bits of hope in your community. And I see so much hope on this call with all of these people that I look up to so much. Sandra and Awkwafina and Gemma… I’m listing everybody. But I think everyone on this call is doing impossible things in a world that told us we couldn’t. So, I’m grateful to be part of that, to be making a movie with all of you guys about that same thing, with these characters who are also trying to fight for a world that feels impossible and hopeless sometimes.”