Interview: How Qui Nguyen's Off-Broadway Plays Led Him to Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon
The veteran off-Broadway playwright discusses writing his first big Disney movie.
Qui Nguyen is a name that's well known to most regular theatergoers. Nguyen is the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Obie-winning off-Broadway troupe Vampire Cowboys, a self-described "geek theater company" that creates action-adventure plays that feel ripped from the pages of comic books, more often than not on a shoestring budget. His most popular works, which are now regularly seen in schools and amateur houses, are She Kills Monsters and the semiautobiographical Vietgone.
Nguyen is the co-author, with Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) of the latest Disney animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon (currently in cinemas and available for an added fee on Disney Plus). The film's launch comes at a particularly difficult moment for the Asian-American community, with horrific, racist attacks occurring across the country. At the same time, Raya is touchstone in terms of representation: Raya is Disney's first Southeast Asian heroine, and voice artist Kelly Marie Tran is the first Southeast Asian performer to star in a picture from the fabled studio.
As for Nguyen himself, it's the opportunity to introduce the world to a style he's spent his entire career building in downtown spaces. And he's well aware of the impact. "Even if I have a huge hit in New York," he says, "it's still bound by the limitations of geography. Not only can my parents in Arkansas see this, it's being seen globally and has been translated into different languages. It's kind of mind-blowing."
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Do you see a through line from She Kills Monsters or Vietgone to Raya and the Last Dragon?
I think it all feeds into each other. My time as a theater artist was always about basically building Raya. Vampire Cowboys is creating heroes for people who don't often see themselves that way. In She Kills Monsters, it's about female gamers, female D and D players who get to slay a dragon and save the world through the kind of Dungeons and Dragons way. Vietgone was about making Vietnamese American refugees the heroes of the story and not make them feel alien.
Raya is the same thing. It's the opportunity for my kids get to see themselves as the hero of a big Disney animated feature. But it's also doing all the things I love, which is telling a big epic story and saving the world. Unlike in She Kills Monsters, it's not about using your physical strength to beat the crap out of the bad guy to save the world; her true act of bravery is her ability to build a bridge between herself and her supposed enemy, because you realize the best way to save the world is to do it together.
The only big differences are that it's animation, so I don't have to worry about the wireworks and special effects onstage, and it's Disney, so I don't get to swear as much.
Are you a Disney geek?
I have to admit, I'm not. I grew up with it. I love Disney and I love a lot of associated brands. But what I think is so super exciting about Disney…There are, like, 900-plus folks here in our studio, and so many of them are here because this was it. This was the mecca. The dream job. I had different aspirations, but what is so great about it is that they have room for people like myself. It was hard to imagine that we would have this opportunity. It was hard to work towards it because I didn't think it was something that was available to me. As a theater artist, I was just hoping to have more than a hundred people show up for a performance. This is so much bigger than anything I could possibly imagine.
For me, it was more about the story itself. I desperately wanted to tell a story like Raya's. This was a hero I desperately wanted to put out in the world as part of my DNA. I grew up a huge Stan Lee fan and I wanted to write superheroes. That was definitely part of the dream. So I'm a super hero geek, and it just happened to fit very well to work with a whole bunch of Disney geeks.
The movie came out at a fraught time, with racist attacks against Asian-Americans happening all over the country. But in a way, it's also a perfect time to showcase a bad-ass Asian superhero.
When you're building a Disney movie, your goal is to make it last forever. You're creating something that's "timeless" and will have relevance not just in the moment, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now. I'm very grateful that we are fortunate to be part of that conversation.
My favorite Disney movies are definitely the ones that allow us as families to be able to talk about harder subjects. Zootopia allowed us to talk about bias; Big Hero Six allowed us to talk about grief with our families, and this one allows me to be able to talk to my kids about the moment in time we're in, with the kind of existential crisis that gives us all the reasons to distrust each other, huddle up in our corners, and just take care of our own.
The political strife that we'd gone through as a nation the last few years feels very relevant to this, and obviously the injustices against Asian-Americans right now. I feel very lucky to be able to put out a movie that gives a positive depiction of Asians in this time where there is violence happening to people in our community.
I've seen you tweet about the emotional impact of seeing something you've created on the giant billboards in Times Square. What is that like, for someone who comes from the world of small-ish downtown theater?
The large poster that any of my shows have ever had was like 11 by 17, these little window box things that you can hang out at Here Arts Center. So seeing this giant billboard lit up in Times Square was absolutely mind-boggling. As my wife always points out, you can kind of take Raya and stick it in line with a whole bunch of Vampire Cowboys plays and it doesn't stick out. It feels very much in line with what I've been doing for years, yet this poster happens to be gigantic and everywhere, versus mine, which are usually hand drawn and stuck onto the side of an off-Broadway theater.
I was going to say, a title like Raya and the Last Dragon does fit alongside titles like She Kills Monsters and Six Rounds of Vengeance.
Oh, absolutely. I'm very keenly aware that this feels very much in my wheelhouse. And I think that that's one of the comforting things about it. In a lot of ways, I was like, "I don't have any business making a giant movie yet. I need to work longer and harder to do this." But then when I came onto this project, I realized it was something I actually know how to do very well. And so, so it felt like a perfect marriage.