Inspired in part by oral histories of the people and cultures of Oceania, the Walt Disney Animation Studios feature Moana is a sweeping adventure about an adventurous teenager (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. Equal parts brave and compassionate, the 16-year-old daughter of the chief cannot deny how drawn she is to the ocean, so when she must journey out on her own to find Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), demigod of the wind and sea, and save her people, she lets her strength and determination guide her.
At the film’s press day, the infectiously charming 16-year-old Native Hawaiian, Auli’i Cravalho, spoke to Collider for this 1-on-1 interview about what an honor it is to represent her Polynesian culture as Moana, why she likes to think of Moana as her best friend, how the bond between Moana and Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House) reminds her of her own relationship with her mom, getting to sing original songs with lyrics written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator of Hamilton), how her love for molecular biology and how she hopes to use that to focus on the ocean, and that she’d love to get the opportunity to play more heroines. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: What’s it like to not only get to bring this character to people, but also get to bring this culture to people who haven’t been exposed to it?
AULI’I CRAVALHO: It’s incredible! The feeling of representing my Polynesian culture like this is, quite frankly, overwhelming. I love my culture and I’ve grown up in Hawai’i all my life, so to hear the Polynesian influences and to know that Disney has taken the time to appreciate our culture is amazing. This film has been five years in the making. They have an Oceanic story trust, as well, that is made up of elders, storytellers and wayfinders. Just knowing that solidifies how much I love this film. I love the character for who she is, but also the underlining meaning of it. It was just done so well.
You seem like a very accomplished young woman.
CRAVALHO: Oh, well, thank you!
And it seems like both education and your culture are very important to you.
So, where does being a Disney princess fall in with all of that?
CRAVALHO: I certainly didn’t have that in my five-year plan, but it’s a really big blessing, I’d say. I’m still continuing with school. I plan on going to college. But, being the next Disney heroine has certainly changed my outlook. I’ve always been really interested in film and singing, and all of that, but I understood how difficult it is to get into this industry, so I focus on my education and I will forever be grateful for that. I fell in love with science. Who knew I would fall in love with molecular biology?! When I tell people that, they’re like, “What?!” And my friends are like, “Wait, but you’re pretty and you sing!” And I’m like, “That doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy science or any other type of curriculars.” So, while this has changed my life, I am so excited for everything that comes with it.
Do you see yourself wanting to stay in show business?
CRAVALHO: I don’t know. I love this industry and I’m excited for anything that comes my way. I’m really hoping that, if I do continue in this, I play more heroines. I love that Moana is such a beautiful, kind, strong, determined young woman. If I could continue in that, that would be excellent. I also hope that I continue with biology. I’m specifically hoping to focus that on the ocean. I think it’s wonderful how life puts things full circle, and I can appreciate the ocean in a film, but also in real life, through science.
Moana existed, as a character, before you came along to lend your voice to her. Now that you’ve spent time with her and brought her to life, do you feel a sense of ownership of her?
CRAVALHO: Kind of. I got to see the dolls on Instagram. I don’t have one yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. She kind of looks like me. The fact that she has my voice, it’s really uncanny. While we do share a fair amount of characteristics, I think of Moana as my best friend because then I can root for her. Not that you can’t root for yourself, but I love watching her grow. As the story process tweaked into the character she is now, I feel like I grew along with her. I love Moana because I’ve grown, too, along this year journey.
Moana is such a great character, but there are so many really fun, really great characters in this. So, aside from Moana, do you have a favorite character?
CRAVALHO: Thank you for putting me in the hot seat! I would say Gramma Tala. The relationship between Moana and Gramma Tala is really beautiful. Anything with Gramma Tala in it was more challenging for me. Whenever I’m acting – I get to say that I’m acting now! – I use real life experiences. I never got to really connect with my grandmother before she passed, but I always thought of my mom when I thought of Gramma Tala. Whenever I think of someone who pushes me 100% and loves me unconditionally, that’s my mom. So, that would probably be my favorite character because I love my mom. My mommy will forever be my mommy. Gramma Tala is such an important character to Moana, just as my mom is to me.
Obviously, it’s a big deal to get to be a part of the Disney family and do a movie like this. Who, in your own life, is most excited that you get to be Moana?
CRAVALHO: Besides myself, because I’m still really thrilled about this, definitely my mom. She’s my biggest fan. I’m my hardest critic, whereas my mom is my biggest fan. I love her for that. She supports me so much. She’s everything that she was before this role happened, and she will always be that strong rock for me.
What’s it like to also get to sing original music for an animated Disney movie?
CRAVALHO: To have original music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i, that’s a good band of people. That’s incredible! I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around the fact that I’ve had a song written for me, and not one, but three of them, actually. That’s very awesome! Lin just brought such feeling through his lyrics. I swear, I don’t know how his mind works. It must be a thousand times faster and more literate than me, at least. He’s incredible! And Mark Mancina with his original score just brings it to a whole other level of emotion. And with Opetaia Foa’i, I hear the Polynesian influences in there that I’ve grown up with at my family get-togethers. To hear my voice with the knowledge that I got to be a part of that, blows me away.
What was it like the first time they gave you the song and you had to go in and record it?
CRAVALHO: I stroked the pages for days! I was like, “Oh, my god, this is incredible!” I actually had a scratch voice from Hamilton. One of the voices from Hamilton was my scratch voice, and I was like, “Thanks, Lin! I have to live up to the scratch voice!” But, it was incredible! It really was! It was my first time in a recording booth for the dialogue, and certainly the first time in a recording booth for a song like this. Lin was in Skype, and John Lasseter, the Head of Disney Animation was there, just to be like, “Go, Auli’i! I’m so excited for you!” I was like, “Oh, my god, I only sing in the car and on my way to school! Don’t do this to me!” But it went really well, I’d say. I just had fun with it. I wasn’t used to it, so I asked them to turn down the lights a little bit. The animators weren’t happy because I was always recorded, so that my facial expressions can be added to the character, but I was slightly stressing out. When I sing, I always want to put everything I have into the song. I think emotion just comes out clearer. I’m not sure why. Maybe emotion just needs a melody with it. But, the song came out so clearly.
At the time you were told about the music, did you know who Lin-Manuel Miranda was?
CRAVALHO: Oh, yeah! I knew Lin-Manuel Miranda! I knew him from In the Heights. My school put it on, and I’ve been singing the songs from Nina. “Breathe” was my anthem, for years.
Did you tell him what a big fan you were, or did you try to play it cool?
CRAVALHO: I feel like every time I see him, I try to play it cool. I don’t know if it works out, necessarily.
How did you find the process of recording your voice for the dialogue? Because you hadn’t done it before, did you find yourself having to rely on the directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, to steer you in the right direction?
CRAVALHO: Yeah, I had to rely on the directors. I had a major learning curve, as I had never done anything like this before. I remember being so nervous, on that first day. I was nervous that, because I was nervous, my voice would be at a higher pitch, and then they wouldn’t like me and they’d send me away. I had so many butterflies, and I had no time to digest the, but it worked out really well because I ended up having a lot of energy and the directors worked with it from there. I think it only took maybe three lines for me to be, “Okay, this girl is super cool. I don’t have to worry about it. I’m practically her. I’ve grown up on an island, all my life. She wants more. She wants to broaden her horizons.”
She’s kind of a bad-ass!
CRAVALHO: Exactly! Right?! I have no problem voicing a character like that.
Now that you’ve seen the finished film, do you have a favorite scene or moment in it?
CRAVALHO: Again with the hot seat! I have so many favorite moments. Probably the last scene and the last song. I don’t think Moana has any lines, and I don’t sing that last song. It has taken over from what was solely Moana’s journey. The rest of her island and her family goes on their own journeys. What they were once afraid of is now just open ocean. Now, they can fully and freely explore and live the way that they always should have.
Moana opens in theaters on November 23rd.