To celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the most beloved Disney classics, The Wonderful World of Disney and ABC are presenting The Little Mermaid Live! spectacular event that weaves live musical performances by a star-studded cast with the broadcast of the original animated feature film. This never-before-seen hybrid format will feature cast members Auli’i Cravalho (“Ariel”), Queen Latifah (“Ursula”), Shaggy (“Sebastian”), Graham Phillips (“Prince Eric”), John Stamos (“Chef Louis”) and Amber Riley (the show’s emcee), along with beautiful sets, intricate costumes, aerial choreography, and music from both the original movie and the award-winning Broadway stage production.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Auli’i Cravalho talked about learning about this unusual hybrid project, how serendipitous it feels to be playing another water-related character whose movie shares the same directors (Ron Clements and John Musker) as Moana (for which she voiced the title character), what a big fan she is of The Little Mermaid, having to learn aerial work for her performance, getting tips from Jodi Benson (who voiced Ariel for the animated movie), her reaction to seeing herself with the red hair, and the songs that she’s most excited about. She also talked about her career journey, from voicing an animated character to working in live-action, leading the upcoming movie Sorta Like A Rock Star and why that project appealed to her, and what it’s like to be a part of the Disney family.
Collider: We last spoke at the Moana junket, and it’s really fun to get to talk to you again, for playing another fantastic Disney character.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: Yes! I was not expecting to be able to play another Disney princess that would sea/water/ocean related, but here we are.
When you got to be a part of Moana and create a new kind of Disney princess, who wasn’t looking for and didn’t need a prince, could you ever have imagined that you’d also take on such an iconic Disney princess as Ariel?
CRAVALHO: No, I really, really didn’t. I’m so grateful to be able to lend my voice to Ariel. I also absolutely love Jodi Benson. With Moana, that was something that I was able to create and really work with (directors) Ron Clements and John Musker on making her the kind of character that she was. But Ariel is someone that is already established, and I absolutely love Jodi’s portrayal of her. I’m so grateful that I get to pay homage to my directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, who also directed The Little Mermaid.
Since both characters are water-related and both Moana and The Little Mermaid were directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, does it almost feel a bit fated to be doing this?
CRAVALHO: It does feel serendipitous that there are so many similarities, with water, as well as the directors, and I feel like both characters also have such a drive to experience something different. But these two characters are also very different from each other.
This is a film that’s older than you are, so when did you first see the film? What was your reaction to The Little Mermaid and the character of Ariel, at the time that you first saw her?
CRAVALHO: I’m 18 and we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid, so you’re absolutely right that I was not alive [when it came out], but I absolutely loved the film. I think I watched it on a VCR. I don’t remember exactly when I watched it, but I do remember that it definitely shaped me. I grew up in Hawaii, so I was constantly pretending to be a mermaid. I think, once or twice, my mother might have scolded me for using a dinglehopper, or a fork, to brush my hair. She affected me, in many, many ways, throughout my childhood.
Do you view the story of The Little Mermaid any differently, now that you’re a bit older than when you first saw it? Do you find yourself identifying with different aspects of it that you didn’t necessarily notice, when you were younger and first saw it?
CRAVALHO: Yes, I definitely do. Opening yourself up to the possibility of meeting new people, from literally different walks of life, who are very, very different from you, is something that’s definitely resonating with me, right now. When I was younger, I thought, “She’s a pretty mermaid with red hair and she sings great songs, so I love her!” And now, I’m really getting to dive deeper into this and say, “Wow, she’s giving people a chance and really wanting to expand on what she knows.” I love that about her. I feel like that’s something that Moana also has, as well. It’s about wanting more and wanting to explore, and I think that’s beautiful
Because this is being done in a never-before-seen hybrid format, how has the idea of this presented to you and what was it like to try to imagine what this would be?
CRAVALHO: Yes, that was very interesting. Our unique format is that we will still play the beautiful animation, and then, for every song, we have our live before, which I can’t wait for. I’m very excited to see our cast perform live. It’s definitely different. I also wondered, “Oh, my goodness, do I need to learn every single line from The Little Mermaid? How could I do that? Jodi Benson gave such an iconic performance. How could I possibly make this into something of my own?” But the fact that we have just the live performances with the musical numbers, it gives us nice room to play while still paying homage to the 30th anniversary, and the fact that Ariel is such an iconic character and it’s such a beautiful, classic film.
In the teaser footage, you talked about having to fly for this. At what point did you realize that you would have to be flying, and how do you feel about that?
CRAVALHO: Well, it’s definitely something that I’m still learning. I’m not a professional aerialist. I want to say that, right off the bat. But, it’s really fun. I actually really, really enjoy it. I’ve been doing a lot of core exercises, and I’ve also been working with our wonderful choreographers, Nick [Florez] and R.J. [Durell]. All in all, I think I’m going to look like a pretty sick mermaid, flying through the air, in front of a live studio audience. I’m pretty thrilled, actually.
Did you get to meet with and talk to Jodi Benson, at all, to get any advice from her about playing this character?
CRAVALHO: Yes, I did. I met with Jodi, a few months ago, at D23. We had actually met, for the first, at the D23, a few years before that, and she’s always just been such a beautiful, warm individual. She had so much advice to give to all of us Disney princesses because she just knows how it works. She’s been grateful, every step of the way, and that’s something that she also taught me, a few years ago. Now that I’m playing Ariel, I asked her, “I don’t know how to really make her my own. You played her pretty perfectly, so where do I go from there?” She was incredibly kind and basically says, just remember that she’s joyous and she has so much love for the ocean and where she comes from, but also she has such a need for adventure and a need to explore. So, with that in mind, I hope to do her proud.
It seems like it makes it more real, when you get to see yourself in character with the red hair. What was that like, for the first time?
CRAVALHO: That was really strange. I have never dyed my hair. I was very surprised when, suddenly, I was a fiery redhead. And then, they put red paint in my eyebrows. I actually really, really liked it. I’m not saying that I’m going to dye my hair red, anytime, but I am really grateful that Ariel has made me into a fiery redhead because it did really put me into the character.
Is there a song that you’re most excited to sing for this, and is there one that you’re most nervous about singing?
CRAVALHO: I absolutely love “Under the Sea.” I think that might be my favorite song from The Little Mermaid. And although it’s not my song, that is one that I can’t wait to hear. I’m really also excited for “Part of Your World” ‘cause that’s the song that obviously is not only the most iconic song in the entire film, but that’s also the song that I’ll be doing the aerial work to, so it’s a double whammy of excitement. I’m also a little nervous for it, but all in all, it’ll be really, really great.
You’ve gone from voicing Moana for an animated film to doing live-action work, as part of the ensemble on the TV series Rise to doing The Little Mermaid Live! and now leading a movie, with Sorta Like A Rock Star. How have you adjusted to stepping into the spotlight and being in the public eye, in that way?
CRAVALHO: Oh, boy! Well, I’m currently in Portland, filming Sorta Like A Rock Star right now. I got off set at around 1:00 am last night, or rather this morning, and I go to set today, and then I get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles, early tomorrow morning. I have been so blessedly busy that I haven’t had to really think about how nervous I’ll probably be, and how much my career is certainly changing. I haven’t sat down and thought about that for a little while, so thank you for reminding me. I’m really grateful, of course, for all of the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’m really excited for everything that’s to come. I suppose I should just take things one day at a time because I’m really young. I’m 18, and I try not to think of what I’m going to do in the next 10 to 15 years. It might be acting, but it might not, quite honestly. I just have to figure out what makes me happy and what continues to inspire me. Right now, Ariel and The Little Mermaid makes my heart flutter, so I know I’m in the right spot.
CRAVALHO: I loved the script for Sorta Like A Rock Star, and I’m still falling in love with my character, Amber Appleton, every day that I go to set. Amber has a love for life, and she also has a hidden vibe to her that she doesn’t want many people see, and I think that’s something that really drew me to her. So many of us can live our lives, every single day, putting on a happy face and truly wanting to make other people happy, as well. And then, there are those times when we are all alone and we think to ourselves, “Oh, my gosh, this is so difficult. Will I be able to continue doing this?” Really, the moral of Sorta Like A Rock Star is getting out of your head and reaching out to those that are around you. That’s something that, quite honestly, as we go back to speaking about this wonderful career that I have, I’ve had to learn. I can’t do everything by myself. I can’t begin to credit my career only to me. I have so many people to thank, but I also have so many individuals that I need to reach out to you and say, “Hey, I’m not perfect. I’m really trying my best here, but I need help.” And so, I related to Amber, in my day-to-day life. I realized that it’s really cool. It’s a little bit out of my comfort zone, playing someone so close to myself. I’m working with Brett Haley, who’s a fantastic director, and he’s just helped me, in so many ways. I’m really excited to be up here in Portland, shooting it. Even if that means that I get on flights back and forth to L.A. for The Little Mermaid, it’s absolutely worth it.
Since you’ve become a part of the Disney family, what’s been the coolest thing that you’ve gotten to do, that you wouldn’t have been able to do, unless you were a part of that inner circle?
CRAVALHO: That’s a really good question. I really get to connect with people and come from that joyous place, where we make classic films. For Moana, I was really, really grateful because I was 14 when I was cast and started working on it, and I was 16 when the film came out. It was a day before my 16th birthday that the film was really in the United States, and I remember my own cousins and my own family members being like, “This is someone that I want my daughters and my sons to look up to. I want them to be the hero and heroine of their own story, and go out on a voyage, and be the person that they want to be.” The wonderful thing about the Disney family is that every project is reflective of its time. As I’ve continued to work with them, I get to see everyone grow. Each character will be different from the last and they’ll be a direct connection to the time that they’re created in, and that’s really exciting to me.
The Wonderful World of Disney Presents The Little Mermaid Live! airs on ABC on November 5th.