Interview: Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho on Oscars performance, not giving up, and balancing career and school

Credit: Brian Chu/Nerd Reactor

The stresses faced by most teenagers likely don’t extend far beyond their next trigonometry exam or passing their driving test. But 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho has to balance not only the general anxieties teenagers face, but also the glare of the spotlight that comes with being the de facto face (and voice) of one of the most popular Disney heroines in recent memory. Her Hollywood debut as the title character of Disney’s worldwide box office smash, Moana, launched Cravalho into the public eye, and likely changed the life of this Hawaiian-born islander for good.

And yet, there’s nothing about Cravalho that appears “Hollywood.” Chalk it up to the grounded upbringing provided by her close knit family, or her own strong sense of understanding of who she is. Cravalho speaks in a candid and earnest manner, that doesn’t try to impress or act like someone she’s not. She exudes a sense of wonderment and optimism that is a refreshing breeze in these cynical times. But she also maintains a level of poise and maturity that belies her young age.

In speaking with Cravalho, it’s often hard to distinguish between the driven and determined chieftan’s daughter from the village of Moto Nui and the girl who just headlined an Oscar nominated film alongside Dwayne Johnson. Perhaps this is why, as far as Disney and the rest of the world is concerned, Auli’i is Moana. And vice versa.

What did you learn from your time working on Moana?

I’ve learned quite a bit. I’ve of course been a fan of Disney for a while but I never truly realized how the animation has made such leaps and bounds. I discovered this through Moana because the movie has beautiful effects, from the ocean to her hair, and these are all new techniques that needed to be invented to create such stunning visuals. I learned a lot about the Disney company. I was working with Ron Clements and John Musker, absolute legends in their fields. I got to work with producer Osnat Shurer and together we got to make something that was really different from every other film that they’ve created. I’ve always been a fan of Disney princesses and now we’ve created a film about a Disney heroine which is so important.

Do you have an “old school” princess that you like?

I love Belle, I think Belle was another one of my favorites. She is studious and smart and she’s another one who would tell off someone who wasn’t right.  For instance she would tell off the Beast and just say, “No, I know what’s right, and you’re wrong.” And that’s what Moana does as well, for example hitting Maui, a demigod, over the head.

You’ve mentioned Audrey Hepburn being an inspiration to you. What was your exposure to her? Watching her movies on television or did your parents introduce you?

I didn’t have much exposure to film or TV. I still don’t have a TV! But I do know the classic [actresses], and Audrey Hepburn was certainly one of those. A favorite pastime of my family was to stop working for at least two hours and go out as a family to our local library and to find a DVD and usually, what was available at the library were not the most current films. Family time was spent watching classic films that really brought us together.

What has school been like you got the role and now that the movie is out?

[Laughs] I’m on a lot of my friends’ Snapchat stories. My friends have been absolutely fantastic. School has been interesting while I’ve been away. I’m a junior in high school and I not only plan to get my diploma but also to go to college and get a degree. It’s really quite challenging balancing a career as well as your schooling, but it’s something that needs to be done. Both of these things are so important to me that you got to work around it, whether I’m on a plane, or train, or boat. Seasickness pills help a lot when you’re working on an essay.

Ron [Musker] told me about the first time you saw the mostly completed film in the hotel. Can you tell me a little bit about that? 

[Laughs] You want me to tell you that I bawled my eyes out? I absolutely bawled my eyes out. I love our film. When I first saw it, Moana was going bald every few seconds, her skirt was not swaying, but kind of just stuck up in the air when she’d walk. These different elements hadn’t been fully completed just yet, but I still cried. I think it was seeing the emotions on Moana’s face as she sang the lines, hearing my own voice, and also just hearing some of the background noises. I realized I could hear the ocean, and I realized I could hear the wind rustling through the trees and all of these important elements were there. I didn’t know that an animation would mean so much to me but it does.

Did you have any singing role models growing up?

I listened to a lot of old music growing up. I listened to Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin. Swing music was kind of what I got into. I would sing what was on the radio of course. I kind of realized at a young age that I wanted to create music so I started writing my own music. I started making random things on my piano and trying to put together chords, so I’ve had a lot of musical influences.

How was it like working with Dwayne?

He’s amazing! I love him! He’s so kind, he’s larger than life in our film as well as in real life. He gave me flowers when I first met him. He gives really good hugs. I had listened to his voice for months so when I was finally able to put a face to the character, it was like, “What?” Because he’s so similar, yet so different. He’s a big teddy bear.

Can you expound on how your acapella group ended up with you landing Moana?

I didn’t initially audition for Moana. In fact, I was rooting for my friends who were submitting auditions online and I was rooting for other wonderful women who I had seen auditions of. I was a freshman in high school. It was a very intimidating time, so I was not planning on auditioning. But a group of friends and I put together an acapella mashup of different songs. We were hoping to become the entertainment for a non-profit event so we auditioned, put together an acapella mix, and we didn’t even get through the first round. But the woman going through the auditions for the non-profit was also a casting director for Disney so I got to audition for Moana through a failed audition for another event.

What would you say to other girls who have similar aspirations to you? Who have tried and failed a couple of times and are still hoping to make it work for them. What would you tell them?

Hope is a really powerful tool. I think it’s tough. I wasn’t going to audition for Moana because I didn’t think that I was good enough for it. I had tried out for different school plays, I was the understudy of the understudy most times. I tried my hardest but at the same time, I didn’t want to, because I knew that if I tried, and didn’t get it, it would break me. But I took a leap of faith and I decided to say yes to the audition to Moana and my life has changed. So there is nothing more important than hope. And there is nothing more important than using that hope to propel yourself and make yourself better. You might get shot down, as I have many times. But you just say, “Alright, that was a learning experience and off to bigger and better things.” It’s opening your eyes again and having that renewed hope and renewed faith that it’s going to work out because you love it enough where you’re willing to get shot down again and again for that one moment that it works out.

You’ve talked about your mother and how you relied on her during your recording sessions. I heard that after doing the scene where grandma had died, you went back to your mom and hugged her and John [Musker] said that was just a sweet and special moment.

I needed her in those moments. All the scenes with grandma Tala I imagined my mom as the character because whenever I think of someone that pushes me 110%, loves me unconditionally, and out of everyone on my island, the one to push me to do whatever I wanted to do, that was my mom. And that was Grandma Tala to Moana. So any scene with her, the funny ones and eventually the really heartbreaking ones, I needed a hug after that. It was really emotional for me.

And what part did she play in the film?

She plays Villager #2. She’s fantastic. She’s the villager who opens a coconut and it’s black and crusted, and I say, “We should clear the diseased trees and plant a new grove there,” and then she says, “Thanks, Moana!” And then she turns to Chief Tui and says, “She’s doing great!” I practiced that line with her so many times. But she nailed it.

You look really poised at the Oscars given the audience size and every celebrity you’ve ever wanted to meet staring at you. How did you stay so calm during such a big moment? And more specifically, what was going through your head when that flag hit you in the face? 

[Laughs] I’d like to say it’s because I’m a good actress because I was SO nervous. I was digesting my butterflies and you can ask the amazing dancers that were with me backstage that I was taking calming yoga breathes the entire time and I was like, “I just need this time, I don’t have enough energy to talk right now. I just need to breathe.” I was so nervous. Meryl Streep was in the front row and my heart almost leapt out of my chest into her lap. She was close enough for that to happen. It was ridiculous.

And yes, I got hit in the back of the head with a flag! Funny story, it had also happened the day before in dress rehearsals. It was just like a little tap. Less than what had happened the night of the Oscars. And everyone was like, “That was great!” and I said, “I don’t mean to be a worrywart, but I did get a little tap on the head.” And we all laughed about it afterwards. And then it happened the next day! It was a good little knock to remind me that it wasn’t a dream and I was actually at the Oscars.

Have you thought about what colleges you want to apply to?

USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley. Kind of in that California area. Or Julliard. California is close enough to home that it’s just a short plane ride back home to Hawaii, and it’s warm enough.

Polynesian culture hasn’t really been focused that much in films and now you have this. How has the reception been back at home?

It’s been really great. This film is inspired by Polynesian culture. My friends, and family, and even I were a bit wary before I started working on this film. Before I started working on it, I was like, “Okay, Disney is making a film inspired by my culture. Make sure you do this right.” And thankfully, after being on this film and after realizing all the love Disney has put into it, they’ve done such a wonderful job. They have an Oceanic Story Trust which is made up of elders, storytellers, and fisherman who made this film so much more lifelike. My family and friends at home, they realize that. My young cousins are dressing up as Moana and singing the songs in the car. I was at home and we were driving on the freeway and we had kind of slowed down, and blasting from the truck next to me (and I didn’t see any kids in the backseat), here comes, “You’re Welcome.” And I hear the low mumble of someone trying to rap it. It was crazy to hear how people love our film. And it warms my heart because these are my family members. Everyone on my island is my family and the fact that they love it and that they appreciate a film inspired by them. That’s all you can ask for.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity

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Brian Chu
Brian Chu 221 posts

Brian Chu is a Staff Writer for Nerd Reactor and aspiring Jeopardy contestant. He thinks Picard is the best captain, Cumberbatch is the best Holmes, Bale is the best Batman, and Tennant is the best Doctor. Follow him @chumeister

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