Auli’i Cravalho on Transitioning From ‘Moana’ to ‘Rise’: ‘I Experienced a Lot of Firsts’

Auli'i Cravalho Portrait
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Both of Auli’i Cravalho’s first two professional credits — the Disney animated feature “Moana” and NBC’s high school theater drama “Rise” — have allowed her to showcase her love of performing as a singer, as well as an actor. It is not a fact she takes lightly. “I’m extremely blessed to have been able to go from one project to another that have both used my singing abilities,” Cravalho says.

But whereas “Moana” allowed her to tap into emotions solely in her voice, “Rise” required her to use her body, too, for a more full performance.

“I experienced a lot of firsts on the show,” she says. “The first time seeing my face on screen, the first time playing a character coming into her own, the first time having a love interest and creating a vulnerability within myself to be able to fall in love with an individual. It was very new and scary.”

Soon she’ll reprise her role as Moana in Disney’s first Hawaiian-dubbed film.

When did you first say to yourself and your family that you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment?

I don’t think I ever really had that turning point — I don’t believe I ever said that, even at a young age. I always loved singing and dancing and acting, and I think I was always a flamboyant and vocal person, but I also realized my own circumstance of growing up on a small island, in a small town and knowing that as much as I would love to do this, the chances are so slim. There’s no way anyone is going to choose a girl from Hawaii who doesn’t have any acting experience or singing experience who just loves to put on plays in her living room for her parents but otherwise has never seen the light of day on a stage. I never had the experience of saying this is what I want to do for the rest of my life because I honest to God didn’t think it was a possibility.

So what was the turning point that made you go for it, even if you didn’t think it was a possibility?

I was a freshman in high school when my friend and I put together an audition for a school project, and a casting director for Disney actually saw that and asked if I wanted to audition for “Moana.” I wasn’t actively auditioning for things. I didn’t know how to do a slate, so when I went in I messed up on the slate like three or four times. I didn’t understand why I had to say my height. I was like, “That’s a little invasive, does everyone have to go through that?” It was a fun and funny experience.

Was there any part of you that wondered if the casting director was legit when you got that email, or did you just feel like you just wanted to trust the process and see where it took you?

My mom and I, for sure, thought it was a scam — absolutely! We got the email, and it was on my school email because I had submitted the audition and was hoping for the best for my friends and I. And I got an email back saying, “Hey, I have another project that I’m hoping that you’ll audition for if you’ll just come into the ‘Hawaii Five-0’ casting studio.” I remember showing it to my mom and saying, “OK, first of all I think she used the wrong ‘your’ and I don’t know how I feel about this.” My mom said she’d come with me and make sure everything was legit and shake hands and be professional and if anything, at least we’d know where the “Hawaii Five-0” casting studio is. She said we’d just put on a nice dress, and it would just be what it is, and that was already bigger than anything I thought was possible. I was just a freshman in high school trying to figure out life.

What was the process of “Moana” like, given that it’s voiceover work, and presumably a more flexible schedule than many projects?

I was a sophomore at the time, and I would fly out once or twice a month, usually on the weekends. I still had to get in all of my assignments [for school] when I was flying out to Los Angeles for the sessions there, and I would also have tutoring and have to complete homework assignments, emailing back and forth. Sometimes I’d have to say, “I’m in a different time zone, and I’m going to make you proud being a Polynesian heroine. Can I please work with you on this [deadline]?” I worked so hard to be the student that I wanted to be, as well as to take on the new challenges and new career of acting. I really was trying to figure out how to balance both.

What has been the biggest adjustment?

I’m still in high school — I’m a senior now, taking economics and Spanish and Hawaiian — and I think it’s been interesting being in that in-between of feeling like you’re kind of an adult, maybe not being able to vote but still having very passionate thoughts about how you want to change the world. And having a career that praises you and kind of puts you on a pedestal — but still being late on so many of my homework assignments and getting in trouble with my mom for not cleaning my room. My mom is keeping me normal and keeping me grounded, and I appreciate that because I don’t want to get caught up in this industry, but it’s finding that fine line and that balance between whoever Auli’i is and whoever Auli’i wants to be.

How have you felt about going from Hawaii to New York to film “Rise”?

I experienced the coldest winter of my life — and apparently the coldest winter New York has experienced in about 100 years. I thought I was just going to go and be super cute in my scarves and my hats and my coats and get fingerless gloves, but I was just trying to survive! I was wearing all black, layers upon layers. The food is different there from what I’m used to. But my mom is basically my rock and my little bit of home. No matter what’s different about the city, she’s what gives me that little bit of peace because wherever she is, it’s home for me.

What was it about the character of Lilette in “Rise” that made it feel like the perfect first live-action project for you?

Lilette is a beautiful, strong, young woman who’s figuring out what she wants to do. She’s growing up in a small town, like I did, and a lot of times when you come from a small town, there’s a small mindset and a box that people put you [in] — and oftentimes a family has been there for a few generations so not only are you put into a box of “Well, you grew up in a small town” but [also] “You’re from this family with this last name, and you’re a girl so you must be going into this particular field like your mother and your grandmother.” And I related to that so deeply, and I thought this was beautiful. Who would think of creating a story like this — and who would think of putting a girl’s heartache and heartbreak into a story like this?

Do you see any of yourself in Lilette?

She grows up in a single parent household, like I have, and the feeling of a mother and daughter against the world resonated so deep within me. Both of them want the best for each other — and not really knowing what that means but knowing they’re going to fight for each other no matter what was going on. They’re going to get through this together.

How did the high school theater troupe within the show compare to real life theater troupes you may have been a part of in your own high school?

Well, I was in high school theater in that I auditioned for things and it was a requirement in my school, but I didn’t actually get to perform. So through Lilette I have been able to have the experience. This troupe has just been amazing, really on and off screen. I’ve never had such an experience where everyone that I’m working with that I get to call my friends have the same passion that I do and want the best for the show we’re putting on — and want the best for each other.

Did it mean more than your first on-screen role allows you to exhibit your musical talents in addition to acting?

I was really surprised that I could go from one film — “Moana” — where I had kind of just jumped in and knew how to make my voice sad or that a tiny lilt at the end of a phrase could add emotion, and then to transition into “Rise” where you’re now going to see my face on screen for the first time and also have to have control over my body and facial expressions. I’m much more used to controlling my emotion through my voice — I know what that’s supposed to sound like and I know what that’s supposed to feel like — and it was interesting to translate that into a physical aspect. So I was lucky to have a project where I could work on something that I was used to but also on something that I could have the challenge of figuring out what to do with my body. I worked with my castmates to develop my own kind of style.

Where did the directors come in? Was there anyone in particular that helped you shape who Lilette would be?

I talked to a lot of the writers, quite honestly, and I talked with Rosemary Rodriguez who was one of the directors — a fantastic woman. We had a new director every episode or every two episodes, and even that allowed me to not get comfortable with my performance, and that was so important for me because that made me want to be better. Each of them had their own flares and their own little things that they’re looking for. And each of those very different styles of directing pushed me to just kind of do it. No matter how scared I was — I had my first kiss on screen with Damon Gillespie, and I did not know what to do with my face! And the director I had then, Patrick Norris, said, “For these first ones, you just make it whatever you want it to be. Don’t overthink it.” So when you’re in the moment and you’re in your character, it becomes more freeing. And as the season went on, I was so much more comfortable with myself that my character seems more comfortable with relationships. It became real to me, like it would have to Lilette.