Auli’i Cravalho spent her first few days in New York City this September—grabbing her first slice of New York pizza, catching the hit musical Hamilton, and doing press for Moana, the Disney animated film featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina that hits theatres November 23 (the day after Cravalho’s sixteenth birthday). She was always a fan of Miranda and musical theatre, loving In the Heights and singing scores like Cats since she was able to speak, so it was thrilling to be cast as the voice of Disney’s latest animated heroine. Before heading back to Oahu, HI, we met Cravalho at the Disney offices to learn about Moana, the fearless teenager who sets sail to an island with an almighty demigod to help save her family from annihilation, and her time working with Miranda.
Tell me about getting to sing this music. What’s going to be the new hit song?
AC: The music, as you probably know, is co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, [and] Opetaia Foa’i, and they’re an amazing blend. Lin you know from Hamilton as well as In the Heights, and Mark Mancina you know from Lion King. I always get goosebumps and chicken skin when I listen to it. The orchestration just brings it to life, and Opetaia Foa’i is a wonderful Polynesian influence. I think that it just blends so wonderfully together. I can tell you that the music is really, really, really good. I sing “How Far I’ll Go.”
What was your favorite to sing?
AC: We call it “Ancestor Song” [“I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)”]. I really love that one because it speaks to who Moana is, and how she identifies herself. In Hawaii, we have something—it’s kind of like a chant—that when you would introduce yourself to someone, like in ancient Hawaiian times, you would say where you’re from, who your parents are, and the wind name and the mountain range of the vicinity where you’re from, so that kind of reminds me of when Moana sings that [song]. She is finding out and really solidifying who she is by the things that she’s done, and the things that she loves.
What was it like getting to meet and talk with Lin?
AC: He’s amazing! He’s so kind, and so smart, and really funny. We were at the content shoot early the day that I met him, and he was already just so bright-eyed. He actually had taken over Instagram when I was with him, so we got to sing wonderful Disney songs, and it was just amazing. He made it very clear how important caffeine was and coffee. [Laughs.] He basically told me to be myself, which is something that I think everyone hears, but to really internalize it, and to hear it from him—someone who has had so much success—and [realize] that all you really need to get there is to be yourself, it hit me true. I still think about it to this day.
What were some of your favorite Disney movies?
AC: My favorite Disney princess was Mulan, and I loved the story of Mulan. My favorite musical score came from Princess and the Frog. Thinking back, I think I really liked Mulan because she broke that gender norm, and the stereotypes attached to being a girl, like “You’re supposed to stay home.” [Mulan thought], “Just kidding! I’m going to ride on my horse and go straight into battle.” She did that with full intent. I loved that, and I loved how she honored her family as well. That’s something I shared from a young age. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I wanted to support my family, and I wanted them to be proud of me no matter what. That really rang true with me. [And] Tiana—can we just take a moment to appreciate the soul in all of her music? I love that.
What was it like that you heard the news that you were cast?
AC: My mom actually wasn’t there when I got the news because they just told me that I’d be doing more adlib [at the audition], and they had tricked me. My mom said, “I have to go to work. Life continues.” My aunt actually took me to the audition, and I was still in summer school. I was planning to do adlib and go straight back to school, so when they told me that I would get the role, I was crying, and I’m calling my mom, and we’re both hysterical with joy. [I thought], “How am I going to go back to talking about alleles and all this science-y stuff.” But I did. I think I had said I had a dentist appointment so after [my classmates] found out, they were like, “You kept this hidden from us the whole time?”
What did your friends say?
AC: My nickname at school—my name, basically—is no longer Auli'i. I am strictly Moana. My friends call me Moana, my teachers call me Moana, which is amazing, and I’ve had so much support from all my friends and family. I got banana bread for days when people found out that I was playing Moana.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future? Would you want to do Broadway?
AC: All of that! I think it’s always hard to believe in yourself, which is something I totally understood because prior to getting this role, or even when the main auditions for Moana were happening, I was like, “No. I’m a freshman in high school. I need to figure out that first. Whoever they choose is going to be fabulous, but I don’t think I have enough to bring to the table for this.” And, by chance, I was able to audition. I think everyone just needs to break out of that closed shell, because I didn’t know this could ever happen to me, and I am so grateful and open to anything else that comes my way. I found that I love this way more than I initially thought.
What is a fun fact about you?
AC: I’m totally clumsy on land. I swim, and I paddle, and I surf, and I play water polo. I joke that, because Moana means ocean, that’s why my nickname is Moana—not 'Āina, which means land. I do not do well on land!
Are you going back to school? You live in Hawaii?
AC: Yes, I live on the island of Oahu, so I’ll definitely be finishing school, but I still want to continue this. Now that I’m in this career path—I know how difficult it is to get in—I don’t want to get out. Ever. Whatever comes my way, I’m really excited [for]. There are a few things cooking.
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.