“Moana” Star Auli‘i Cravalho is Not Your Average Disney Princess
Warning: This conversation with “Moana” star Auli‘i Cravalho may blow any preconceptions of a “Disney Princess” out of the water.
Photo: Diane Lee
How is fame as a newly minted Disney princess treating Auli‘i Cravalho, the 15-year-old Mililani girl who plays a key role, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as demigod Maui, in the forthcoming animated film Moana?
“I’m currently standing in the parking lot of school,” says the girl whose avatar graces three Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330 jetliners. She’s a little breathless from racing out of class to make promotional calls like this one, neatly patching herself through her cell via both a Mainland Disney publicist and Andrea Galvin, local representative of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
“Life is definitely a balancing act,” Cravalho says. “I do as much of the promotional stuff by phone as I can, so I can go to physical school, see my friends and eat lunch with them—which is really nice. My mom is keeping me on the schoolwork.”
The multitasking is all the more impressive when you consider her courseload at Kamehameha Schools. “For my favorite subject, I’m torn between English and biology,” she says. “Right now, it’s English, trigonometry and Native Hawaiian—I’m getting them out of the way now so I can move on to calculus and chemistry.”
Where has she had to trim or cut back? “I’m a big water fan,” says the voice (and many facial expressions and gestures) of the film’s intrepid Polynesian wayfinder. “I was really into sports: water polo, paddling, surfing, as well as competitive swimming.” She heaves an italicized sigh. “But I’m a little busy right now.”
Busy is the norm for many 15-year-olds diving into life and school. But it’s also the age when idealism can strike a chord and Cravalho’s voice deepens when she is asked to name her favorite Disney movie. “Mulan. I really love everything about her. The story is sad, but great. She totally broke that gender norm and did it full on. She didn’t care what other people thought about her. What really mattered was protecting and serving her family. It’s just my favorite movie.”
Identifying with Mulan may have prepared Cravalho to step into a role laden with symbolism—and of particular personal connections to her family and Hawai‘i. She is of Native Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Chinese and Irish ancestry. “I love it that Disney has chosen to create a film about the Polynesian culture. I also feel the weight of that, too.”
She has previously said that she ignored Moana’s casting call because she didn’t feel she was talented enough. “I admit that when I first heard about the film I was a little bit wary,” she explains, alluding to the ongoing skirmishes about cultural appropriation that surround big-ticket movies about marginalized, nonwhite peoples.
When finally persuaded to audition, she was the very last person—a piece of Hollywood legend-making all the sweeter for happening to be true. The video of her surprise at being informed during a callback—held via Skype by the producers and directors, while being recorded at a Kamehameha Schools music room—has already made Cravalho a viral legend of her own.
From there, she plunged into animated filmmaking at the studio that defines the genre, Disney. “After a year of working so intensely with the producers, directors, animators and cast, I can honestly say I am so proud of what we created,” she says. “Everyone has put so much heart and soul into it. Taika Waititi, who is Maori, helped so much with the writing. The music by Opetaia Foa‘i of Te Vaka is wonderful to sing.”
You’re singing? “I am indeed!”
The work was challenging and new to her. “Animation is different from live acting and film acting,” she says, adding, “Not that I’d done film, but I’ve had to memorize lines for theater. But in animation you don’t memorize a speech. Instead, you have to say the same line 20 times, 30 times, bringing different inflections and intonations to it. I definitely wasn’t prepared for that!”
Fortunately, Cravalho did have some experience in putting in long days at an exacting task. During her freshman summer, she’d taken an honors biology class taught by Gail Ishimoto. “She opened up a whole new world for us, working on a project on how sunscreen affects our coral reefs here. We’d start at 7 a.m. and work until 2 a.m.”
In fact, the draw of doing science is holding its own against show business. “Someday when I’m not running around, when I’m not getting on planes 24/7,” she says, with a nice self-deprecating bit of vocal fry, “I would like to develop a sunscreen that wouldn’t harm the reef.”
She knows, however, what Moana represents. “I am on the fence about it. I’m not sure what I’m going to do after this. I’m planning on continuing my education. I’m not sure about shifting focus to this industry—I was planning on law and specifically focusing on the biological field. Maybe I can do both?” She laughs.
“I do feel responsibility as somebody people might look up to,” she continues. “I will forever hold that title as Moana. It’s wonderful. It warms my heart. But I’m still becoming myself. I’m not a perfect person. And my mom lets me know it! She’s helping me stay grounded.”
While she’s making up her mind, and doing her homework on the road, in motels and in cars, Cravalho can reminisce about what it’s like to work with The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. “He is a wonderful person. Dwayne is so focused, despite being pulled in a hundred different directions, that he still finds time to give his attention” to every detail and person, including always finding time for Cravalho. “He still has the aloha spirit.”
And she knows what it’s like to live with a goal that matters to a lot of people. “I’m talking to my Island.” But, also, “I want people to think that Moana is for them, for everyone, not just for girls who want to see a Disney princess. It’s about a journey, one that everyone can take, adults as well. Everyone can understand the need to find themselves. Not everyone can board a canoe and travel hundreds of miles, but everyone is on a journey.”
She takes a deep breath. The next phone interview is minutes away.
“Polynesian culture is real,” she says emphatically. “Wayfinding is something that our ancestors gave to the world.”