When Disney’s Moana hits theaters this Thanksgiving, audiences will be introduced to the vocal talents of Auli’i Cravalho. The fifteen-year-old native Hawaiian brings an infectious energy to the role of Moana, a young woman who sets out on adventure to find the demigod Maui and save her island from destruction by dark forces.
Screen Rant sat down with Cravalho at the Moana press day to talk about her experience making her first movie, as well as what Moana means to her, both personally and as a representation of her culture.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
I loved this movie.
Auli'i Cravalho: Thanks!
I just saw Zootopia.
Auli'i Cravalho: Ooh, how’d you like that?
I loved it.
Auli'i Cravalho: I got to work with Jared Bush, one of the head writers, for both Zootpia and Moana, and he was in the booth with me most of the time, he’s incredible.
That’s amazing. Did you record any of this with your fellow voice actors there? Was it all just you?
Auli'i Cravalho: It was all me. I thought I’d be rubbing elbows with Dwayne Johnson in the booth, but no. Dwayne and I, as well as Lin [Manuel Miranda], we met at a Miami Content shoot. But no, otherwise I was all by my lonesome. Although I was with Jared, who would put on his best Dwayne voice and demeanor. [laughs] We love him.
Are you a big Disney fan?
Auli'i Cravalho: Absolutely.
What’s your favorite Disney princess or character?
Auli'i Cravalho: Mulan.
Really? So funny you bring that up, it leads me to my next question. It seems like Moana draws inspiration from past Disney princesses. Was your performance inspired by any characters, like Mulan or Nani, who was Lilo’s older sister, or Merida from Brave?
Auli'i Cravalho: I think Disney films are kind of reflective of their times. So while, yes, Mulan is certainly a Disney heroine and Moana is one too, there are distinct differences between the two. And I did draw some inspiration from Mulan, though. I thought that she broke such a gender norm, and she did it wholeheartedly. She knew full well what she was doing. She cut that hair and she did what was necessary to serve her family, and to honor her family as well, which is something I hope to do, no matter who I meet, where I am.
How did you like doing the voice acting in the booth? How did you prepare for it?
Auli'i Cravalho: There’s really no way to prepare for the booth. I certainly had a learning curve with that. I had never done anything like this before. I mean, I was the director and producer of my backyard plays, but besides that there was nothing that I had done that was similar to this. So I kind of just lived to prepare for the role of Moana. We both grew up on islands, we’re both deeply rooted to our culture. I go to an all Hawaiian school where the mythology and folklore of Maui is something that—we have a Hawaiian culture class. And Ōlelo, our language, is something that is enforced on us to speak, and I love that. There was a period of time where wayfinding, which is a major theme in our film, was almost lost in real life. Wayfinding, as well as our language and our customs, that was very close to dying out. And so with this resurgence it’s so important that this film is inspired by my culture. Because it is certainly a minority, and not many people know of it, but it will hopefully inspire more people to research about us, because we’re pretty awesome! [laughs] But I hope it will also inspire people to go on their own journeys, as well.
Who was a better costar, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Heihei [the chicken]?
Auli'i Cravalho: [laughs] I would say Dwayne. I mean, Heihei’s kind of a sidekick, but at the same time does a little bit more harm than good sometimes. But Maui is a character through-and-through. Their relationship is a little rocky at first, but it was really interesting to see their dynamic, where just because Maui’s a demigod and hundreds of years old, he still has a lot to learn from Moana, as Moana learns from him.
This is a great female empowerment movie, as well.
Auli'i Cravalho: Yes!
Mainly because Moana doesn’t take any crap from anybody. And another thing that was glaringly absent, was that she didn’t have a romantic interest. This was her own journey. How do you feel about that, about the female empowerment side of Moana and not having a love interest, cause she didn’t need one.
Auli'i Cravalho: I love it. The main theme, I think, of Moana is the journey that she goes on. And I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. Perhaps not the journey of a hundred miles across the sea, but the journey of finding herself, and solidifying herself in that. And that’s so important. As a fifteen-year-old going on sixteen, I get it. I’m a junior who’s going to become a senior, who’s going to go to college, who’s gonna figure out what she’s gonna do with the rest of her life. The journey of self-discovery is one that everyone can relate to. And I’m really excited for everyone to see it, because female empowerment is so important at this time. I think we need more heroines, and more heroes as well, but I’m so proud of Disney for thinking of it like this.
Yeah, I agree with you 100 percent. So, Moana’s grandmother had the stingray tattoo; what would Moana’s be?
Auli'i Cravalho: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I guess I’ll just take it on a personal level, if I ever got a tattoo. I think Moana is very smart; tattoos are very permanent, so I’m not sure if she would get one now, but if she did, something that I would certainly get would be a Tatau, which is a specific type of tattoo but in a cultural—not only pattern, but also it is made and put on the skin in a very different way. It is tapped onto the skin, and it’s significantly more painful. [laughs] But I think that further rooting in the culture would be something that I would like, and Moana would feel would be necessary.
When Moana left the island, we didn’t really get any flashbacks to what was actually happening with the darkness taking over. What do you think was happening to the people of that island while Moana was gone?
Auli'i Cravalho: Well the main reason the darkness was consuming the island in the first place was the imbalance between nature and humanity. And I think we can—perhaps not literally with darkness in real life—but we can certainly see the imbalance with the things around us, and our environment slowly but surely changing. And the dream Moana has is something that she hopes would not happen. It’s kind of her fears time one hundred. If she does not complete this mission that is what will happen, and her worst fear is her family being abandoned. And specifically her being away from them while the darkness is consuming.
If you could pick up Maui’s hook, what would you turn into?
Auli'i Cravalho: A cat! A fat cat. I have a fat cat, her name is Chin Chin, because she has a double chin, and I cannot imagine a better life than eating and sleeping.
Really? Because you seem so adventurous.
Auli'i Cravalho: Thank you. I mean, I can be adventurous as a cat; curiosity killed the cat. I have a lot of curiosity.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
Auli'i Cravalho: I would like people to take away that this film is about a journey. And that journey can be seen and felt by anyone who watches it, whether or not it’s a teen like me, that’s going through fifteen-year-old crises; or young girls who need that empowerment that Moana gives them; young boys who need to see that that journey is so important to go on; or a gentleman like yourself, who can learn a lot from the film of the balance, and returning harmony to the world between humanity and nature. I think there are so many wonderful components to this film. And I also hope people are inspired to learn more about my culture, the Polynesian culture, because this film is so important. And that it’s more than just animation. The research that has gone into it makes me proud, and I hope that everyone enjoys it.