From the moment you meet Auli’i Cravalho, you want to be best friends with her. Mainly because it feels like Auli’i wants to be your best friend too. She greets everyone she meets with a giant hug, and asks when she’ll see you again before you part. It’s not hard to understand why fans have fallen in love with Auli’i, especially after seeing her adorable audition video where she found out that she would be voicing the title character in Moana.
The thing that’s amazing about that casting, though, is that Auli’i and Moana have more in common than you might think. In fact, Auli’i is the first person to be exactly the same age as her character (Moana is 16, and Auli’i turns 16 the day before the film is in theaters). But age definitely isn’t the only thing Auli’i shares with Moana. I sat down with Auli’i to talk more about the character and story she loves so much, and about the amazing journey she’s been on since being cast in Moana.
Has it sunk in for you yet that you’re a Disney character?
No! I remember watching—and of course my friends have been spamming me with all this stuff–but I saw and heard the doll for the first time, and her face is kind of like mine, even though she was designed before I even stepped foot into this film, like she kinda looks like me. And the fact that she shares my voice, it’s really uncanny. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.
Moana wears a couple different outfits in the film. Do you have a favorite one?
I’m not so much about formal, so I’m going to say her adventure outfit. I’m all about comfortable, yet right for the occasion. So, I think Moana is totally [awesome], and the fact that she kicks butt in a skirt is great.
I know you’ve been wearing many Polynesian designers while you’ve been promoting the film. Is that something you naturally gravitate towards?
Thank you so much for noticing! I love our Polynesian designs, whether or not it is coming from Samoa, as I have some of my designs coming from, or right from home in O’ahu. I really appreciate you noticing, because we have so many wonderful, talented artists that work with their medium, specifically with Polynesian designs, and I think Polynesian fashion is something that could really become mainstream … I love it because, yes, it’s really comfortable, and it makes me feel good knowing that I’m wearing something that’s from home. It makes me feel at least a little more grounded, no matter where I might be.
This has been a pretty exciting adventure for you. Moana is your first movie ever. What would you say has been the biggest “pinch me” moment so far?
I got to see Hamilton … I would say that was a major pinch me moment, and as well as meeting the animators, because I’m a total nerd, of course for Disney, but for more of a technical aspect. I understood how confusing and challenging the water, and Moana’s hair is—I mean, these luxurious locks don’t show up on screen unless they’re placed there. [laughing]
Was there anything else that surprised you about the animation process?
I didn’t know there were so many teams, so many divisions of animation. I was just so blown away. I knew Disney was one part magic, but the fact that you have 10 different teams and they all work seamlessly together, and it’s just hectic and crazy all-around—that surprised me. And how much fun they have, too!
What do you think you have in common with your character, Moana? How do you think you’re different?
I have a lot in common with Moana. I mean, we both grew up on islands. We both are deeply rooted in our culture. I go to an all-Hawaiian school, where the mythology and folklore of Maui is something [we learn]! I’ve been on the hōkūleʻa, which is a voyaging canoe and I’ve been able to feel the waves under my feet, and get to experience voyaging like that. I’ve paddled before, and I’m part of a paddling team, like a club; I surf, I swim—I mean, how are we different? I actually grew up with pigs and chickens, as well.
And I know you love your cat!
I do, that will be our difference. Also, my father is not a chief, although, he would like for me to say that he is. [laughing]
Would you say you were a big Disney fan growing up?
Oh, absolutely. Since, I think November 22, 2000, the day I was born.
Now, I know you’ve said Mulan is your favorite Disney movie. What’s your favorite movie by Ron Clements and John Musker, other than Moana?
Yes, The Princess and the Frog. I loooove the music in that. Tiana’s voice, I think the soul in that is just, girl.
Speaking of music, your main song in the film is called “How Far I’ll Go.” What was it like reading through the lyrics of that for the first time?
Well, first I was like, “Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote this,” and kind of stroked the pages a little bit. The way his mind works is incredible, the way he words things have a deeper meaning as well. I couldn’t think of a better way to voice Moana’s thoughts. I had been voicing her, and I had been slowly becoming her voicing me, and I could really relate to everything he was saying. The music team behind that, working with Lin—yes, but also working with Mark Mancina, with that score that just takes it to new levels. And Opetaia Foa’i, whose influence of Polynesian sounds and vibe and all of that, perfected an already perfect song.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from this film?
I hope they take away so many things. I love that Moana is a heroine, and I hope people take that away, and that you most certainly can be the heroine, or hero, of your own story. I think something that hit major media is that Moana doesn’t have a love interest, and that’s because, in my opinion, the main thing in Moana is the journey she goes on, and she doesn’t need a love interest for her to figure out who she is.
We also have the theme of imbalance between nature and man, and I also hope people can take away the theme that what we take is also what we must give back. And that the ocean is the life of the entire world, and that if we take care of it, it will take care of us. There are many wonderful themes from Moana that people discover, and I also hope they’re inspired to go on their own journeys, and to learn more about the Polynesian culture, because we’re pretty great! I’m so proud of the people the filmmakers talked to—the Oceanic Trust. They’re made up of storytellers, and wayfinders, and fishermen—all of that, the little details. Even consulting Polynesian dancers for the dancing scenes in, everything was thought out, and I’m so proud of it.
What have you’ve learned about yourself through this process?
This role was not something that I could even dream of having the blessing of voicing or having, but I do. I remember thinking to myself during my freshman year, “Oh my gosh, she’s incredible,” as I’m watching these auditions on YouTube. “Her voice is just astounding, her confidence.” I mean, I could never match that, which is part of the reason why I thought, “I’m not going to try—look at all of the amazing young women who are trying for this.” I’ve learned to not doubt myself, and to not limit my potential, because I don’t know what life has in store for me. So, I’ve learned a lot this year, and that’s the one thing that will forever stand out to me.
Moana sails into theaters November 23!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.