The Darby and the Dead co-stars turned fast friends refreshingly talk about what it takes to prepare for a role, personal struggles, and career ambitions.
PHOTOS: Sami Drasin
TALENT: Auli’i Cravalho
INTERVIEW: Nicole Maines
STYLING: Amanda Lim at The Only Agency
MAKEUP: CRYSTAL TRAN for Exclusive Artists using Koh Gen Do
HAIR: PHOEBE SELIGMAN at Art Department using Amika
STYLIST ASSISTANT: Caroline Tilley
PRODUCTION: Jasmine Perrier at Studio J•T•P
SPECIAL THANKS: Wolf | Kasteler Public Relations & ID PR
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Auli’i Cravalho has come far
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out some extracts below.
AULI’I CRAVALHO: Hi! Sorry, I’m so late.
NICOLE MAINES: No apologies to me girl, I have nowhere to be. How are you?
AC: I’m good, happy Saturday. Thank you for being here on your day off.
NM: Of course. Thank you so much for asking me to do this. I’m so excited. I always have fun when we talk and I adore you.
AC: Thank you.
NM: We have to start with when we first met at your rehearsal [for Darby and the Dead].
AC: Were we still in LA?
NM: In the Disney Studios.
AC: The sweet man was trying to teach us back handsprings in a gym.
NM: I remember when I agreed to do the film, they were like, “You don’t need to know how to cheerlead.” But when we rolled up… [Laughs] How did you feel? It was a struggle.
AC: I’m a people pleaser, so I was like, “Let’s go for it.” And then, when my lower back hurt the next day, I realized, “That’s not my job.” [Laughs]
NM: Playing a cheerleader and being a cheerleader are two different things.
AC: Do you remember when we were in a conference room the first time?
NM: That’s right! We were in a conference room and we were doing one on ones.
AC: We were using chairs because I was going to be a flyer, so he was like, “We don’t have anyone out here. Just pretend these two chairs are the people holding you up.” And I went, “Yeah, sure,” before going, “What?” But I did it with a smile.
NM: See, I did not. [Auli’i laughs] I was fine right up until they told me, “We need you to be upside down.”
AC: That’s when the line was drawn?
NM: You’ll notice in the film that everyone else is flying in the air. And they said, “We really love the ground for you Nicole.”
AC: You are taller than all of us.
NM: I was fine with it. I was like, “I will keep my two feet on earth and I will not break my neck.”
AC: Kylie [Liya Page] and Genneya [Walton] were also meant to be bases. We had one practice in South Africa and they had gone to the pool beforehand, so they were slippery with sunscreen and I was like, “I need to not do this.” Then, we had people holding us.
NM: Actual people who knew what they were doing. I loved that for us. Going backwards, what is the artist’s origin for Auli’i Cravalho?
AC: I really fell into this and I feel grateful for it. But I can’t start to talk about my origin without talking about Moana, that was my first job. Before that, I was in school and church plays, and I loved singing. I sang in the church choir. In Jesus of Nazareth, I was always the crying woman in the corner. Every Easter, they were calling me. They brought me a lot of joy, so you know what? That was my beginning.
NM: We love a church play.
AC: In Jesus of Nazareth, I was always the crying woman in the corner. Every Easter, they were calling me. They brought me a lot of joy so you know what? That was my beginning. And I was the backup for Mrs. Claus in my 5th grade play, but then, Brooke got it in the end. I’m still not over it. But I liked it, and I grew up in a single-parent household, so my mom was like, “College.” I didn’t think of anyone casting anything in Hawaii, so when Moana came along, I was in a molecular cell biology course, which was my summer course, and I told my friends that I was going to the dentist. I truly was the last girl in the last year of casting. My friends and I did this acapella mashup of songs for extra credit and we were sending in our tape to become the entertainment of a non-profit event. We didn’t make it past the first round, but the woman who was casting for this non-profit event, she was also doing the Moana casting. She said, “Who is that girl — last row, second in the left?” I was like, “That’s me.” Then, she asked if I wanted to audition for Moana and it changed my life.
NM: So she is smart!
AC: We didn’t talk about this? I was hoping to become an attorney for pharmaceutical medicines, for the testing of new medicines because I wanted to have a biology background.
NM: How old were you at this point?
AC: I was 14 when I was cast.
NM: Do you know what I was doing when I was 14?
NM: Girl, neither do I [laughs].
AC: And then, singing and acting actually became real life, and I was like, “I just get to dress up and play pretend every day?” When I think of so many other actors who religiously watched films and the classics, have their favorite directors, have been in an acting class… In comparison, I have to take a step back and be like, “That is a love and dedication that I simply don’t have.” So, we are super grateful. But at the same time, there is so much pressure to make acting your whole sphere. For me, I respect it as a job and I keep it in that “job” sphere.
NM: I get that. There is something you said that really stuck out to me — you were saying that living in Hawaii, you didn’t really feel that it was a viable path. I think a lot of people feel like they have to live in New York or Los Angeles, or it’s simply not going to happen. I grew up in rural Maine, so growing up in Hawaii, how did that shape your identity personally but also professionally? I guess being Moana, it’s a big part of that.
AC: Yeah. Now that we are talking about small towns, I knew all the families there and I knew the trajectory of the possible jobs. You work for your parents or you work at the local grocery store, shoutout to Takata store. The nearest McDonald’s was an hour away, so you just stay in your town, and I think I knew I didn’t want to do that. So, I was at Kamehameha which is a boarding school an island away, that’s where I got my auditions and things like that. But I’m very glad I grew up in Hawaii because I have deep roots of culture and a deep understanding of my values. In our traditional stories, the first child of Sky Father and Earth Mother was stillborn and that was Kalo or Taro, which is one of our staple foods. It’s like if we take care of our older brother, our older brother will take care of us. And then, it just heads beautifully into Moana. I’m grateful that the filmmakers wanted to do it right and decided to cast native people like me. I grew up with the story of Maui pulling up the islands with his fishhook. It felt right.
NM: That’s awesome. Talking about representation, I feel like anyone who is not a cis, straight white man, etc. has felt in some shape or form that their identity is going to limit their career. Is that something you still struggle with?
AC: When I first moved out of Hawaii, I moved to New York. Because Moana was [in my element], I was like, “How do I represent my culture and be this role model when I’m out of my element?” But now, casting calls me racially ambiguous so I go, “Alright, I don’t know what that means, but I’m not going to allow it to give me a complex.” It’s easier for me to push things like that away. Can you repeat the question?
NM: You and I have both been very lucky to be cast in roles that allow us to be these icons of representation. Dreamer [Nicole’s character on Supergirl] and Moana are both firmly grounded in their identities, and that’s a huge part of the appeal and the marketing. And despite all of that, I know I sometimes still have this feeling of, “I’m trans so I’m not going to be able to do this.” I was wondering if you still struggle with that as well.
AC: I totally hear you. There aren’t many stories that are written for young Hawaiians, so having it as my big break, I’ll never see a project like that again. No other job after our big ones has been luck. After that, it takes skills. We have auditioned, toiled, and we have been told “no” hundreds of times in between. A deep part of me is sad that nothing will come close to that. But I know that to have that feeling again, we will have to write it ourselves.
NM: 100%. I’m working hard to write comic books for that very reason. When Supergirl ended, I went to DC and said, “You have this character now, what are you going to do with her?” And there was no plan. I was very fortunate that they were open and said, “Yes, do it, write it.” Now I have to learn another thing [laughs].
AC: I know that feeling.
NM: Moving forward, I guess a lot of actors struggle with having this huge success right at the start, and they struggle to create some mold in people’s minds. They see you as this iconic one thing. What has it been like trying to show people another side of you? Specifically once Capri [Auli’i’s character in Darby and the Dead] says “bitch” a lot. Will we ever hear Moana say that?
AC: No, you won’t. I can’t even swear in Hawaiian. But yes, I got to perform at the Oscars in 2017, that’s crazy to start off like that. Now, I realize I love acting because playing characters who are more away from myself makes me more empathetic, and I’m more interested in learning about this person and leaning into my own flaws. Moana was simply about a 16-year-old who didn’t know what she wanted, but she was willing to paddle away across the ocean to save her family. It was a very clear motive for me because I was her. But for instance, Capri is very different from me. At first, I was like, “She is a mean girl, she is rude and ditzy,” but when I put on the boots and read the script, I realized we shared more parts. I just added a bit of campness and it was also lovely to lean into an aspect of comedy. Capri is one of the most fun characters to play because I don’t need to write a very deep tragic backstory. I just get to show up on the day and create something. We both experienced this working on Darby and the Dead because we wrote a lot of our own lines.
Darby and the Dead is now streaming on Hulu
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