LOS ANGELES >> It’s been a whirlwind 16 months for Auli‘i Cravalho. She exploded out of obscurity at the end of 2016 when the Disney animated film, “Moana,” opened. It was the Hawaii native who provided both the speaking and singing voice for the young girl whose bravery saves her people.
Now, she’s starring in the new NBC drama, “Rise,” where she plays Lilette Suarez, a high school student who finds theater as a way of escaping from her personal conflicts. Dedicated teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) overcomes his self-doubt and takes over the school’s lackluster theater department, galvanizes not only the faculty and students but the entire working-class town. Mazzuchelli must particularly find a way to make friends with the school’s former theater teacher, Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez).
It was easy for her to relate to Moana but her role in “Rise” is very different.
“There were certainly many similarities and differences between Lilette and I. She’s not one who goes looking for the spotlight certainly, and she’s one that is perhaps more of an introvert, quite unlike myself,” Cravalho said. “I think I’ve found my spot in the spotlight. But in many ways we are similar. She grows up in a single-parent household, as I have. She has big dreams but grows up in a small town.
“For me, it was on a small island. For her, it’s in a small, tiny place that also kind of resembles a small mind-set, which is something that she doesn’t want for herself but something that she’s used to other people putting on her. She works very hard and works to rise above her circumstances, so to speak.”
Cravalho’s childhood was one about education and theater. There was no television in her home so she would either be studying or traveling with her mother to see any — and all — types of theater presentations. Her character in the series doesn’t get that kind of support and, like so many of the high school students drawn into the production, has to find a way to keep those in both her worlds happy.
The biggest difference from “Moana” for Cravalho is that all she did for the film was provide the voice work. Because “Rise” deals with the staging of “Spring Awakening,” there also has been lots of choreography to go along with her on-screen performance.
“It was definitely a challenge. With the show that we’re putting on, we’re really putting on a show within a show,” Cravalho said. “So ‘Spring Awakening’ takes its own rehearsals, its own blocking, its own music rehearsals and music records as well, before we even get into camera blocking and seeing how the light will show or maybe what different props we’ll use, and don’t even get me started on costume and all the rest of that. It really does take a village to put this all together.
“And it’s fantastic. It really is. We sing live, as well as sing in the studio. So we get to really see this coming together. And we feel it coming together as well, as we’re taking extra time and extra hours putting in the work to make it as great as we can.”
Along with working on the series, Cravalho has continued to be part of the “Moana” world. She performed the Oscar-nominated “How Far I’ll Go” in what ended up being a painful 2017 Academy Awards memory. The performance went well, but during the production number Cravalho was hit in the head by one of the moving pieces of scenery. Other than the head hit, the rest of the Oscar show performance was a fun experience.
The audition for “Rise” came shortly after her work on “Moana,” and at that point the 17-year-old actor wasn’t certain if she was ready to jump into the up-and-down world that is show business or whether she wanted to continue her education.
“If I went back to school ‘Moana’ would end up being a wonderful reminder of what could have been,” Cravalho said.
She eventually decided to move ahead with her acting career but has not cut ties with the islands. Shortly after talking about her new series, Cravalho jumped on a plane and headed back to Hawaii to re-record the entire voice tracks for “Moana” in the Hawaiian language.
Cravalho goes to Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama, where Hawaiian language is taught, but that’s not the case across Hawaii. The movie is being redubbed as a way to get more people interested in the native language and as a teaching tool. She also knows that “Moana” has been a very important film in the Disney world because it brings another bit of diversity. When she was growing up, Cravalho’s favorite Disney princess was Mulan and it wasn’t until she was older that Cravalho realized how much Mulan was breaking gender norms.
“She was fighting for something bigger than herself. She was fighting for family,” Cravalho said. “As I continue to work in this industry, I will know that while all of this is bigger than I am, I will look back at my family and keep doing it over and over for them.”
And if she can figure out some time in her schedule, Cravalho wants to go to college. She loves acting but is equally passionate when it comes to education especially if it means getting to study microbiology.
Right now she’s working on “Rise.” Joining Cravalho in the cast are Damon J. Gillespie, Marley Shelton, Rarmian Newton, Ted Sutherland, Amy Forsyth, Casey Johnson, Taylor Richardson, Joe Tippett, and Shirley Rumierk.
“Rise” debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesday on NBC and then will move into its regular time slot of 8 p.m. Tuesdays starting March 20.