A lot has changed for Auli’i Cravalho since her first film.
The actress was 14 when Disney tapped her to star in “Moana,” voicing the animated musical’s titular island heroine. She still lived with her mother on Oahu in Hawaii, where she was focused on choir, AP classes and a budding interest in microbiology.
Five years later, Cravalho’s new home base is her Los Angeles apartment, where for the first time, she is living on her own — save for her year-old tuxedo cat, Rocco, who begrudgingly has roughly half a dozen bow ties in his wardrobe. (“He and I are really good friends now,’ she said. “But in the beginning, it was a lot of hissing.”)
Cravalho still wants to go to college, but school is on pause as her career flourishes: Her sophomore starring role, in the Netflix drama “All Together Now,” was released Friday. She plays Amber Appleton, a high school student balancing homelessness and a fraught family life with her dreams of becoming a singer and enrolling at Carnegie Mellon University.
So Cravalho is juggling a lot of change: a move, growing up, a shift from animation voice-over to live action — not to mention the isolation that has come with the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated for someone so outgoing and energetic.
But at least one thing is still the same: her mother, Puanani, moved into a place of her own in Los Angeles, just 10 minutes from Cravalho. They recently watched her new film together for the first time.
“My mom was crying next to me, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, why am I doing those things with my hands?’” Cravalho said, adding, “She was like, ‘You’re great!’ And I was like, ‘Does my face always look like that?’”
In a recent Zoom interview from her apartment, Cravalho discussed the ties she feels to the role, what it was like shooting her first live action film and castmates like Carol Burnett and a well-trained Chihuahua. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
QUESTION: What was your audition process like?
ANSWER: I had actually auditioned for Brett Haley, our director, for another one of his Netflix films. He was like, “You know, you’re not quite right, but I’ll keep you in mind.” And I was like, sure. But he actually did.
“All Together Now” is something that touched my heart as soon as I read the script. I related so personally to Amber coming from a single-parent household myself — she’s so hopeful and also has big dreams and passions in music. It just felt like the perfect role for me. The script also had a beautiful ability to connect this hope to realism. We get to see her be a little bit more real about how difficult it is to be an optimist all the time.
Q: On NBC’s “Rise” in 2018, you played another student dealing with hardships in her home life. Did you find there were similarities between “All Together Now” and the show?
A: I’m blessed to have played strong women. I got to start off with Moana, who goes where her parents haven’t gone before, and I felt that way also with Lilette from “Rise.” She has that musical influence and wants so much more for her life and isn’t afraid to call people out sometimes. And now I get to play Amber, and she had music, but that wasn’t only her story. I hope I get to continue that trajectory of strong women.
Q: Even though you’ve done several live-action projects since “Moana,” this is really the first feature film where we’re seeing your face. What has that transition been like?
A: It’s very nerve-wracking. I had a bit of a knack for voice-over, because I’d been singing for such a long time — I was in my school choir and my church choir. This is very different. My face is in every scene. I have to really thank my director for being so collaborative and allowing me to find my character’s voice, even allowing ad-libbing. The cast was also fantastic — we have a cast that’s non-neurotypical and differently abled, so these real relationships also get to shine on this screen.
Q: This film has some really emotional moments and certainly dives into some dark places for your character. How did you approach those scenes?
A: “All Together Now” runs the full gamut of emotions — there are the socioeconomic positions that people of color might be in and the mental health struggles as well that stem from that. There’s also so much more compassion that can be shown to these individuals, and we see from Amber that her upbringing causes her a little bit of shame, which keeps her reality a secret from many of her close friends. They aren’t easy topics to talk about.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges?
A: This being my first film, I was very, very nervous. I also moved to Portland for about two months, and that was the longest I’ve ever been away from my mom. In a way, I felt like I was truly an actor for the first time because, at the end of each day, I had nothing left. I came home to my cat and I went to bed. But it felt great.
Q: There’s an original song in the film that your character sings — what was it like shooting that scene?
A: “Feels Like Home” is such a beautiful song, written by Keegan DeWitt. I remember we got together, and he was like, “What key do you want to sing it in?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I get to choose that?” Brett Haley got most of the song in one take, which was really important to him but stressed me out, bro.
Q: There’s another character you share much of your screen time with — Bobby Big Boy, Amber’s (adorable) Chihuahua.
A: We have one dog: the myth, the legend, TinTin. So cute. He is so well-trained, but he’s also an older pup, so we put him in a little sweater or jacket all throughout the film, because we’ve got to keep him warm. I’m carrying him in my backpack, I’m carrying him in my jacket, and with Portland, it’s a little rainy, so I smelled like wet dog a lot.
Q: You also got to work with Carol Burnett.
A: When the name Carol Burnett was whispered, so quietly, as to not disturb the juju, I remember being very excited — “We got Carol!” Which is a direct line from “Annie,” “We Got Annie” — that’s how I knew Carol Burnett, because she played Miss Hannigan, and my mom knew her of course from “The Carol Burnett Show,” so both of us were screaming when we saw the official announcement. She’s so kind, and from an acting perspective, she is so natural.
Q: The film ends on a note where it definitely feels like there is more of this story to tell. Will there be any sort of sequel?
A: I have no idea. This isn’t even me being cutesy about it; I have absolutely no clue. I really love Amber’s story, and I do agree that the way that we leave you in the film, her story isn’t finished. So I don’t know, but I’d be excited to see it.