“It’s ‘ow,’ like you stubbed your toe. ‘Lee,’ like Bruce Lee. Then, you add an ‘e.’ Auli’i Cravalho,” she explains (with bonus pantomimes) to PEOPLE in the above video.
The Hawaiian native, who turned 16 on Tuesday (the day before her new movie premieres!), was born on the Big Island and now lives in Mililani on the island of Oahu with her mom, Puanani. The rising star was discovered almost by accident, when Disney talent scouts saw her sing in a YouTube video.
Cravalho, a member of her school’s glee club, gives props to her mom for her strong pipes. “I credit my singing to my mom because she didn’t give me a binky when I was a baby. I cried and screamed for the first six months — my mom would say four years of my life — and I developed wonderful lungs,” she says.
For the first-time actress, performing in the privacy of a sound booth was a welcome introduction to the big screen. “I really like it because when I’m in the studio, I kind of just close my eyes. I don’t have to worry about what I look like too much, and I don’t have to worry about perhaps not moving my eyebrows in the right direction to look sad or something,” she explains.
Plus, when it comes to acting with her voice, Cravalho is a natural. “I’m kind of an animated person,” she adds. “I was given this really big blessing that my voice just kind of carries the emotion.”
In the film, Cravalho plays Moana Waialiki, the high-spirited daughter of the chief of a mystical Polynesian island, who sets sail to an island with a demigod named Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) to help save her family from disaster. The story is full of Disney fantasy, but Cravalho says her character’s journey toward self-discovery — and the fact that she makes that journey alone — is relatable to everyone.
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“Everyone needs to take that time to figure out who they are,” she says. “The fact that there’s no love interests in Moana — it’s all about her — is very relatable. You don’t need another person to help you find yourself.”
Being the same age as her onscreen character, Cravalho says she found Moana to be especially relatable. “It works pretty perfectly, Moana’s 16 in the film … I totally get the fact that she’s going on, yes, a physical journey to find her final destination, but also an emotional one to figure out who she is. I think it’s a universal message and that’s what makes it really special to me.”
Even when she’s not voicing Disney’s newest heroine, Cravalho isn’t your typical teen. She’s not in to social media, saying, “I don’t necessarily like being hidden, but I like doing my own thing and not having everyone know about it.” And when it comes to her driver’s license, the budding actress is happy to do without one — for now.
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“My mom and I had a very intense conversation. I was like, ‘You know I appreciate all the gifts that you’ve given me. You don’t need to give me a car. I have no interests in going on shopping runs. Like, not at all. You can take me where I need to go. We will jam in the car together and when I want to come home, you got to come home with me, okay?’ ”
But with her big screen debut on Wednesday, Cravalho knows her life is about to change forever. Her mom has vowed to help her stay grounded, but the young actress is embracing her newfound “role model” status.
“I carry, of course, such a big responsibility with the Polynesian community and I love it. I really do, and it warms my heart every time I think about it,” she says.
Moana is in theaters now.