Teenager Auli'i Cravalho Dishes About Role as Disney's New Heroine, Moana: 'I'm Just Being Myself!'

Hawaiian honors student Auli'i Cravalho, 14, will voice Disney's Moana

Photo: Hugh E. Gentry/Disney

In preparation for its next animated movie Moana, Disney changed the life of a 14-year-old Native Hawaiian girl named Auli’i Cravalho by casting her as the voice of the adventurous heroine.

The high school sophomore talked exclusively to PEOPLE about landing the coveted role of Moana, who sets sail 2,000 years ago and meets up with a demigod named Maui, to be voiced by Dwayne Johnson.

She’s a Native Hawaiian.

Born on the Big Island of Hawai’i, Cravalho (who’s also part Puerto Rican) lives in Mililani on the island of Oahu with her mom Puanani, an administrative assistant. She attends the Kamehameha Schools – an educational system that was created to emphasize local heritage and culture. When she’s not attending her honors classes, she performs in the school’s Concert Glee Club as a soprano.

Of all the Disney heroines, Cravalho relates most to Ariel, the Little Mermaid.

“When I was younger I lived on Hawai’i, in the small town of Kohala. It was beautiful there!” explains Cravalho. “There were the trees and rolling green hills. It was beautiful and quaint but at the same time, I always wanted to just venture out. It wasn t necessarily as difficult as it was for Ariel to give up her voice and walk on land, but it was still a challenge for me to change schools and change the place I had known so much, to go to someplace totally different. But in the end I m really glad that I did!”

Lots of girls from her high school auditioned for Moana, but Cravalho wasn’t one of them


“It was really exciting to see all the YouTube videos that were coming in,” recalls Cravalho. “A few of my friends actually flew out to Disneyland to try out … I was getting through freshman year, I was settling in really well and I had many things on my plate. And there were already so many great submissions that I didn t think I needed to try out.”

Cravalho looked for local opportunities instead – like a video contest with her friends to benefit a local charity. She and her friends sang a mash-up of songs.

“It was something kind of small and we were all just enjoying it. We didn t get into the actual showcase that was planned but the person who was going through the videos contacted my mom and she said that Disney was still looking for someone to play the role of Moana.” She was whisked to L.A. to audition for directors Ron Clements and John Musker (the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) – and landed the part.

Her favorite star is Audrey Hepburn.

“My mother always said to carry yourself with dignity and pride, and I just think Audrey Hepburn totally epitomizes that, you know?” Cravalho says. “From such a young age she was dancing ballet. There was a lot going on in her life…that was during the time of the Nazis. When she made it big as a movie star, she was very involved with people who were less fortunate than her and she tried to make their lives better. She was so much more than just a pretty face. She was really a beautiful person on the inside.”

Voicing a Disney character comes naturally.

“I m just being myself, really. I m very animated when I talk so luckily that comes out over the recording. If I m jumping up and down, it ll sound like I m jumping up and down. I don t really have to fake anything in the recording studio.”

The next time she’s in L.A., Cravalho has some serious sightseeing to do.

“I think I d want to see the Hollywood sign, that s for sure. I ve never seen that yet,” says Cravalho. “And oh please, please, please, can I go to Disneyland?”

We’re pretty sure that can be arranged, Moana!

For much more about Moana, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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