Auli'i Cravalho was 14 years old when she won the part of Moana, Disney's newest animated "heroine" — not to be confused with the word "princess." Moana finds adventure rather than a prince, learning the ancient and long-abandoned craft of wayfinding in order to save her people from a darkness that descends on her Hawaiian village. Cravalho, whose ancestors were also Hawaiian wayfinders, brings an authentic voice to the ambitious project, which took its creators through years of research trips to various corners of Oceania and enlisted a team of anthropologists, linguists, master navigators, and cultural advisers in order to build a film with genuine Hawaiian roots.

The bubbly Cravalho, now almost 16, was born in Kohala, Hawaii, and is a self-described "country gal."

"Like climbing avocado trees and planting tomatoes," she explains. She's also an avid paddle boarder and feels at home in the water, though she confesses, "I'm incredibly clumsy on land."

Premiering November 23, Moana marks Cravalho's first entrée into the world of professional performance. Though it's uncharted territory for her, she's relishing the off-screen adventure that is now supplementing her spunky character's on-screen one. "I've gotten to travel to California," she said during a sitdown interview at the Disney headquarters in New York City. "I'd only been in California prior to Moana for a layover. I never dreamt that first of all I'd be anywhere in this industry...I'm still pinching myself."

Auli'i Cravalho performs the voice of the title role in Disney's newest animated film Moana.
(© Disney)

Before Moana, had you ever acted professionally?
No. I did backyard plays though. My mom says I'm the best at those.

Did you grow up with musical theater?
I grew up in a small town, so we didn't have too much musical theater — like where we could go down to watch a show. But I am part Malaysian, so on my mom's side, we'd jam on ukuleles and guitars. And then on my dad's side I'm Puerto Rican and Portuguese, so we have katchi katchi music and more guitars. I grew up pretty musical.

So how did Moana land on your radar?
I go to Kamehameha schools, which is a school that is specifically created for those of Hawaiian descent, so everyone was excited to try out. But as it turned out, my friends and I were trying out to become the entertainment at another nonprofit event, so we had put together an audition — an a cappella one where we had these great harmonies and beatboxing. We didn't get it, but the woman who was going through those auditions, Rachel Sutton, was the casting director for Disney. So she saw the audition and contacted me and asked if I wanted to try out for Moana, and I said yes and it kind of worked out. Can you imagine if I had said no?!

What did you sing for your audition?
I sang "At Last I See the Light" [from Tangled]. I hadn't prepared more than that, but then Rachel was like, "Do you know any Hawaiian songs?" So I ended up singing two Hawaiian songs and I chanted "Oli," which is a traditional Hawaiian chant. So I brought that all to the table. I remember being so thrilled because the audition was at the Hawaii Five-0 casting office and I was like, "Oh my gosh, whatever comes out of this I don't even mind because I've made it. I'm at the casting office of Hawaii Five-0.

A movie still from Moana, featuring the characters Moana (played by Cravalho) and the demigod Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson).
(© Disney)

How did you find out you got the part?
I found out on camera. My aunt actually took me into the quote unquote "second callback." They had me do more ad-lib, and they were like, "Can't you say it happier? Say it like we gave you the role." And I'm like, "That puts it into perspective! OK, let's bring it up a notch!" and I did pretty well. After that they told me I'd be playing the role of Moana, and I just was overjoyed. I had to call my mom of course, and my aunt was crying in the corner trying not to hug me on camera. It still gives me goose bumps when I think about it because I was just so happy. And they said, "OK, but you can't tell anyone." And I'm like, "I have to go back to summer school and I can't tell anyone?" We kept it a secret for at least four months. You can tell by my hands I'm a very loud and vocal person so…

…Not telling anyone was difficult.
Definitely. When I came back to summer school I was like, "Oh yeah, I went to the dentist." [laughs] I had to talk about alleles and microbiology stuff and I was just all over the place.

What are you most excited for people to discover about Moana?
I think a lot of times when people think of a movie about a girl that's made by Disney they're like, "Oh, princess. I'm gonna take my daughter to see that." But I think that the message of Moana is really universal because Moana's journey, although physical across thousands of miles of ocean, is also very emotional. She is finding out who she is, and that's something that everyone can take from it.

What about the Hawaiian culture are you excited to share with Disney's huge audience?
The Polynesian culture is amazing. And I think it's specifically wonderful that they're bringing light to wayfinding, because that's something that my ancestors really did do. They navigated by the stars. For thousands of years, this is how we journeyed. This is how we made our homes in the Hawaiian Islands. So the fact that Disney has taken five years and taken these research trips and gotten cultural advisers and really understood our culture and made something that was inspired by it— It's wonderful. I'm so proud to be working on it.

I think the Aloha Spirit is something that a lot of people talk about when they go to Hawaii or they go to Oahu, but it's something really practiced. It's thinking about more than just yourself. And when you're smiling on the streets to someone, it's passing that happiness that you feel to them. It's something that I notice some people have and others don't, so wherever I go I try to share it.

Moana opens in theaters November 23.
(© Disney)