5 Questions With Rise Stars Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie

From Cardi B to ”Spring Awakening”, get a behind-the-scenes look into NBC’s new theater-themed drama series.

On the new NBC drama series Rise, leading cast members Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie, play two characters from very different worlds. Cravalho, best known as the voice of Disney's Moana, plays Lilette Suarez, a lonely drama club kid, who gets cast as Wendla in her high school's production of Spring Awakening. Gillespie, seen on Broadway in Newsies and Aladdin, plays Robbie Thorne, the starting quarterback who throws the high school into turmoil when he's unexpectedly cast as Melchior.

Inspired by Michael Sokolove's book Drama High, the series from Friday Night Lights and Parenthood creator Jason Katims airs Tuesday nights on NBC. In time for tonight's episode, titled "Victory Party," we caught up with Cravalho and Gillespie for the lowdown on what to expect.

Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie star in the new NBC series Rise.
Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie star in the new NBC series Rise.
(© 2017 NBCUniversal Media, LLC)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

1. Where do we find your characters in tonight's episode?
Auli'i Cravalho: Well, tonight is the night of a house party, which is very exciting for Lilette. As an introvert, she doesn’t get invited to many house parties, and for this one, she actually gets invited by Robbie himself. She loves it. Interestingly enough, there are some new characters that decide to pop up at Robbie's party who aren't initially invited. So you sort of see Lilette fall for Robbie even more, but also realize that maybe she doesn't believe in his world.

Damon J. Gillespie: On the flipside of that, it's football day for Robbie. He's been doing theater and football, and then he has the party afterward…And that's where I will leave that. [laughs]

2. What was your real-life high school theater experience like?
Auli'i: I auditioned and I loved theater. But did I get cast? Did I see the light of day onstage? The answer is no!

Damon: Mine was nonstop rehearsals for musicals and side gigs. I didn't stop rehearsing until after my freshman year of college. I had a three-month period where I wasn't rehearsing a musical onstage, but I was rehearsing something else, or practicing music.

Auli'i: So you were basically nonstop.

Auli'i and Damon: [singing from Hamilton] "The man is Non-stop!"

Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie in the "Victory Party" episode of Rise.
Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie in the "Victory Party" episode of Rise.
(© Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

3. Did you have a theater teacher who changed your life? Who was it and what did that person do?
Auli'i: I didn’t have a theater teacher specifically who changed my life, but I had a wonderful honors biology teacher named Gail Ishimoto. She believed in me, which I think is so important to a person's character, whether that person is in high school, college, or beyond. To have someone believe in you in that kind of way really does change your life. It makes you believe in yourself, that you can go further and do things you never thought possible.

Damon: I want to give a shout-out to my high school theater teacher Mr. Alan Ledford, my college dean, Mr. Sean Kelley, and one of my best and closest friends, Mr. Brooks Ashmanskas. Those three guys are literally why I'm here doing what I'm doing now.

4. If a visitor were to come backstage at Rise, which songs would that person likely hear the cast belting during off-moments?
Auli'i: "Bodak Yellow" by Cardi B. We actually have a dance that goes along with it. Rachel Hilson [who plays Harmony] knows some bomb choreography for that song.

Damon: I think a lot of people were subconsciously singing "Waving Through a Window." [laughs]

5. In a real production of Spring Awakening, which characters would you want to play and why?
Auli'i: Wendla.

Damon: Moritz. Easily.

Auli'i: Moritz? What are you talking about?

Damon: Moritz has some of the best songs. To be so on the edge of exploding is so interesting to me. He has such a dramatic arc. He would be so much fun to play.

Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie share a tender moment in Rise.
Auli'i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie share a tender moment in Rise.
(© Virginia Sherwood/NBC)