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Meet Auli'i Cravalho, teen star of Disney's 'Moana'

She talks about her love for "Mulan," her changed life and her beloved stray cat.

Auli’i Cravalho was just a teenager from Hawaii before she scored the lead role in “Moana.” She performed at her school’s Concert Glee Club, she studied for her AP and she liked to dance the hula. When word came that Disney was searching for teenage girls for their latest animated film — an ocean adventure set centuries in the past, about a girl who sets sail by herself to save her island from destruction — Cravalho wasn’t even going to audition. But she did, and all of a sudden a Disney fanatic has found herself becoming a bona fide Disney princess, sharing vocal space with no less than Dwayne Johnson.

Bubbly and friendly, Cravalho — who turns 16 the day before “Moana” hits theaters — talks to us about her dramatically changed life, being inspired by “Mulan” and her adorable, fat stray cat.

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How much has your life changed since making “Moana”?
It hasn’t changed that much. Finding a balance between school and this incredible blessing is a little tough. [Laughs] I’m still doing homework, whether it’s on a plane or in a hotel room. My friends have changed just a little bit. They’ve started calling me “Moana” instead of Auli’i. My teachers call me that, too. But they’re so proud and supportive. Even though I’m across hundreds of miles of ocean, I still get Skyped and texts. That’s all I could have ever hoped for. But I am missing my cat right now.

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What kind of cat do you have?
Oh my god. [Laughs] I have a domestic shorthair tortoiseshell cat. She’s a stray.

So you found her?
Sort of. My childhood friend found a stray cat, but she was moving. So I took her. She’s become my lovable fat kitty who I feed too much. [Laughs] She falls over a lot and makes me laugh.

I don’t want to assume you watched a lot of Disney films growing up.
Oh no, you can assume.

Which were your favorites?
“Mulan” was definitely my first Disney love. I thought she was so empowering. I thought she just broke a gender norm. I realized that at a young age. Perhaps I didn’t voice it as “she broke a gender norm.” [Laughs] But I knew she was really special. She understood what was needed of her and she went out and honored her family in such an immense and beautiful way.

Disney has always been good at that: Their animated films have always tended to be about strong women, including Moana.
Absolutely. Moana is such a beautiful heroine. She’s gorgeous inside and out. She’s strong, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t also deep and emotional as well. She’s sentimental and kind and selfless for her people, the way she would journey out into the sea. She had no idea how to do what she did, but she did it. She went out to save them, and also find herself. I think that’s universal. Someone as young as I or younger or even a gentleman like yourself — everyone can take something away from that.

I can’t imagine doing what she does. It sounds terrifying.
Face your fear! Actually, that’s bad advice, never mind. [Laughs]

So I shouldn’t journey into the ocean on a raft I made myself?
You can do that, but I suggest you bring a Master Wayfinder. That’s my only advice. [Laughs]

How did you take to the voicework? It’s a strange form of acting: standing in a booth, usually by yourself.
It was definitely a learning curve. This was my first ever film, besides backyard plays, produced and directed by me, thank you very much. But this was entirely new to me. To get into that booth and realize I don’t have Dwayne [Johnson] to bounce off of, to say these lines over and over and over again, making them slightly different each time — it was interesting. I will forever remember my time in that little, cold recording booth.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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