Dwayne Johnson started his showbiz career as a professional wrestler, and became a legitimate phenomenon during his tenure as The Rock in the 90s. He parlayed that into a successful film career with remarkable ease, shifting from the expected action movie staples (where he evinced a delightful sense of self-effacement) to a diverse array of roles and projects. He voices the demigod Maui in Disney’s new animated movie Moana. He’s joined by Hawaiian actress Auli’l Cravalho, making her feature film debut as the voice of the title character. They spoke to the press at a recent junket for the film.
Question: You both come from Polynesian cultures. How was it seeing that culture painted on a canvas as big as this?
Auli’i Cravalho: I grew up in a small town on the Big Island of Hawaii, where I literally grew up with pigs and chickens. I am deeply rooted to my culture. I actually go to an all-Hawaiian school where the mythology and the folklore of Maui is in our curriculum and I’ve listened to his stories as bedtime. I’ve grown up with the Aloha Spirit just around me. I’m sure Dwayne can second that. I’m forcing you to talk, big guy. [Laughter.]
Dwayne Johnson: Auli’i just mentioned a term called “Aloha Spirit” and it’s something that is very special, it’s very meaningful to us and our Polynesian culture. It’s an intangible, that when you get off the plane and you have your feet on the ground there, energetically it takes you to a different place. That’s Aloha Spirit. And the opportunity that we had, as Polynesians, to be part of a story and to bring to life a story of our Polynesian culture, was just a really, really special opportunity for us.
Auli’i Cravalho: Absolutely.
Q: Dwayne, how was it singing in a Disney musical?
DJ: It was an opportunity to challenge myself. This was a challenge: the bar is set so incredibly high when you sing in a Disney film. Lin-Manuel Miranda did his research and by the time I got the song, it was in my comfortable range, but there were parts of the song which pushed me a little bit. I appreciated that because that’s what I needed vocally as well. Lin’s pretty amazing. Honestly, I had such a great time, one of the best times I’ve ever had in my career working on this project.
Q: Auli’i, coming into this movie, knowing who you’re going to be working with, having the legacy of a Disney movie and getting to be this empowering heroine, what was that like for you?
AC: This is my first job. [Laughs] It’s just been an incredible journey for me. I’m 15 going on 16. I’m working with the best people in the entire world, who are making a film inspired by my culture, the culture that I have lived every day of my life and that is something so incredibly special, for the rest of the world to see. But as someone who is hoping to continue in show business, I was wondering, how would I continue in this and still be Polynesian? As I hopefully continue in this and as I potentially might leave my home, what does that make me? Does that still keep me Polynesian? Am I still grounded and rooted in the way that I want to be? I think I will. To have a film like this that will inspire me and to have a character that will hopefully inspire others as well, that’s something that inspires me and that I hope will inspire others as well.
Q: What do you two hope your fellow Polynesians will take out from watching Moana?
DJ: Ladies first…
AC: What is this? Hot potato? Jeez. I’m really excited for everyone to see this film. I know my friends are thrilled, my family is thrilled, and I think we’re all very proud of this film. I will admit that before I was working on this film I was a bit wary of it, because I think when anyone thinks of someone making a film inspired by their culture, they want it to be done right. I think that Disney has done a wonderful job. The Oceanic Story Trust that has been put together as well as the research trips that the directors and producer took when on as well, all of that has just created such a wonderful, well-rounded film that I’m excited for my people to see. I’m excited for everyone else to see as well, as they’ll be hopefully inspired to research on our culture, because our culture is, like, awesome. [Laughs] Also that they’ll journey out onto their own missions and to figure out who they are as well.
DJ: Just so everybody knows, like that’s what that was. I feel like, for Polynesian culture, there’s a lot of pride to be had in the film. There was some hesitance from a lot of people in our culture, and rightfully so? What’s going to happen if our culture’s going to be showcased for the very first time on this level, this capacity from Disney? What’s going to happen? I can tell you with great confidence, that our experience has been amazing. Anyone who knows John Lassiter knows that he has manna in his soul and in his body. This was a very important project to him, which is why he sent the guys on this mission for the past five years to do all the research. So I feel like the Polynesian people are going to be incredibly proud of the movie.
But it’s more than that. I think what’s going to touch upon all of us, regardless of where we’re at in the world, where we’re from, cultures, class, religion…. is the voice. Our world today is so full of noise. There’s so much noise that’s happening in our world, but the little voice that you’ve always got to listen to — your gut, your intuition – it’s here in this film. You can do things, you can go beyond boundaries and you have to trust that gut and instinct. Those are the things I feel like our people are going to take away and the rest of the world will take away.