'Moana' Star Auli'i Cravalho Talks Upcoming Oscar Performance With 'Genius' Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Auli'i Cravalho arrives at the 15th Annual Visual Effects Society Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 7, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif. 

"I never imagined that at 16 years old I would be having such an amazing experience."

A lot has changed in the span of several months for 16 year old Auli'i Cravalho. A longtime fan of both film and music, Cravalho has always loved the Oscars, and she tells Billboard that in the past, simply watching on live television was “somewhat of a feat" -- considering she was tuning in from Hawaii, and had to time it right.

This year, though, that’s not a concern. At the Academy Awards on Sunday (Feb. 26), the voice actress star of Disney's animated hit Moana will perform the film’s Oscar-nominated song “How Far I’ll Go,” alongside the film’s most notable songwriter: Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

“Lin-Manuel is just a genius,” Cravalho says. “He is so smart, and the way he can portray emotion in lyric, it’s a skill that I honestly can say I don’t have and I think few people can tap into like he does.” She adds how while she has lived in Hawaii her whole life and has grown up immersed in Polynesian culture, Miranda learned as much as he could, so that he could add familiar elements into the music.

Cravalho has been singing “since I came out of the womb, if you count screaming," and sang with both her school and church choir. She became gradually less involved in music, though, until she was cast in Moana. But since then, singing has become much more of a constant -- especially with her Oscar performance days away. 

“I’ve been singing the song non-stop,” she admits. “Our choreography is coming together beautifully, and everything is falling into place like a dream come true. It’s a whirlwind of joy, excitement and oh my god, I’m so nervous!

While the performance will channel the island feel of Moana, Cravalho thinks it will also transcend the film: “It’s distinctly Moana, and at the same time it’s something where people will think, ‘Wow, that is a stunning piece.’”

Cravalho is of course rooting for “How Far I’ll Go” to go all the way and win for best original song -- “It’s such an exciting time for Lin-Manuel, he’s right there and has almost got that EGOT” -- but says she’s also a fan of “City of Stars,” from La La Land, and looks forward to hearing John Legend’s rendition. She also mentions her fandom for Sting (who will perform his song “The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story) and Justin Timberlake, who she met recently and looks forward to seeing again.

As she speaks, glimmers of her character Moana shine through -- her excitement and passion for all that lies ahead is evident in every word.

“I could have never imagined that at 16 years old I would be having such amazing experiences like this,” she says. “I’ve been able to travel around the world and really share what Moana is about. The moral of our story is figuring out who you are, and listening to that voice deep down inside you, and I have been able to connect to that so much. [Moana] has that call for more, and I think for everyone -- no matter if you’re a teenager like me or someone who is in the prime of their lives -- there’s always going to be that call.”

The 89th Academy Awards air Sunday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. ET.

2017 Academy Awards