On the new NBC drama Rise, Auli’i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie play high school students just discovering their latent vocal talents as their drama club embarks upon a controversial production of the folk-rock musical Spring Awakening. In real life, of course, the duo are far from musical neophytes: Cravalho was the voice of the titular heroine in Disney’s Moana (her recording of the film’s anthem “How Far I’ll Go” reached No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100), and Gillespie is a veteran of Broadway shows including Newsies and Aladdin. The two young stars dropped by the Billboard on Broadway podcast recently to chat about their onscreen transformations and taking on a cult-favorite musical on Rise.
As Cravalho and Gillespie reveal, they came to Rise from quite disparate backgrounds: Though she always loved performing, Cravalho grew up far from Broadway in Hawaii, while Gillespie “despised pop music for the longest time” and absorbed show tunes exclusively, until he realized he should expand his tastes to “regular person music.” They didn’t meet until their first rehearsal — Cravalho was the first actor cast on Rise and Gillespie the last — but found they had instant and easy chemistry.
Performing for the screen, often live, comes with its own challenges far different from those related to recording for animated film (Cravalho) and performing onstage (Gillespie). “I’m used to relying on my body, so it was very nerve-racking,” Gillespie says. “Performing is incredibly nerve-racking for me. But by the time episodes 2 and 3 came, it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ But it’s my first pilot, my first leading role — it felt like there was much more at stake. There’s so much you just want to get right.” Cravalho agrees: “You have to be your own biggest supporter; you need to know your music to the point where you can sing it blindfolded, walking backwards, even when your voice isn’t top-notch. It’s so important to have that vocal stamina, because we sing everything live in addition to in the studio.”
In their chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Cravalho and Gillespie discuss how they approach playing high school students, their own personal connections to Spring Awakening and much more.