Auli’i Cravalho is amused. It’s a gray, dreary day in Los Angeles and the rain has just begun to pour, livening up an otherwise mundane January afternoon. “One of the few times L.A. actually rains is one of the days that I’m here,” she says, chuckling over the phone, the sound of the soft pitter-patter providing a calming effect to a hectic day for the young star.
And there’s a lot to smile about if you’re Cravalho. Within the last three years, her stardom has risen to unimaginable heights, first with her breakthrough role as the titular Disney princess in 2016’s Moana, and now, as a lead on Jason Katims‘ musical drama series, Rise. The whirlwind success isn’t lost on the Hawaii native; though she may sign a few more autographs or do a few more interviews, she’s still Auli’i, a 17-year-old high school student worried about her next exam.
It helps that there are parallels from Cravalho’s real life to the fictional world of Rise, inspired by Michael Sokolove‘s 2013 book Drama High, about small-town drama teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), who galvanizes an entire community through the staging of a school musical. In the series, Cravalho plays Lillette Suarez, the quiet talent raised by a single mother who finds her voice, literally, when she goes through several knee-buckling experiences in life and love.
“Lillette is really amazing. I relate to her in so many different ways,” Cravalho says. For starters, they’re both around the same age. They’re both singers. They’re both searching for their footing in the world. They’re both wide-eyed and hopeful for what the future brings.
While Cravalho may be an old pro at being in the spotlight, Lillette is less prepared. “She hasn’t necessarily been in the spotlight before and she’s not used to getting all the attention, but she’s also excited about new challenges,” Cravalho says. “She knows that the only way she can get out of a small town and get rid of the small-town mindset is to work hard. She’s working to rise above her situation and her circumstances however she can.”
“It’s really a year of growth for Lillette within the first season,” she adds. “It’s exciting to see her come of age in so many different ways. I can honestly say that I’m growing up right along with her.”
One key relationship Cravalho connected with is the deeply complex, often frustrating dynamic Lillette shares with her single mother, Vanessa (Shirley Rumierk), whose secret affair with a married football coach comes out in the open, threatening to destroy their fragile bond. It’s a crushing mother-daughter story that Cravalho — who was raised by a single mother herself — considers one of the show’s most significant relationships that’s explored over the course of the 10-episode season.
“When I initially read the script, back when it was still called Drama High, I was drawn in by the fact that it was so real. I don’t think anyone really has the perfect relationship with their parents,” she recalls. When it comes to Lillette and Vanessa, the child is often the parent — and that role reversal was particularly striking for Cravalho to portray, if only because her relationship with her own mother couldn’t have been more different. “I have an incredible mother who raised me so well, and I’m seeing the effects of that as I’m coming through this industry [doing] something that I did not know that I would be doing,” she says. “But I can see that how I was raised really has changed everything.”
There’s a chance, if Rise gets the go-ahead for a sophomore season, that Lillette’s absentee father could come into the fray. “You never know what you’re missing when you don’t have it,” she says. “[Lillette] knows what she’s got with her mother, but they’re trying their best and she’s finding that some things work, some things don’t. They’re both trying to get through the day and make it to the next. I don’t think they’ve ever really considered a father figure because it’s two of them against the world. I’m really grateful for that mindset, that it’s just the two of them and they’ll make it work no matter what.”
It wouldn’t be a high school drama without a blossoming flirtation. In the series, it’s established early on that Lillette and the school’s quarterback, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), have a mutual attraction that begins innocently enough — a study session here, a rehearsal for the musical there. As the season progresses, however, their burgeoning romance, told against the backdrop of the musical production they’re both starring in, becomes a major source of tension at school and at home.
“Everyone gravitates toward him, so I’m sure that’s what grabs Lillette’s eye,” Cravalho says of Robbie’s pull. “But as we delve deeper into each of the characters, you learn that nothing is really as it looks on the surface. Nothing is peachy keen or perfect.” Not only does Robbie have his own familial matters to attend to — he’s the main caregiver for his mother, who is hospitalized with a debilitating disease — he’s far more than just the curly-haired jock rolling deep with his football pals. “As they’re both new to the theater program, they’re able to grow into each other in that way. I think people find that that’s a strength, [and] having someone to confide in is something that they both need. Lillette really finds strength in having someone like Robbie to start a friendship and a relationship with.”
As Rise marks Cravalho’s first onscreen role ever, her nerves were at an all-time high when it came time to dive into the intimacies of a teenage romance. Thankfully, it was the same for her character, making her job of awkward first kisses slightly easier. Slightly. “I can’t tell you how nervous I was before shooting and in between scenes, if things were coming across right on camera,” she says, a slight exasperation evident in her voice. “Damon is fantastic. He’s kind and he’s patient. Although I’m new at this, I couldn’t ask for a better partner in Damon.”
She may have less than five acting credits to her name (at the moment), but Cravalho already has worked with some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Lin-Manuel Miranda on Moana; Katims on Rise). Her refreshingly humble perspective on her rising stardom, though, is what truly sets her apart, along with her ability to focus on what’s important.
“I am so proud to be working on this show. Nothing connects us more than heartache and true love and true happiness. All these things are real life and that means, for some reason, touching on touchy subjects,” Cravalho says. “When we get real, everyone gets a bit [uncomfortable], I think. We represent a modern high school that includes students of diverse backgrounds and life experiences. I am really lucky to be a part of the process. I cannot wait for everyone to relate to some aspect of our show because it touches upon all levels and it’s beautiful.”
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.