This interview contains mild spoilers for All Together Now, streaming on Netflix August 28.
All Together Now’s Amber Appleton (Auli’i Cravalho) has a secret. For several months now, she and her mother Becky (One Day At A Time’s Justina Machado), have been illegally living out of a school bus after getting evicted from their home. Still, Amber goes about her day, volunteering at a Portland nursing home before school, waking her best friend up in time for school (Atypical’s Anthony Jacques), studying for the straight As she needs for college, organizing the yearly variety show for charity, and working the night shift at a local donut shop. She’s barely getting by, but the optimistic and musically gifted teen doesn’t want her living situation to color the way those around her perceive her. She doesn’t want to be labeled.
Cravalho knows something about that. After recently coming out as bisexual in a TikTok video where she lipsynced to Eminem’s "Those Kinda Nights," she now has more labels slapped onto her than she knows what to do with. “I’m a Latinx, Pacific Islander who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community, and a young woman trying to make her way in Hollywood,” she told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the film’s release. “Oh my.”
The 19-year-old has been navigating how other people perceive her since she was cast to voice the lead in Disney’s 2016 Moana. Then just 15, Cravalho bore the burden of heavy expectations as the studio’s first-ever Polynesian Princess, a role she followed up with her turn as Lilette Suarez on NBC’s short-lived coming-of-age series Rise. All Together Now — which stars Cravalho alongside an ensemble cast that includes Machado, Judy Reyes, Fred Armisen, Rhenzy Feliz, Gerald Isaac Winters, Taylor Richardson, and Carol Burnett. — is her first live-action film, and it’s a chance for Cravalho to carve out a space for herself that’s really and truly her own.
Amber’s story isn’t an easy one. When we meet the high school senior, she’s working two jobs to save up for an apartment for herself and her mother, who is recovering from alcohol addiction and can’t seem to shake her abusive relationship. But Amber is also nursing ambitions for her future. Her father died when she was 12, leaving her a treasured and well-worn Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, his adorable dog Bobby Big Boy, and a dream of pursuing a career in music.
Echoing the tough challenges that face her character, Cravalho’s journey to the Netflix movie began in disappointment. She had originally auditioned for director Brett Haley’s previous project, All The Bright Places, only to be told she wasn’t right for the role. “Like all actors, I really wanted it,” she said.
Still, Haley said, he’d keep her in mind for the next one. “I was like Okay I’m never going to hear from this guy again,” Cravalho joked. Then came the call for All Together Now, based on Matthew Quick’s 2010 YA book, Sorta Like A Rockstar.
“I really connected to Amber and appreciated this more gritty storyline of this young girl who has so many passions while still growing up in an unstable home and having to learn to rely on her friends,” Cravalho said. “Instead of giving help, she has to learn to ask for help, and that’s something that really resonated with me.”
Refinery29: Are you someone who has trouble reaching out for help?
Auli’i Cravalho: "I’m 19, so a lot of my thinking is I can do it myself, and if I can’t do it by myself, maybe it isn’t right for me. I depend on the universe much more than I depend on my close friends for some strange reason. I’m like, Well, if it doesn’t work out, it’s fate. [But] my friends are like, you can ask for help, you know that right? So I definitely relate to that. It’s really hard to be vulnerable to those who are really close to us. I hope this film shows that although it is difficult, life is not meant to be walked alone. When the burden gets heavy, please allow other people to carry the load with you.”
This movie deals with pretty dark subject matter. What was your reaction to finding out Amber is homeless?
“I really loved that we didn’t shy away from that topic. What I got out of that is that while she is certainly not growing up in a supportive environment for the things that she wants to accomplish, she’s still such a great friend has these passions. She has so much light and so much hope, and I love that we can still focus on that while not shying away from the fact that there is childhood homelessness. Something I also really connected with is the shame that Amber feels of her background, of not having much money. That’s something I hope people also notice. We shouldn’t have to feel shame for our upbringing. The challenges that we face don’t hold us back from our accomplishments. Amber’s life is still so bright in spite of the challenges.”
Amber’s relationship with her mother is so complex. How did you approach that?
“Justina Machado is an amazing actress, and she really embodied this mother role. She feels like a mom. We instantly clicked from our first chemistry reads together. I grew up in a single parent household with my mom, so I understand mother-daughter relationships are so unique. We know each other so well, down to the hairs on each other's head, and buttons we can push to get different reactions out of each other, but also the feeling that it’s just the two of us against the world. That’s something that really struck a chord with me.”
Director Brett Haley compared the movie to Good Will Hunting or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in the sense that it handles dark subject matter while also being very watchable. Both of those movies are about white men — do you think it’s significant to have a woman of color be at the center of this kind of movie?
“Those films were actually part of a long list of films that I got from Brett Haley that he called our Hero Films. They somehow embodied either the heart of the character, or the soundtrack was really great. I think diversity and inclusion in casting is really important, so I’m proud that my cast consists of differently abled and non-neurotypical and people of color. Even Ty, who’s played by Rhenzy Feliz, he’s from a different economic level than Amber is, which is also kind of rare to see in film. I do notice the difference, and I think it’s really beautiful that we see that on screen, because it’s about damn time.”
What other movies were on that list?
“I literally have it starred in my email. I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and he also sent me a playlist from Spotify. Say Anything, Silver Linings Playbook, Happy Go Lucky, Good Will Hunting, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Pieces of April, Lady Bird, Love, Simon, About A Boy, Rudy, The Squid and the Whale, You Can Count On Me, Rust & Bone, Beginners, and Manchester By The Sea. He gave me serious homework. I grew up without TV, and we would get into conversations and he’d say, ‘You’ve watched this,’ and I’d say no. It was like film school, in a way.”
Speaking of learning opportunities, you got to work with a legend on this project. What was it like meeting Carol Burnett?
“A dream! She’s incredible. From an acting perspective, [I loved] being able to watch her work and see how she’s graceful in scenes. I was able to learn from her. But also seeing how she presented herself to the crew and the cast — she asked everyone’s names and was just wholly the kind of good person that you would hope she is. She goes above and beyond. We all know why she’s a legend, and she continues to be one because she’s also a really good person. What a concept!”
It’s ironic but also fitting that the movie is coming out at a time where connection with others is a real concern. How have you been spending this time in quarantine?
“This press and the release of this film has been a godsend, truly. I have gotten so in my head about everything, but also about my career. The industry is so up and down before you add a global pandemic. I suppose this is where the passion really comes into play. I realized that I do really love acting, and I didn’t know that I loved it so much until it was taken away from me. But it’s like, Okay, I get it now. I love it. Can you bring it back, please!”
You came out as bisexual over TikTok in April, right in the middle of lockdown. Was the timing a coincidence?
“I’ve been bi since I was in middle school. I wasn’t afraid of it; I had girlfriends in high school. It wasn’t something I felt like I needed to come out as. I was initially genuinely just supposed to be a cheeky TikTok video. I feel like most of gay Twitter knew that I was part of that. It wasn’t necessarily the biggest release. But the timing of i, in lockdown meant that no one was doing anything, so every single outlet in the United States picked up on the fact that Omg she’s bi! At the end of the day, I just lip synced to an Eminem song, it’s not that big of a deal. But I now have to navigate yet another label, which is really interesting. It’s not that complicated. I’m a young woman who really enjoys film and I’m making a career.
“At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of really sweet comments across social media, like, ‘Wow, I really appreciate you coming out because this has inspired me to do the same.’ Seeing my impact on others will always surprise me.”
Does it feel like you have a huge responsibility to your fans now, though?
“I felt that way from the beginning with Moana. I knew that my life would change, and that being a public figure at such a young age meant that these things would happen. These things that I thought would just be for me, these posts I genuinely have fun making have a lot more backing to them. More people are seeing them. I think with my social media, I’ve tried to stay as true to myself as I can. I do have a tendency to be a social justice warrior myself, so I have to walk that fine line between saying exactly what I want to say and being transparent, and then taking perhaps a safer route and not saying anything at all. I’m not ready for the comments that I may or not receive regarding my own opinions or my own personal politics. I’m 19. I’m still figuring it out. I’ll make mistakes. But the internet isn’t the most forgiving place for that.”
How do you think you’ve evolved as a performer since Moana?
“ I’m so grateful for my beginnings in voice acting and of course, being able to play such a beautiful, strong heroine. This kind of felt like the next step. This is actually my first live- action film. After playing Moana, I got to play another really amazing character, Lilette in NBC’s Rise, and now I’m playing Amber, someone who is so multifaceted. Our film is about her hardship and still focused on her hope. She sings beautifully, but that’s not all she is, and I hope to continue playing these sharp leading ladies.”
Have you felt like there’s room in the industry for you to carve out that path?
“Absolutely. Now that there are more female writers, I think we’re going to have more well-written female roles. It’s as simple as that. I’m really looking forward to the future of films.”
Is writing or directing something you’d ever want to pursue yourself?
“Yeah, I’ve thought of it more. I obviously don’t have any formal training, but then again I didn’t have any formal training in acting either. It’s equal parts the universe being in perfect alignment, and also you just gotta do the damn thing. I’m going to try my best at it.”