Auli’i Cravalho on the Experience of Pasifika Women in Hollywood: “It’s Lonely”

“The reason I’m successful is because I’m passing, straight up,” said producer Naomi Scott, who is Chamorro (Indigenous people of the Mariana Islands), during the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti (PEAK)’s second annual PEAK Conversations panel. It was held on the first day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month last Wednesday night.

“I’m married to a white man who’s famous. I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” added Scott, who is married to actor Adam Scott. “But now that I’m here, I have a responsibility to keep the door open.”

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The experience of Pasifika women in Hollywood was at the center of the discussion in West Hollywood, created to celebrate Pacific Islander filmmaking, entertainment and community.

Scott was joined on the panel by Moana and Mean Girls star Auli’i Cravalho and RuPaul‘s Drag Race season 15 winner Sasha Colby, who are both Hawaiian. “There’s a McKinsey Report that just came out a couple weeks ago which cited that, in 2022, out of 17 Pacific Islander leads, they were played by five men, most of them being people that we love, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa,” said the panel’s moderator, PEAK co-founder and Samoan screenwriter Dana Ledoux Miller (Moana 2, live-action Moana). “What that really highlights is that the women who are so incredibly talented and are gaining a bigger presence in this industry are still being overshadowed.”

For the next hour, the panelists shared about their experience in Hollywood, with Cravalho admitting candidly, “It’s lonely.”

“There are a lot of Asian Americans and not as many Pacific Islanders, and it’s really weird when I do a ‘chee hoo!’ and people go, ‘What?’” explained Cravalho. “It’s a different culture and to group us together — I think that there is strength in numbers, but we are very different.”

Being one of a few has also placed Cravalho in the uncomfortable position of being the go-to authority on all things Pasifika culture, which is unfair, she noted.

“Receiving that role when I was 14, I didn’t fully realize how much would be put on my shoulders,” added Cravalho of the year she was cast in Moana. “For me to be a representative of all the Pacific is simply incorrect, so I look forward to seeing more faces in the crowd, and, importantly, more faces behind the camera, in the writers room, as showrunners, as producers, as industry leaders, because having to answer everyone’s questions is too much.”

Asking questions, however, has become a secret weapon of Scott’s, who’s behind the films Fun Mom Dinner and Other People: “What I do is I get curious. I said this a few years ago to an agency that I was working with: ‘I would love to know who your Pacific Islander clients are.’ And they looked blank-faced and then a light bulb went on, like, ‘Oh, you mean The Rock?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, and? Who else?’ The list came back three or four days later. It was short, but I said I want to meet everyone there, and those have built up into relationships.

“It’s still not enough,” Scott continued, “but what I try to do is step into the conversation and implore everyone to keep asking those questions because if Agent X hears that from 10 people, it makes a bit of a difference. They go from being curious, to then it becomes maybe a priority.”

Rejecting mainstream perceptions of what a Pasifika woman is while embracing her cultural queer identity has been an important aspect of Colby’s journey as a trans woman entertainer.

“In Polynesian culture, where the queerness lies is where community lies, and I found that so quickly after embracing my queerness and realizing my transness and the fact that being māhū [third gender] is something that is innate to our culture,” Colby said. “It’s before Christianity. It’s before television. It’s before any of these things. It’s in our blood and there was space for us and there was a community for us.

“Being a Pasifika woman and representing Pasifika women, we’re stereotyped as being the pretty girl, the femme fatale, the mysterious girl,” Colby added. “All of these things are the only things that people see when they see a Polynesian. Being on the show, I feel like I had a lot of little hurdles, but they weren’t any hurdles that I already hadn’t dealt with in life. I’m about to be 40, and I’ve been doing drag for about 22 years. I’ve been trans for about 20 years, and everything that has happened has literally prepared me to be in the position to represent every woman that I’ve ever met and grew up with and loved and kept in my heart.”

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Cravalho also talked about her queer identity and the line she feels is important to draw between who she is in real life and who she portrays onscreen. “I’ve been able to work on, right now, only one queer rom-com [Hulu’s Crush], and it was really sweet. It wasn’t about a coming-out story and then experiencing heartache. That’s a day. It’s a week. It’s a month, and then you have the rest of your life, and I think showing that onscreen is really important,” she said.

“But, again, to be queen of the gays, to be shipped on the internet with Reneé Rapp because I’m in a film with her, it was a little overwhelming,” Cravalho continued. “So while the representation is important, I also keep that part of my life off of my socials. It’s really important that my personal life is my personal life.”

As each woman discussed the changes they would like to see within the industry, Cravalho also talked about the personal responsibility that comes with her position in Hollywood; namely, choosing not to reprise her role as Moana in the upcoming live-action remake.

“I need to pass this baton on, and I am happy to do it because I look at myself in the mirror, and I don’t look like this character, but I feel this character,” said Cravalho, who later spoke about an even more recent decision not to audition for a role she felt was clearly written for a Black character. “Sometimes roles are not written for you. Do not take them just because you can.”

That decision underscored the larger discussion throughout the evening of the need for the industry to make space for Pasifika women to tell their own unique experiences onscreen.

“We are storytellers,” said Colby. “We are our stories. We found ways to make them a spoken language, we made poems, we made songs to remember them, and then we created dances to go with those songs. That’s all we are known to do. So to not have our representation fully explored in Hollywood is a detriment to Hollywood and a detriment to the human existence.”

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