Moana is the latest in a long line of successful, culture-specific animated films from Disney. We spoke with Rachel House, the voice of Gramma Tala, about how the flick brings everyone together.

Young Moana is the daughter of the village Chief, and has been chosen as the one to hunt down the Heart of Te Fiti – stolen by the Demigod Maui – in order to restore fertility to her island home.

While not the first Disney film to feature an Islander vibe, Moana does a wonderful job of capturing what it’s like to live as a part of a tribe.

“This movie is about Ancient Polynesia – we all started off there together,” observes Rachel House, the voice of Moana’s Gramma Tala. “Moana is such a great reminder of that. What I loved is that the writers and directors and everyone else did their research around the contemporary Polynesia to figure out how [humanity] must have been back then.”

Being an animated film, all of the actual ‘acting’ (recording) is done solo, meaning that despite their seemingly close onscreen relationship, House rarely got the opportunity to spend time with Moana’s voice actress Auli’i Cravalho in real life. In actual fact, the pair only met twice.

“We met for about five minutes one day at the studio, and it was such a beautiful moment to be able to meet such a gorgeous young girl.”

House has nothing but praise for the 16-year-old, for whom Moana is her debut role. “We met again at the premiere, which was such a crazy night and we barely spoke. Auli’i was very busy all night. It was her birthday, so we had a few celebrations for her. It’s funny how in an animation it can seem like the cast all know each other when in reality, you barely ever get to see each other. It’s a strange experience, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Being a Disney film, you can expect many a catchy musical number from Moana. A STACK favourite, ‘I Am Moana’, just so happened to feature House’s character, even though it wasn’t her personal favourite.

“I’ll have to be kinda disloyal to Auli’i and Dwayne [Johnson] here because I think they were absolutely fantastic, but my favourite song was ‘Shiny’. I’m not only very close with Jemaine [Clement], but I’m also a very big fan of him and his work. I adore him, so ‘Shiny’ was a highlight for me. It’s such a brilliantly written song, a great ode to David Bowie, who was one of my heroes. I didn’t mean to make a pun!” she laughs. “As far as the recording itself went, that was absolutely terrifying. I’ve been acting for ages, so being in the recording booth never bothers me anymore, but with this I was a bit of a mess. For ‘I Am Moana’, Lin [Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer] had Skyped in, and he was watching me and giving notes. I looked back at the computer at one point and he was gone, but later on he’d said that I was fine – I was worried he’d left because he thought I’d ruined his song!”

Despite her youthful appearance, House has a history of being cast as endearing elderly characters in films, and it’s hard not to fall in love with Moana’s ‘village crazy lady’ Gramma Tala.

“I have been cast as old ladies since I was in my very early 20s. I guess I just have that vibe about me. In many ways, I guess I’ve had 25 years of preparation,” she offers with a giggle. “Of course, New Zealand has no shortage of inspiring, elderly Maori women for me to embrace. I’ve actually played a 160-year-old woman before – this was pretty much a walk in the park.”

Moana releases on March 29 on DVD and Blu-ray.