rita moreno ariana debose west side story anita
On Moreno: Tom Ford skirt; Alaïa belt; Top and jewelry, her own. On DeBose: Prabal Gurung jacket and pants; Commando bralette; Bulgari earrings.
Alessandra Sanguinetti

It is a daunting task to step into someone else’s shoes, particularly when that person is well-known—revered even—for a role. Ariana DeBose knew what she was up against when she was cast as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story: She would have to create a new Anita, entirely separate from the one that Rita Moreno had made so iconic. It didn’t help that Moreno would also have a part in the film, in the newly created role of Valentina, the widow of Doc, who owned the corner store where the Jets hung out. In fact, DeBose says that the first time they met, she “had a full-out panic attack.”

While the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim remain unchanged, this new West Side Story, directed by Spielberg, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner and choreography by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, adapts a timeless tale to meet the moment. Unlike in the original, every Latin character is actually played by someone of Hispanic heritage. During filming, historians and lecturers came in to educate the cast about what New York City was like in the 1950s, when the story takes place, to give context to a narrative with many themes—immigration, violence, and the hatred borne from being marginalized—that resonate so strongly today. As a link between then and now, Moreno also served as an executive producer, charting a new course for West Side Story’s legacy, just as DeBose created a new story for Anita. Here, they discuss that first meeting, the past and future of West Side Story, and saying no to Steven Spielberg.

Ariana Debose: I love this because no is my favorite word. You initially told Steven no when he asked you to do the film?

Rita Moreno: I really didn’t say no. I thought that somehow, out of a kind gesture of respect he called to ask if I would be in the movie. I was trying to be very gentle about it. I said, “I just don’t think that a cameo would sit well in this film. It’s not something I do. I’m very flattered, mind you. But I also think it would, in some way, really hurt the movie. It would be a distraction.” And Steven said, “No. It’s a part. It’s a real part.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Oh, yes. Absolutely. And Tony Kushner,” and blah-blah. “Can I read a script?” “Absolutely.” And it was a part. And I wanted to do it.

AD: Amazing.

RM: What I want to know is, what did you think when you met me? It was during a rehearsal. I came to New York, flew in from California where I live, and met all the young dancers. I guess I said, “Where is Ariana?” And you about dropped your teeth.

AD: I did.

RM: You got very shy.

AD: I clammed up.

RM: What happened?

AD: It was really bad. I had a full-out panic attack.

RM: Panicked about what?

AD: Well, I heard you before I saw you. And then you came into the room that we were in, and … I’ve been watching you since I was a child. I was just like, “I’m really excited to do this, and I’m going to tell her I’m really excited to do this.” And then the moment came, and I was like, “Oh, gosh. Maybe I’m not … I don’t know how I feel right now.” And there was nowhere to run.

RM: I really nailed you. It was terrible.

AD: You did.

RM: But I didn’t know you were that shy.

AD: How were you going to know? I’m a social butterfly. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I do have that side of me where I become a wallflower. I like to disappear and watch people. I get my best ideas from watching other people. And then, in that moment, I was not watching other people. They were all watching me.

RM: But that’s okay. Because I remember I said, “Let’s go to lunch.” I thought, maybe we can warm up to each other.

AD: You were just really great about it. You were like, “This is a lot.” There are a lot of other women in this industry who might not have treated me with that type of grace. I’m very grateful that you were as kind as you were.

RM: Well, okay. I’ve plucked myself enough. What was your favorite scene in the original West Side Story?

AD: I love watching you dance at the gym because it was about joy. I loved your joy.

RM: That’s exactly what I loved about Anita too.

AD: What did it mean for you to be a part of the original cast?

RM: I wanted to do the part desperately. I wanted it so badly, I could taste it. I trained because I hadn’t danced [jazz] at the time—and I’m a Spanish dancer anyway. I didn’t even know what jazz was, but that’s what this kind of dance is called. And I remember getting desperate because I did the singing audition, I did the acting audition, but the dance audition, I didn’t do that until later. I called a girlfriend who had played Anita on the road and asked her if she might give some kind of heads-up on the steps. She said, “Sure.” I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I just went over those steps. And the dance assistant, Howard, whose last name I don’t remember …

There are a lot of other women in this industry who might not have treated me with that type of grace.

AD: Dear Howard.

RM: It really sucks to be 89. Only in that sense! Anyway, he was fabulous. I found out years later that [choreographer and codirector] Jerome Robbins, who knew I was auditioning for the dance that day, because they were happy with everything else when I auditioned, said, “How did it go?” And Howard said, “Well, I’ll tell you something. I have a feeling she hasn’t danced in quite some time. But there’s a lot of …”—I think he used the word valor. He thought I was brave.

AD: Of course, you won the Oscar for playing Anita. How do you think it impacted your career trajectory?

RM: It did almost nothing, which broke my heart. I won an Oscar and the Golden Globe—which in that time, by the way, was respected more than it is right now. And I thought, for sure, “Wow, this is going to be incredible. First Latina ever.” And then nothing happened. I was made some offers for gang movies on a lesser scale, but I thought, “No, I’ve done that. I’ve done it, and I’ve done it the best I ever will and could.” So I rejected all that stuff. Then I found I was out of work. And here’s the topper: I went to see Sue Mengers, a very famous, powerful agent who was as tough as nails. I went to her office, and she said, “Well, what can I do for you?” And I said, “Well …” and told her the story. And then in the shyest, most timid way, I asked her, “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in handling me?” And without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “No.” And I said, “Oh.” She said, “Let me tell you something, honey. I don’t think you have it. ” She said, “You don’t have what it takes.” I’m not quoting her exactly because I blotted those words from my memory forever. This hit me like a hammer. And I actually said, “Well, thank you for the interview.” I said thank you to this horrible woman.

AD: That’s fascinating and horrifying.

RM: How do you get over stuff like that?

AD: You actually don’t. It really bothers me that another woman said that to you.

RM: I know. It’s shocking to me even now. Well, tell me something: How do you feel it was working with Steven as the director? Was there anything about him that surprised you?

AD: Two things. I was surprised that he likes Pop-Tarts. He has the eating habits of a 12-year-old. He was like, “Oh, I want a Coca-Cola and a Shake Shack cheeseburger.” He just really wanted the most random things to eat, but it kept him very focused. And I was actually shocked that he was so collaborative. My opinion mattered.

ariana debose rita moreno west side story
On DeBose: Self-Portrait dress; Bulgari rings (throughout); Le Vian rings (throughout).
ALESSANDRA SANGUINETTI

RM: In the original West Side Story, some non-Hispanic actors played Hispanic parts. Skin was definitely, I’m going to tell you, darkened. How did this West Side Story correct for the mistakes of the past? And in what ways do you hope Hollywood continues to change?

AD: Well, I think we start immediately by [the casting]. Every single Latino portrayed on screen is Latino or of Hispanic heritage. And that’s really exciting. Just by allowing Latinos to show up as their authentic selves—

RM: And their own colors.

AD: And their own color. I was like, “Yes, I am a Black woman. I am Afro-Latina. That doesn’t change anything.” It’s really fascinating how society has chosen to view or define what it is to be Latino. Latinos are not a monolith. There’s no one way to present.

RM: That’s for sure. Do you think that this version of West Side Story is as relevant as the original was considered to be when it came out?

AD: I would say it’s more relevant. I think this incarnation of this story takes on a really political view. It holds the system accountable.

RM: Thank you, Tony Kushner.

AD: It does not shy away from how ugly the system is. It’s 100 percent stacked against the Puerto Ricans. But you also see how it’s also stacked against these Irish immigrants. It’s important to see these perspectives, to understand that, yes, this is where hate is born. Because when you push people into the margins and then you penalize them for being in the margins, you get violence. You get anger. That’s how we have ended up in moments that we’re in.

RM: Our past president opened Pandora’s box in that sense. I think this movie, our movie, was done with such respect and affection. I’m so proud to be a part of it.

AD: Me too. I’m really glad I got to do it with you.

RM: So, Ariana, this is not the easiest question in the world to ask—or to answer, for that matter—but what did you feel you had to do to step into the shoes of a role that someone had already done? Was it very important to you to say, “Yeah, but I have to do my Anita”? How did you get to that? Was it difficult?

AD: Well … yes and no.

RM: Your voice got real high.

It’s really fascinating how society has chosen to view or define what it is to be Latino. Latinos are not a monolith.

AD: I think I knew if I was going to even go in to audition for the role of Anita, whoever got this job, that’s what they were up against. The audience knows you. They are attached to you—for very good reason. And I was like, “Well, that could be quite a brick wall.” But I also knew that I had a very specific way that I saw this character, and if this director saw value in that, then I’d be happy to show up and do this. Just by virtue of me being Afro-Lat, that already changes the story a little bit. A lot of the dynamics shift. I knew if he was willing to engage in conversation, that would do it for me.

RM: I went through something similar with Chita Rivera. She made an enormous impact in playing Anita on Broadway. I had several dancers who had been with her doing West Side Story who were not thrilled about my presence at all. I don’t blame them. I can understand that. But I remember feeling not the most welcome.

AD: I felt empowered, actually, from the moment it all began. I was very straightforward with Steven. I don’t know if you know this, but when I met him for one of my first auditions, he asked me to read, and I said no—I told you, my favorite word is no—because I was starring in a Broadway show at the time and they called me at 10 p.m. the night before and asked me to show up to audition for the movie at 10 a.m. the next day. I was like, “I can come in and dance my face off. I know the music because it hasn’t changed.” But I was like, “These scenes are expanded. They’re long. And I don’t feel comfortable going in and butchering it because I haven’t had the time to prepare like everybody else.” He said, “So you’re not going to read?” And I was like, “No, sir.” He said, “Will you come back then?” And I was like, “I’d be honored.” Then he asked me if there was anything else I wanted him to know. That’s when I said, “If you’re going to really consider me for this part, I think you have to be open to discussing that I’m Afro-Lat and putting it in the text.”

RM: I just so love what you did. Good for you.

AD: Thank you. It’s the ballsiest thing I think I’ve ever done. And I’m really glad that I was allowed to stand on my own two feet. Because if I or anyone else who stepped into this role at this moment in time hadn’t had that experience, I don’t know if the Anita of this age would’ve been fully realized. Because that is Anita. She is independent. She knows her own mind.

rita moreno west side story
On Moreno: Tom Ford skirt; Alaïa belt; Top and jewelry, her own.
ALESSANDRA SANGUINETTI
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Fashion Editor: Rebecca Ramsey; Hair (Debose): Takisha Sturdivant-Drew for Matrix; Makeup (Debose): Tamah; Hair And Makeup (Moreno): Elysa Quintella; Production: Darcy Diamond/Production Squad; Prop Styling: James Whitney.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands December 7.

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