“Hello, birthday queen,” Ariana DeBose said, greeting her “West Side Story” castmate Rita Moreno, newly and notably aged 90.
It was Sunday afternoon, and DeBose, 30, was in bed at her home on the Upper East Side, propped up on pillows, her rescue cats, Isadora Duncan and Frederick Douglass, occasionally parading through the Zoom call. Moreno was across the country, at home in Berkeley, Calif., camera-ready above the waist in a red sweater and mega-jewelry, but stealthily in pink pajamas and fluffy slipper socks below. How were her many birthday celebrations? “I’m happy to report that they’re endless,” she said. “I do feel queenly and royal.”
Moreno, who arrived in New York from Puerto Rico in 1936, famously won an Oscar — the first Latina to do so — for playing Anita in the 1961 “West Side Story.” DeBose, who grew up in North Carolina and describes herself as Afro-Latina, is earning critical raves and awards chatter as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s new version, which also features Moreno in the newly created role of Valentina, a shopkeeper.
In a video interview, they spoke about identity, fighting stereotypes and getting notes from Stephen Sondheim, the original lyricist. They both dropped an expletive or two; songs and admiration spilled forth. “I just know this movie is going to make it into the Oscars in many ways,” Moreno said. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Ariana, you’ve said your own identity was important in what you brought to the role. How did you discuss that with the creative team?
DeBOSE It was one of the first things I brought up. My first audition. I didn’t know Steven was going to be there, and I decided to just do what I needed to do, to represent myself well and what I could offer. Toward the end, he asked if there was anything else he needed to know, and I was like, if you’re not interested in exploring the Afro-Latin identity, and finding ways to incorporate it or talk about that, you probably shouldn’t hire me. I didn’t want to feel like I was just checking a box for them, you know. It is a real lived experience, and it’s not something we talk about often. In fact, it wasn’t until my adulthood that I really was able to clock that you can be Black and Puerto Rican — and my mother is white. You can be all of those things. And I’m queer, so there’s a lot going on there. I was very adamant that we should either explore it, or you shouldn’t go down the path with me.
Steven, when we were filming, was like, does this actually feel authentic to you? And if not, we should change it. I could answer from my perspective, of course, but I didn’t grow up in 1957. They brought folks to speak to us who lived in San Juan Hill during this time. There was an Irish gang member, Puerto Ricans who were living on the blocks at the time. Rita and I didn’t really talk about the character a lot, but I found hearing about her lived experiences really helpful.
Did you talk about the legacy of playing Anita?
MORENO I didn’t. There was a very conscious reason. I knew what a delicate position Ariana was in. I wanted her to be absolutely sure that I didn’t impose anything on her. So as a good hostess, I decided to keep some of those thoughts to myself.
What to Know About ‘West Side Story’
Steven Spielberg’s remake of one of Broadway’s most celebrated musicals will be theatrically released on Dec. 10.
She knew the enormity of it. I could see she was a very bright young woman, and there wasn’t a whole lot that I could tell her that would be helpful other than self-serving for myself. I tried very, very hard to help put her at ease and to be as fair as I could with respect to any envy I might have felt — and by the way, I did. I mean, I’d be brain-dead if I didn’t.
Ariana, you’ve said you a mini panic attack when you first met Rita on the shoot. How did you recover?
DeBOSE I’m still recovering. I actually, in my own naïveté, hadn’t clocked that I was going to be in the same room with her. And then the moment came, and I was like, oh, God.
MORENO She was like a little deer in the headlights. I decided to take her to lunch, and then realized how nervous she was. I thought, I really have to do my best to help her relax. What I said was, be your own Anita. Not knowing her well at the time, I didn’t realize that she could only be her own Anita.
What’s your response to critics who say the movie shouldn’t be revived at all because it brings up stereotypes, or it’s not of our era in terms of its origin?
MORENO It does not bring up stereotypes. That’s bull [expletive], pure and unadulterated bull [expletive].
The first time I saw the movie I was so overcome. I started to cry at the mambo at the gym [scene]. I was sitting next to my daughter, and she said, “Mom, why are you crying? This is so joyous.” I said, because Steven got it right. Those shots were incredible, and he got the spirit of what the musical numbers were about.
DeBOSE And that’s why we retell classics. That’s what makes them classic, the ability to be retold and reimagined. You give things historical context so that you can better understand the text, to make it tangible.
MORENO That’s where Tony Kushner [the screenwriter] comes in. He brought in the social elements of something that wasn’t even addressed in the original. That doesn’t make that first effort lesser. It’s still an iconic film. But on the other hand, it is astonishing to me how unfleshed-out the [original] characters were. I don’t think that was deliberate. I think it’s how they [the original creators] saw it.
What was it like having Sondheim around?
DeBOSE He was present, but I actually didn’t have much one-on-one interaction with him. They sent notes through Steven Spielberg — SS2, as he fondly proclaimed himself. Sondheim was SS1, and Spielberg was SS2. So either Jeanine [Tesori, the supervising vocal producer] or SS2 would come in, and we would chat, and then we’d go again, and we’d continue going until SS1 was happy.
He talked about color. I remember when we were recording the Anita section of the [“Tonight”] Quintet, he was like, listen to that [imitating spiraling music]. That’s the color you’re going for, and then let the vocal fly.
MORENO And that’s [singing], “Anita’s going to get her kicks, tonight …”
DeBOSE Yes. The last half of it, he was like, go for something completely different. He talked with many of us just about being confident: Own your vocal. Which, I’ll be honest, was never really my issue — being confident. It was just finding the right thing because this vocal can go in a lot of different directions. What color am I singing here? I believe I went for magenta.
The scene when Anita goes to Valentina’s shop and is attacked by the Jets is one of the most emotional in the film. It is obviously so dark, and so many different themes come up — gender, race, class. How did you talk about or prepare for it?
DeBOSE There was a rehearsal day, and we had an intimacy coordinator there.
MORENO What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of this before. It’s fascinating to me.
DeBOSE A person who makes sure that we’re all comfortable with what’s going on.
MORENO It means you don’t touch certain places?
DeBOSE Exactly. You don’t touch certain parts of the body unless it’s agreed upon. She was really helpful because the Jet boys were so nervous about having to do this. We’d been working together for so long at that point — there was real love amongst us, and they were all very afraid of hurting me. I was like, I’m fine. Remember, I’m not Ariana, I’m Anita right now. But I was very grateful for that rehearsal because it just set boundaries for all of us. It ended up being a really safe psychological experience. Granted, that experience has not left me. I don’t watch that scene when I’m viewing the film. I can hear it, but actually physically watching it, it makes me sick a little.
MORENO Oh, that’s heartbreaking.
DeBOSE It’s very intense because you have so many bodies on top of you with the impetus to hurt you, and even though it’s a simulated thing, your body doesn’t actually know the difference.
MORENO And you know what? It isn’t just your body. Your brain and your heart — because that’s what made me end up in just hysterical tears when I was doing the scene, and they had to stop shooting because I couldn’t stop crying. The wounds never really go away.
DeBOSE I think because it’s a musical, people don’t realize, sometimes, the depth of the material. And this character, whether it’s Rita’s incarnation or my incarnation, this [expletive] gets real. The amount of grief and the assault on her person, it’s hard to watch. It’s even harder to perform.
I have tremendous respect for anyone who has played this role because you don’t actually understand until you’re in it — and out of it — just how far you have to go to create a moment with this particular woman.
MORENO She’s so charming; she’s funny. She has opinions that she’s not afraid to voice. All of that fools you. You still have to play the wounds and the insults.
DeBOSE And if it’s not making you uncomfortable as a viewer, I would say you need to go analyze some things in yourself.
What do you feel you learned from playing Anita and from what she represents?
MORENO For me, it was a revelation because I realized midway through the [first] film, that I actually found my role model at the age of something like 28, and it was Anita. I had never played a Hispanic woman who had that kind of dignity and the sense of self-respect, and fearless in terms of expressing what she needed to express.
DeBOSE She’s taught me a lot about forgiveness. You take things personally in this industry, but it’s a healthier path to choose to forgive. And it’s not an easy path. I mean, me? I would have knocked the [expletive] out of Maria. That is the one moment in the piece, whether it’s onstage or film — I don’t know if that’s actually what would happen in the world. Because it’s very hard to make that choice when you are in that moment of grief.
MORENO It’s not only forgiveness, as expressing how important a part love plays in one’s life. “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong.”
DeBOSE That line — that’s what the whole moment’s about. No matter what happens, you can be so angry at someone and still love them very deeply. The love doesn’t die. It may transform. It may shift shapes. But there’s always love.