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'West Side Story' stars Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler defend their remake

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' West Side Story.
Niko Tavernise
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© 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The first time Colombian-American actress Rachel Zegler saw the 1961 film West Side Story, she was enthralled by the Puerto Rican-born actress Rita Moreno twirling on a rooftop in a purple dress.

She recalls "turning to my mom and saying, 'Mommy, Who is that?' And it planted a seed. And that seed has been growing for 15 years now."

It was a similar story for Afro-Latina actress Ariana DeBose.

"I fell in love with the film when I was 7 or 8," she said. "And I loved the woman in the purple dress just dancing with furious abandon and great passion. And I wanted to be just like her."

Zegler and DeBose star in director Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, which was originally a 1957 Broadway musical that transposed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet onto the streets of New York City.

Zegler plays Maria, the love interest of Tony (played by Ansel Elgort) and DeBose plays Anita, who was played by Moreno in the 1961 film.

The original musical and film have been criticized for lack of representation and hurtful stereotypes, while some critics have also questioned the new adaptation, suggesting the earlier version "can't be saved."

But in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition, DeBose said Spielberg's film "gets it right."

"It is not every day that an Afro-Latina gets to be part of the main event," DeBose said. "And her identity as an Afro-Latina informs the story. So it's not really an afterthought. It's everything about this character."

In their Weekend Edition interview, Zegler and DeBose talked to host Don Gonyea about the importance of representation and working with Moreno and the late lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim.

Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios' <em>West Side Story</em>.
Photo by Niko Tavernise / © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
/
© 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios' <em>West Side Story</em>.

On working with Rita Moreno, who won Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 film

DeBose: She took me out to lunch. And she said, I'll tell you anything you want to know. And I said, I want to know anything you want to tell me. And then she just said, lean into everything that makes you unique. You don't need my help. It felt like she had given me permission to just sort of run wild and really make the role my own. So that's what I did. And, you know, by virtue of my being Afro-Latina and - you know, I'm a Black woman. Like, that's a very different lived experience than perhaps what she had. So I allowed that to inform everything that I chose to do in regards to this character in the world that she's living in.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' <em>West Side Story</em>.
Photo by Niko Tavernise / © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
/
© 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' <em>West Side Story</em>.

On representation and if the new West Side Story 'gets it right'

DeBose: I do think we get it right. I mean, it is not every day that an Afro-Latina gets to be, you know, part of the main event. And her identity as an Afro-Latina informs the story. So it's not really an afterthought. It's everything about this character. Representation obviously matters. You know, if you can see yourself - as a young person, especially - then you know you have possibility. It's what Rita Moreno gave both of us. And hopefully that's what we are giving to a new generation.

Zegler: I think it's also really important to note that the colorism conversation, a lot of people tend to perceive it as in, like, Eurocentric white folks not including Latinos in the conversation. But it's in the Latino community, especially. You see it every single day that Afro-Latinos are not represented and not validated in their identity. Ariana, she's not just a device for representation. She is not just Anita because she represents Afro-Latinos. She's Anita because she is what our community looks like.

On the importance of the song "America," performed by DeBose in the 2021 film

DeBose: What I love about America so much is that we do take it to the streets. You do get to see the community, get to know the community.

Zegler: And also an explanation of the lived experience of just being othered in this country is explained. You know, life is all right in America if you're a white in America. There's a lot of complexity to that when it's someone who looks like David versus someone who looks like you singing that song.

DeBose: I think there are definitely - the reasons for Anita's want to assimilate is probably rooted in her experience as an Afro-Latina. If she can be nice enough, if she can act, you know, more "American," quote, unquote, you know, perhaps there will be a place for her, and she will be able to, you know, make her ambitions manifest and her American dream can come true. I'm really glad that this film is coming out this time because the idea of being American has to be wrapped up in all of these different presentations and lived experiences, right? There's not one way to be American, either, but you have to embrace all the parts of you that make you, you.

On working with the late Stephen Sondheim and his involvement in the film

Zegler: I would call it a heavy involvement in the part that mattered most to him, which was the recording sessions of the music, our soundtrack. You know, these were lyrics that he wrote when he was 24 or 25 years old. It was his first professional gig. And the fact that they've lived so long in the public sphere, there's not a person alive that doesn't really know, like, at least one song.

And he was very present in the fact that he knew what needed to be changed, because there are a couple of little tweaks here and there, but he also was very, very involved with making sure that the intention behind every lyric was as authentic as when he wrote it. And it was such an honor to be able to sing that for him and also to talk about his constant need to be better. It's a testament to what a true artist he was. And we miss him so dearly because artists like that are few and far between.


NPR's Danny Hensel produced Don Gonyea's interview with Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose for Weekend Edition. Kroc fellow Mia Estrada adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.