Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is undoubtedly one of the biggest projects of the year, and the diversity that lights up the screen is a far cry from what we saw in the original classic.
Shadow and Act spoke to stars Ariana DeBose (who plays Anita) and David Alvarez (who plays Bernardo) about what it means to be Latinx in a film that had an original version that didn’t represent them…but does now.
DeBose steps into the shoes of Anita, and the role that Rita Moreno won an Oscar for in the original film. Moreno appears in this new film in the newly-created role of Valentina.
On acting opposite Moreno, DeBose said, “It was quite a layered experience [laughs], but there wasn’t a single moment where I didn’t feel supported though, both by Rita’s presence and by Steven and Tony Kushner… in fact our entire production team was incredibly supportive. And I think it was sort of an unspoken thing and everybody knew it might be a little challenging for me.”
Still, she said she had to make sure she understood that what she was bringing to the character was needed.
“I think in order to do this job, I understood I needed to have a very clear vision for who I believed Anita was and I had no choice but to have undying belief in what I could bring to her,” she continued. “And I think had I faltered or wavered in that belief for a second, we wouldn’t have what we have on screen. But you never actually wake up and think you’re going to go to work and get to hang out with a living legend like Rita Moreno. So the icing on the cake at that time in my life, things were going really, really well. And I never in a million years imagined that would be the environment that I got to work in, let alone working with Steven Spielberg.”
The film’s cast also includes Ansel Elgort Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera with Rita Moreno and introducing Rachel Zegler.
Alvarez and DeBose also talked about the importance of them being in the film as the original film’s Latinx characters were played by mostly non-Latinx people. And, for the few Latinx people in the movie, they were of lighter skin and donned brownface.
“I mean for us, it’s a blessing that we are able to grow up in a generation as artists where this is actually happening now for us because 20 years ago, it wasn’t,” said Alvarez. “10 years ago, it wasn’t. So, the fact that we’re fortunate enough to be pioneering this along with these legends and Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner is giving us a voice, is giving us a chance here to speak our truth is it’s priceless.”
DeBose chimed in, agreeing it was priceless and adding, “It’s also I think the fact that the greatest director of our time…I’m a little biased…but the fact that he can do it that means so can everybody else. Because he took the time and he cared and he went the extra mile and he dedicated himself to responsibly bringing this story to life. There’s that saying like stuff cannot be duplicated or recycled, so there’s no part of this film that is redoing what was already done in the ’61 film. It literally takes what was and blows it up with a beautiful, beautiful joy and color and authenticity and integrity.”
The actress, who is making her second movie musical outing in about a year after she was in Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, noted the importance of her being a darker-skinned Latina.
“This is made with such tremendous integrity and quite frankly, I’m really honored to be a part of it because speaking to my casting in particular, he didn’t have to,” she explained. “He did not have to hire an Afro-Latina. And yet he was brave enough, he and Tony Kushner were brave enough to not only hire me, but talk about it in the screenplay. Even subtly we address it, it’s not just a stunt. I am not a stunt. I’m real and they validate the lived experience of Afro-Latinos everywhere by being brave enough to go there with me.”
West Side Story is in theaters now. Watch the interview below: