Rita Moreno on West Side Story
Rita Moreno on West Side Story

Rita Moreno on the Joys & Challenges of Filming Spielberg’s West Side Story

“It wasn’t easy,” legendary EGOT winner Rita Moreno said about returning to West Side Story and not playing Anita. Again.

Moreno won an Oscar for playing the beloved character in the original 1961 Robert Wise movie musical. She made history as the first Latinx performer to win best supporting actress and became an icon to aspiring Latinx actors as the “women in the purple dress.”

“I’m not gonna say I wasn’t envious — that would be a bloody lie,” Moreno, 89, admitted while sitting next to director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner during a virtual press conference to promote their new version of West Side Story. Moreno turns 90 on December 11, a day after the film premieres in theatres. “I wished I could be that young again and do it again.”

Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961). Photo Credit: Everett Collection.

The torch has since been passed to Ariana DeBose, who has transitioned beautifully from Broadway to the silver screen in what was supposed to mark her theatrical debut. Because the movie’s release date was pushed back a year due to the pandemic, her other release, The Prom, came out first. “I feel blessed to walk in the footsteps of Rita Moreno,” DeBose told Broadway Direct in February 2019, a month after it was announced she’d play Anita and before filming even began.

DeBose said in that same interview that she spent her early days prepping for the role by taking dance classes three times a week and digging into the research of “who the Puerto Rican people are and what they stand for. I’m doing my very best to make sure that [the audience gets] what they didn’t get from the original film.”

Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in the West Side Story film. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios.
Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in the West Side Story film. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios.

The two Anitas didn’t meet until production began. “Rita Moreno came in and … told stories about … the experience of the original film.… And then she stopped and she said, ‘Wait, where is the girl playing Anita?’” DeBose told documentarian Laurent Bouzereau. “Everyone turned and looked at me, and then there was like a whoo-hoo, clap-clap-clap. I felt awkward, so I stood up. I have to be honest: This wasn’t the way I wanted to be introduced to her.” Bouzereau is the author of the book The Making of West Side Story.

Moreno is not only an executive producer on the movie — she also plays Valentina, a new role that Kushner’s husband, writer Mark Harris, thought up. Valentina is the widow of Doc, the character we know from the original musical and film. Taking his place in the story, Valentina now runs Doc’s candy store where the Jets and Sharks mingle and where Tony works.

Moreno was hesitant to step into the role at first because she didn’t want to do a cameo. Once she read the script, it was more than she expected — and also includes a song. In this adaptation, Valentina sings “Somewhere.”

Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios
Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios

“I get this beautifully written part,” she said. “I love me in this movie. You don’t say things like that easily. I don’t care what [people] say. I love every scene I’m in.”

One of the more haunting scenes to shoot was the one she shares with DeBose.

“It was difficult. It was absolutely creepy to do the one scene I did with Anita,” Moreno said. “I just kept looking at [DeBose] and I had the toughest time getting inside the scene. Because what I was really doing, in a way, was saving Anita’s life because these boys were about to possibly rape her, and I had to put a stop to that. I did that scene and I was really being Doc, who stopped that from happening in the original movie. Very strange.”

“That all by itself could be a Black Mirror episode,” Spielberg said.

As buzz for the film, which opens in theatres December 10, continues to soar, both Moreno and DeBose are appearing on lists of potential Academy Award nominees. If both women do get award recognition, it would be in the same category of best supporting actress — one Moreno is familiar with. And history would be made again.

But just getting to this illustrious place in her career is something DeBose forever credits to Moreno, who paved the way.