Thrilling. That’s how Rita Moreno described West Side Story and its big-screen return when she sat down with Remezcla to talk about the 2021 remake.
A huge part of that is due to the casting of Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita. In the 1961 version of West Side Story, it was Moreno who played this part. And while she did a riveting job that helped define her career, there were things that haunted her about her time on set, particularly the makeup they used on her to make her seem darker.
For Moreno, it left her feeling frustrated and like she couldn’t be her most authentic self. Because in Puerto Rico, we’re not a monolith. We’re a vast array of people and the 1961 film didn’t respect that or how it made this actress feel.
Moreno said, “For me as an actress, I had to wear all that ultra-dark makeup and I kept saying I’m one of those Puerto Ricans with this color skin. And I remember complaining to the makeup man about it one time and it kept streaking because it was so dark and wouldn’t stay.”
So, when she heard about DeBose and her casting as Anita, she was relieved and thrilled to see our people represented in a way that speaks to our reality. To her, it was the best choice that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story could make and one of the reasons why fans should watch.
In her own words, Moreno said, “One of the best choices that was made was that this Anita is Afro-Latina, which is not uncommon among Puerto Ricans. And I was thrilled about that.” That choice alone made the difference for her and will certainly make those in our communities feel seen in this story about love, heartbreak, and finding a home.
Taking on such a role meant a lot to Moreno and she had to meet up with DeBose to talk about Anita. According to Moreno, DeBose was nervous. (Who wouldn’t be when meeting an icon like Rita Moreno?) In Moreno’s eyes, DeBose had nothing to be nervous about. She was chosen for a reason and Moreno respected that.
So, Moreno told DeBose, “You’re gonna do your Anita. I did mine. Now you do yours.”
Moreno did give DeBose one acting tip that she absolutely wanted to keep a secret. She said, “I gave her an acting tip. I said, “You can use it or not. It’s up to you. In one of the scenes, and I don’t want to tell you which one, there’s something I didn’t do in a scene that has haunted me for years. And every time I see the movie and see that scene I go, “Ughhh.”
So, watch out, eagle-eyed viewers. There is a moment in Steven Spielberg’s that defines this character and makes this Anita something completely different. But even then, even if you haven’t watched the 1961 version in a while or at all, you should go to experience Rita Moreno taking on the new role of Valentina and DeBose absolutely kill it as Anita.
West Side Story hits theaters on December 10, 2021.