Nearly 60 years ago, Rita Moreno starred in West Side Story. Now, another actress will have her chance to make her mark as Anita, the same role that made Moreno the first Latina actress to win an Oscar. The release of a casting call has revealed Steven Spielberg’s plans to remake the 1961 musical, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story following the tense relationship of two NYC street gangs. Originally directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins – with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman – West Side Story ranks as one of the greatest musicals, despite the film’s problematic nature. The casting call makes it clear that Spielberg is looking for Latino actors to fill the roles of Maria, Bernardo, and Anita. The actors must be able to sing and should be between 15 and 25 years old.
The original feature cast Moreno in one of the main roles, but Natalie Wood – a woman of Russian and Ukrainian ancestry – played Maria and Greek-American George Chakiris played Bernardo. Already, Spielberg’s film is off to a better start, since he intends to cast Latinos in these roles. But to truly have accurate portrayals of Latinos, it’s important that the film also have Latinos throughout every step of the process.
The 1961 movie not only used Mexican culture signifiers for a group of Puerto Ricans, it also had actors appear in dark makeup, something Moreno has spoken out in the years since the film’s release. In an episode of In the Thick, Rita explained that she tried to give her input and was summarily shut down. “I also had extremely dark makeup,” Moreno said. “I said to the makeup man one day, ‘My God, why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French, and Spanish, and whatever you have it. We are Taino Indian. We are Black.’ And the makeup man actually said to me, ‘What are you, a racist?’”
Though it’s too early to tell how the movie will unfold, we do know that Spielberg has long wanted to direct West Side Story. In 2016, he told The Hollywood Reporter that he’d dreamt of making remaking it for decades and spent about 15 years trying to secure the rights.