Ariana DeBose talks about her ‘life-changing’ role in ‘West Side Story’

Brooke Cain
The News & Observer

There was a moment when Ariana DeBose was auditioning for the role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s new film version of “West Side Story” when she knew her life was going to change.

DeBose, who grew up in Raleigh and Wake Forest, North Carolina, and has gone on to perform on Broadway in “Hamilton” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” described the moment in an interview recently with The News & Observer.

It was at the end of her audition and she had gotten a little lost in her own performance.

From left: Ariana DeBose, Steven Spielberg and Rachel Zegler attend the New York premiere of "West Side Story" on Nov. 29, 2021, in New York.

“I sort of came back to consciousness and I looked up, because I was on the floor, weeping, and there he was standing over me, and he reached out to me and he locked eyes with me and he said ‘Thank you’ and we were both crying,” DeBose said.

“He’s a man who has immense emotional depths. He’s an incredible director but he’s so present — he was present enough with me to feel everything I was feeling. I sort of knew then that if I got the job it would be life-changing because it’s so rare to be able to work with a director like that and it really was one of the greatest working experiences I’ve ever had.”

It’s also perhaps the greatest performance of DeBose’s already impressive young career.

The 30-year-old triple-threat singer, dancer and actress has reprised the role made famous by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. That film adaptation of the original 1957 stage production (with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Steven Sondheim) won 10 Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Moreno.

Rave reviews in a 'bucket list role'

Following in her footsteps, DeBose has earned glowing appraisals of her performance in the new version of “West Side Story.”

In numerous reviews that praise various cast members, DeBose is often singled out. In the Los Angeles Times: “Alvarez, Zegler and especially DeBose give such vibrant, emotionally immediate performances.”

In The New York Times: “It helps that Alvarez, Faist and — supremely — DeBose are such magnetic performers. When DeBose is onscreen, nothing else matters but what Anita is feeling.”

In Variety: “It’s hard to overpraise Ariana DeBose, whose Anita is the wounded soul of the film. She has the best lines, dances and sings with so much passion that the screen can hardly contain her.”

In Entertainment Weekly: “The best acting often happens off to the side: The wiry, fine-boned Faist, best known for his Tony-nominated turn on Broadway in “Dear Evan Hansen,” is a standout, and so is “Hamilton’s” Ariana DeBose. ... Her Anita is a pure dopamine rush on the dance floor and a small revelation off of it, dimensional and fiercely tender beneath her brash exterior.”

DeBose is equal parts humbled by the praise, grateful for the chance in the role and confident in her execution.

“Anita is one of the greatest roles ever written in the musical theater canon,” DeBose said. “It’s a triple-threat role and it’s exactly what I am built to do. That’s exactly what my training and skill set has gifted me, so it’s a role I had always hoped I’d get a chance to play. ... I certainly never thought that I’d end up in a Spielberg film, but it was definitely a bucket list role.”

When your role model calls you 'remarkable'

DeBose’s performance even has the blessing of Moreno, who also has a part in the new movie. In various interviews, Moreno has called DeBose “remarkable” and “marvelous.” She told Parade magazine, “She’s a ferocious dancer. Way better than I was.”

Hearing that kind of praise from a role model is nice, but can also be difficult, DeBose says.

“I think sometimes it’s hard to hear praise, especially when it’s coming from someone who means a lot to you. But it does mean a lot,” DeBose said.

Her first meeting with Moreno on the set of “West Side Story” was memorable for its sheer awkwardness, DeBose told us.

Moreno had come to one of the rehearsals and was talking to the cast about her experiences coming to New York from Puerto Rico as a young woman and making the 1961 film.

“In the middle of her speech she said, ‘Wait a minute, where is Anita? Where is Ariana?’ And the whole cast turned around, stared at me and started cheering,” DeBose said.

“She said ‘Nina, we have some talking to do.’ And it should have been something that I was like ‘Yes, we do!’ and instead I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m horrified, what is happening to me? Oh no!’ and I had a full-out panic attack — because suddenly the woman I had admired from afar was very much right in front of me and wanted to talk to me, and it’s one of the first times in my life that I just didn’t know what to do with that.”

But after that initial freak-out, DeBose said she composed herself and worked up the courage to approach Moreno and apologize for the awkwardness.

“I would really like to start over,” DeBose told Moreno. “And we had a really lovely lunch after that. At some point she was like, ‘You don’t need my help, you know what you’re doing. Just lean into everything that makes you unique.’”

Representation as an Afro-Latina woman

One way DeBose is unique is that she is the first Afro-Latina actress to play the role of Anita, and that representation was very important to her. And she let Spielberg know that right away.

“It was one of the first things I brought up when I was auditioning,” DeBose said.

“I said if you’re not interested in exploring this — this is my lived identity, I am Afro-Latina — then I don’t know that I’m your girl, because I’m a Black woman. I walk through the world as a Black woman. And it’s not every day that Afro-Latina women get to play characters where the audience really gets to know their experience. ... So I was just basically like, if you’re not interested in that perspective I don’t think you should hire me.”

DeBose said that Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, heard her and started working on ways to acknowledge that lived experience in the updated story. Being Afro-Latina, DeBose said, can mean a “double dose of prejudice,” and she believes this film gives voice to that experience.

“We have this incredible scene that happens pre-‘America’ — it’s a familial scene between Anita, Bernardo and Maria, and it comes up in a very real way in the context of their family,” DeBose said.

“They have this very real discussion. Because colorism is real. I think it’s something that we don’t talk about, but the way we treat each other even inside of our communities is something we should all pay attention to as well. And it’s not just specific to the Latino community, but I find that to be a truth inside of many communities.

“And I just want to say that I’m really proud that Tony didn’t shy away from it and Steven never shied away from it,” DeBose continued. “You can also see it in the way that Lt. Schrank, the character played by Corey Stoll, the way that he interacts with Anita, and it’s not — it’s not kind, I’ll put it that way.”

Representation is an important aspect of this remake, with Spielberg actually casting Latin actors to play Latin characters. In the 1961 version, Moreno was famously the only Puerto Rican in the cast, with white actors in heavy makeup assigned to play the other Puerto Rican characters.

As such, Anita became very important to Moreno for the rest of her life — and she is now important to DeBose.

“She has said that Anita became her role model because growing up she didn’t have role models that looked like her, so she learned from her character,” DeBose said of Moreno.

“For me, Anita has taught me so much and she’s helped me embrace another facet of who I am and embrace my Hispanic heritage, and so she also means a lot to me. I feel so fortunate to have been able to share a space in time with Rita, to share this character with her.”

But what does mom think?

DeBose’s mother, Gina DeBose, recognized her daughter’s talents at an early age and encouraged her to work hard and expand her talents.

“I always like to say, she came out dancing,” Gina DeBose told The News & Observer in a March interview.

Gina got to visit the set of “West Side Story” while they were filming the “Dance at the Gym” scene, Ariana said, and she met and chatted with director Spielberg.

After some time with her mother, Ariana said Spielberg seemed to pick up her mother’s AIR-ee-ana pronunciation of her name, instead of the ARR-ee-ana pronunciation she prefers.

“He’s very paternal, not only with me but with all of our company members, so I was like, ‘Well, he’s a father figure, so I don’t mind the pronunciation — coming from him. It’s allowed.”

And her mother, though reserved, is still her biggest fan. Her reaction to seeing her little girl as Anita in “West Side Story”?

“You know my mother is a woman of few words, but she was like, ‘Oh baby you did that! That’s good!’ She’s very proud of me.”

DeBose said if she gets invited to the Oscar ceremony next year, she hopes her mother, a teacher at Wakefield Middle School in Raleigh, will accompany her.

“I’m assuming she would take off work to come to the Oscars with me, if that is a thing that happens,” DeBose said. “Who knows. Can you imagine Gina DeBose on a red carpet? I can. I think it will be fun.”