Ariana DeBose (‘West Side Story’) on playing Anita as ‘unapologetically’ Afro-Latina [Complete Interview Transcript]

Ariana DeBose just earned her first Oscar nomination for her electrifying performance as Anita in “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg‘s adaptation of the classic musical. The actress is on the precipice of following in the footsteps of Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 version.

DeBose spoke with Gold Derby editor Christopher Rosen in December about her “West Side Story” origin story, the process of working with Spielberg and her interactions with Moreno, who also has a role in the new version. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Ariana, I’d love to hear your “West Side Story” story. I’m sure you’ve had to tell it a lot, but when did you first see it, the original, and what were your thoughts? What were your experiences with that version? 

Ariana DeBose: Oh my gosh. I first saw the ‘61 film when I was probably seven or eight. I was in my grandmother’s living room and I was sitting there and totally enamored with the woman in the purple dress who was just dancing with this reckless abandon. I so desperately wanted to do that because I think I came out of the womb dancing. But I just loved it, and I loved that she sort of looked like me. I guess it felt like it gave me permission to try and do things and move very freely. As I got older, I realized that she was painted to look like that, but it doesn’t negate the fact that, in that moment, as a young person, I saw someone that I felt I was close to. But beyond that, I’ve never participated in a production of “West Side Story.” It’s just been the film for me, really, and it’s always sort of just been buzzing around. 

GD: And obviously now you’re playing Anita in this version. I had read that Steven Spielberg approached you to audition for the part, basically. He came to you first. I want to know when you went in to audition for it, what was something that you thought you could bring to Anita that was maybe different from the Rita Moreno performance? What were your initial thoughts on how you would play the part? 

AD: Oh, sure. Well, I mean, just to be clear, Cindy Tolan called me and asked me to come in and audition. Could you imagine if Steven Spielberg was like, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’d really like you to audition for my film.” I think I would’ve just thrown up right there. But no, when Cindy asked me to come in, there was a voice in the back of my head that was like, “Yeah, sure, go in, but like, this is not for you.” And I wasn’t adamant about it, but I’d never seen Anitas who looked like me. Karen Olivo does not look like me, won a Tony for her interpretation. Rita Moreno doesn’t actually look like me, won an Oscar for her interpretation. So I just never really thought that there was a place for my potential take on it. Not that I didn’t have the skill set because I do, I’m a triple threat. It’s what I was trained to do. I’m built for that and I love doing that. 

But yeah, ultimately, when I did decide to go in, I was like, “Well, you better go in and do something interesting and honest,” because I’m a radically honest individual, if you can’t tell. And I just thought, “Well, I’m an Afro-Latina, I’m a Black woman and we’re going to play her unapologetically Black, unapologetically Afro-Lat, and I allowed it to inform everything I did. So I went in and I danced the way that I dance and I sang the way that I sing, without changing my voice. I think my lived experience in the industry is that women of color often have to change our voices in order to play a character. I didn’t really want to do that. I just wanted her to sound like whatever was coming out of me from an emotional place. 

And then in the moment when I did audition for him, he asked me if I would read for him. I told him no, because I felt like I wasn’t prepared because I’d gotten the call at 10 p.m. the night before and I was in to dance and read and sing for him very early in the morning the next day, and I don’t make it a habit of being unprepared for auditions like that. And I was working at the time, so I don’t want anybody to be misconstrued. But anyways, he asked me if there was anything he should know, and I was like, “Well, I’m Afro-Latina, and if you’re not really interested in exploring that in the context of the script or even in subtle ways in the film, I don’t know that you should hire me.” And he took me in and then he was like, “Oh, OK.” And now I’m here, so I think it was a very brave thing that he did, taking on someone as potentially outspoken as I am (laughs). 

GD: But I think it definitely works with the character, right? But that’s really, really good. 

AD: Anita knows her mind. I clearly know my mind. We definitely have that in common, put it that way. 

GD: You mentioned you’re a triple threat. I mean, the character is incredible. I just love, obviously, the original “West Side Story,” Rita Moreno’s performance is so great, but I was so excited to see “America,” the performance, in the film and I’m sitting there waiting for it and then it comes in and it just surpassed my expectations that I went back and looked. I know you guys had shot that in New York in the summer of 2019 and it was incredibly hot. I looked at one of the viral tweets from it and the heat index was like 108 or something crazy. How was that? What was it like to have to go through that experience to get it? Because the sequence is unbelievable and you’re really going for it. How is that to do in that kind of condition? 

AD: Well, thank you, glad you enjoy it. And you’re right, we were really going for it in a heatwave. It was wild. Everybody was so excited that we were getting the opportunity to put our “America” in the streets of New York because it allowed it to be a love letter and you got to really feel the Latino community, the Puerto Rican community, within the context of our number. But I’m not going to lie, my Paul Tazewell-designed yellow dress was absolutely fabulous. It also created some wonderful tan lines that are only just now going away. Many of the women are in incredibly structured costumes, like truly vintage costumes. I had a corset on. My corset was built into my dress. And there are moments where you’re exerting so much energy that you do sometimes almost feel like you’re going to pass out. And I was very clear on when I needed to take a break, and thankfully, Steven was like, “Anything you need, anything you need.” And I was like,  “Thank you so much, and anything they need as well.” But also, fun fact, I don’t know if it was fun, but I had just sustained a very bad sprain to my ankle during pre-production and was healing throughout the filming of “America.” So I had an incredible medical team that kept me going so that I could do this safely, and kudos to Justin Peck, who really worked with me and what my body could do. Yes, I’m a professional dancer and thank God I have the training I have so that I could execute these moves and keep myself going. That doesn’t mean I didn’t burn holes in my shoes because the asphalt was so hot, but I think it’s just kind of a miracle that we have the “America” that we have. I don’t know, I’m really proud of it. 

GD: Yeah, I mean, it really does bring the house down. I mean, I know it’s so different than being a live performance, but it’s incredible. When you do a musical, I think a lot of people are going to focus on the singing, and I think what I love about this and musical theater in general, is that you’re giving so much performance within the songs, right? You have to be the character in the songs. And so, “A Boy Like That,” I just think that whole sequence is so wonderful and you have to take Anita from this incredible heartbreak and fury at Maria to a moment of understanding and compassion, and it goes in like three minutes and you have to really thread these needles. And again, I had recently rewatched the original so I was excited to see how that performance looked, and it’s so beautiful and it was really heartbreaking and I just loved that sequence so much. I’d love to hear you talk a little about how you and Steven and Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, kind of worked that out. I just think that whole sequence is so great, and I think you deserve a lot of credit for how you’re able to really bring across that performance within the song. 

AD: Oh, thank you! Thank you for that. I appreciate that you received that from watching it. Rachel and I didn’t really discuss the number, which actually I think was something that was very good for us because inherently, these two characters have very different perspectives on this moment. Not that I didn’t want to be sympathetic to Rachel’s views, but I do think that had I really processed them, it might have informed some of my inherent beliefs about the moment. But I’m a person that believes two things have to be allowed to exist in one space and I was just really interested in that journey of finding forgiveness in the face of excruciating grief and quite frankly, great adversity, coming off of all the things that Anita has just experienced and all the things that she will experience. That moment was really about forgiveness for me and just how f**king hard it is. It’s one of the most profound gifts and showings of love that we can ever give to each other. But it doesn’t come without taking a massive toll on this individual in this moment.

I think it’s interesting. I’m an actor who loves body language, I love movement, I love dance. So now that I watch what actually is in the film, what made the edit, I find Anita’s physicality to be fascinating because there’s a lot of stillness and a lot of tension in her body. I was actually really, not surprised, but kind of glad that you could feel her holding back. Latina women, when we’re very angry, it’s not loud. It’s not loud. It is deathly quiet. And there are these moments that I was like, “There she is.” And then only when it really has to come out does it come out, and for her, the original ’61 film, I don’t think the choice was to show massive expressions of grief. But I do think in this day and age, in 2021, there has to be space for it to be a sign of strength, to allow yourself to express grief in such a visceral and vulnerable way. She’s incredibly raw, and instead of trying to cover it up all the time, she lets it be seen, and there has to be value and weight to that. I’m really glad that’s where we got to and I think Rachel does the same. There’s value and weight in vulnerability, and I don’t know, just sheer grief in the both of them at this moment in time, and that is what they have in common, aside from their love for Bernardo and the realization that your love is your life. It’s a beautiful thing that was able to be harnessed. 

GD: Yeah, it really is. And I mean, definitely to me, I think it’s a key moment in their relationship, but it’s such an important moment in the film because you really have to buy all the emotions to be sold on what’s happening and what will happen. So it is really great. I just thought that sequence is amazing. We’re talking about the original and obviously, Rita Moreno had such a huge part in this as well. So I want to ask you a couple of things about it. First, what was it like when you had to first meet her when you were cast as Anita? She’s an executive producer on the film, I know, as well. What was your first meeting like with her? 

AD: Well, I first met her on a day where she had come to speak to the cast and she was holding court as only Rita Moreno could do, and she said, “Wait, where is Ariana? Where is Anita?” And my cast totally turned on me and everybody was like, “She’s right here!” It was so awkward and I hated every moment of it. But she was just like, “We have some talking to do.” And then, of course, I ran under the bleachers and had a full-out panic attack. I don’t know. I mean, when you say yes to doing something like this with Steven Spielberg, I don’t know why this happened, but apparently, it didn’t really go through my body that I would have to work with Rita Moreno, like, actually have to work with her (laughs). So that was the moment that I was like, “OK, living legend, and we’re going to do this and I have to find a way to not totally fall apart or feel overly intimidated.” And thank God she was as graceful with me as she was. She empowered me to lean into all the things that make me unique and she was like, “No, I love that you’re Afro-Latina,” and she said, “Run wild.” And I think she knew that I had a very clear vision for what I was doing. I knew what I wanted to do, and she never inserted herself. She let me have my process, and I’m really grateful for that because sometimes that’s not the case. It can be very challenging, but I think given the circumstances, we had the best possible experience that I personally could have hoped for. We have that scene in the candy store that’s pretty intense. Someone asked me earlier, a journalist asked me earlier, “What was it like to scream in Rita Moreno’s face?” I was like, “Oh, I never thought of it that way!” But I didn’t think of it that way because she’s not Rita in that moment. To me, she’s Valentina. And you just focus on playing the truth because that’s the truth of the moment, because that’s why we were there, to tell the story. I’m just kind of glad I got the opportunity to do it with her in an iconic way. 

GD: Truly, that scene is awesome. I love that as well, not to just continue but that moment is so great. Your performance there is great, and again, I was very impressed by that scene. I’m excited for audiences to get to see that too. You mentioned your cast there and I get the sense just from seeing the red carpet photos and just watching other interviews, you guys are really tight, it seems. You’ve done movie musicals before and you’ve done a lot. But do you feel like this cast was particularly close? And how did that inform the ensemble nature of the performance? Because I think everyone worked so well together, it really comes across, but I’d love to hear you talk a little about it too. 

AD: Yeah, I mean, I am someone who’s had the benefit of working on quite a few projects that have ensemble casts. And no, I didn’t come out of “The Prom” being besties with Nicole [Kidman] and Meryl [Streep]. That’s not really a thing that happened (laughs). Or in “Schmigadoon!” I mean, granted, I love Cecily Strong. She’s my queen, and Kristin Chenoweth and Dove Cameron, we’re on a text thread. It’s great. But this experience was quite singular because we all were so aware of the moment and how special it was, and that we were getting to do it with Steven and Tony Kushner and Justin, you’re working with titans in their fields and in an iconic story that means so much to so many of us because we’re all triple threats. Many of us come directly from the Broadway community and this piece of work means a lot to the Broadway community. So in a way, it felt like summer camp and your camp counselor is Steven Spielberg, which is a wild, wild thing to experience, but yes, you’re in the elements, you’re in the streets of New York, you’re getting dirty, you’re in the process, you’re hashing it out, you’re arguing or creatively bickering with your colleagues. I creatively bicker with Steven Spielberg. I cannot believe I just told you that, but I did a couple of times and we’re still good! And how fortunate is it to have that sort of experience? I mean, that’s the reason we’re all close. This production was done with a lot of love and a lot of care, a commitment to authenticity and integrity, to be perfectly frank. And it was about love. The piece is about love, and the experience was all love. Wild. So yeah, we’re tight. 

GD: Yeah, that’s good, I figured so. We have to wrap up here, but I just want to… 

AD: I’m sorry! Do you have one more question? 

GD: I have one more. This has been great and I love chatting with you about this, and it’s been really fun. The last one was, I literally just watched the original, the movie is 60 years old. I think there’s still value to that one version, obviously. I mean, this movie is incredible as well. What do you hope the legacy of this version is like going forward? I don’t even know if you can think of it now in that context, but what would you hope for? 

AD: I mean, I feel like my answer to this question will change as time goes on, the more I can get outside of it and gain some clarity. Right now, I’m very much in it. But I’m really proud of this movie because it does go further than the ‘61 film, and that’s by virtue of Steven’s vision and Tony Kushner’s adaptation. His screenplay really goes deeper. It is a socially aware depiction of what was going on with these people in 1957 and it talks about, even subtly, these systems of oppression. You get to see why these two gangs are fighting each other. It makes their intent and their motives clear, and the tragedy of it is that they have more commonalities than they have differences, and if they could just talk to each other, perhaps we could find a sensible solution. And does not that sounds similar to some of the shit we deal with today? That’s the thing. Classics are meant to be retold time and time and time and time again because we have lessons we have yet to learn, and it’s important, imperative even, that we tell these stories for new generations and I think there’s no better time for this movie to come forth than right now because we have so much to continue to learn and improve upon. 

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