Ariana DeBose on making Anita her own in Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’

Prolific Broadway star Ariana DeBose first encountered “West Side Story” when she was seven or eight years old, sitting in her grandmother’s living room. “I was totally enamored with the woman in the purple dress who was just dancing with this reckless abandon,” DeBose tells Gold Derby. “I so desperately wanted to do that because I think I came out of the womb dancing. 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.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Decades later, DeBose is now playing that “woman in the purple dress,” picking up the mantle from Oscar-winning legend Rita Moreno as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s fresh take on “West Side Story.” The actress, a Tony nominee for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” who has also appeared in Broadway productions like “Bring It On” and “Hamilton,” has already garnered rave reviews for her performance. “Ariana DeBose makes Anita a radiant force of nature,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in his review of “West Side Story” for Variety. Writing for Indiewire, critic David Ehrlich called DeBose “incendiary.”

But as DeBose tells it, she wasn’t even sure playing Anita was the right move for her career. “I wasn’t adamant about it but I had never seen Anitas who look like me,” DeBose, who identifies as Afro-Latina, says. “Karen Olivo [who played Anita in a 2009 Broadway revival], 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 there was a place for my potential take on it.”

Not that DeBose didn’t possess the talent to play Anita. “I’m a triple threat. It’s what I was trained to do, I’m built for that, and I love doing that,” she says. So when she did decide to take the leap and audition for Spielberg, she went in confident in her interpretation. 

“I thought, ‘I’m an Afro-Latina, I’m a Black woman, and we’re going to play her unapologetically Black, unapologetically Afro-Lat,’” she says. “I allowed it to inform everything I did. So I went in and I danced the way I dance and I sang the way I sing without changing my voice. 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.”

After her audition, she recalls, Spielberg asked if there was anything he should know about her. “I said, ‘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 you should hire me,’” DeBose says. “He took me in and was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ 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.”

“Anita knows her mind, I barely know my mind. We definitely have that in common,” she says.

Set in 1950s New York, “West Side Story” focuses on the star-crossed romance between Tony (Ansel Elgort), a member of the Jets gang, and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), who leads the Sharks. Anita is Bernardo’s longtime girlfriend and partner, and their fiery relationship sparks one of the most iconic moments in “West Side Story,” the song-and-dance number “America.”

“We were really going for it,” DeBose says of the new version of the sequence, which was shot on the streets of New York during the summer of 2019 when temperatures were hitting triple-digits. “I had sustained a very bad sprain to my ankle during preproduction and was healing throughout the filming of ‘America,’ so I had an incredible medical team that kept me going so I could do this safely. And kudos to [choreographer] Justin Peck, who really worked with me and what my body could do. Yes, I am a professional dancer, and thank God I have the training I have so I can execute these moves and keep myself going. That doesn’t mean I didn’t burn holes in my shoes because the asphalt is so hot. But I think it’s a miracle that we have the ‘America’ we have. I’m really proud of it.”

DeBose, however, didn’t just have to perform under intense meteorological conditions, but also the memory of Moreno’s Oscar-winning performance. The actress, who was 88 during the production of “West Side Story,” is an executive producer on the film and has an expanded role as Valentina, a new character written expressly for the Spielberg remake. She remains the only Hispanic actress to ever win an Academy Award.

“I first met her on a day when she came to speak to the cast,” DeBose says of her experiences with Moreno. “She was holding court as only Rita Moreno can do. She said, ‘Where is Ariana? Where is Anita?’ 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. She was just like, ‘We have some talking to do.’ Of course, I ran under the bleachers and had a full-out panic attack.”

DeBose says it hadn’t dawned on her that she would have to work with Moreno on the film — indeed, the two share a key scene late in the third act — but she credits Moreno with being “graceful” as a collaborator and sounding board. “She empowered me to lean into all the ways I’m unique,” she says. “She was like, ‘I love that you’re Afro-Latina.’ She said, ‘run wild.’”

“She never inserted herself. She let me have my process,” DeBose says of Moreno. “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’ve hoped for.”

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