‘West Side Story’ breakout Mike Faist on making Riff his own: ‘Start fresh and go back to the text, go back to square one’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Fans of 1961’s “West Side Story,” such as actor Mike Faist, have a deep affection for actor Russ Tamblyn and his portrayal of reluctant Jet leader Riff in the Oscar-winning film. Based on the character Mercutio from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” the tragic Riff dominates the early portion of the musical – and Tamblyn’s singing and dancing prowess make a memorable impression that extends long after he exits the story.

“Russ is a singular man. He’s magnetic and singular and wonderful,” Faist, who plays Riff in Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story,” tells Gold Derby. The actor, a Tony Award nominee for “Dear Evan Hansen,” and Tamblyn even got to connect on the red carpet at the “West Side Story” premiere earlier in December. But while Faist has a strong admiration for Tamblyn and the original film, his goal in playing Riff for the remake was to make the part his own. 

“In terms of working on this ‘West Side Story,’ you kind of have to do your best to just block [the original] from your mind as if that doesn’t exist and start fresh and go back, go back to the text, go back to square one,” he says.

With a fresh adaptation from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner and direction from two-time Best Director winner Spielberg, the new take on “West Side Story” goes to great lengths to flesh out the relationships between the Jets, specifically Riff and former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort).

“I met with Tony [Kushner] over coffee and just let him speak and just tried my best to listen to what he was going after and what he wanted to do and say. And he really took it all the way back to Shakespeare and Mercutio and Mercutio’s relationship to Romeo and what that love relationship was, you know that brotherhood, that friendship,” Faist explains. 

In the new film, Riff becomes the leader of the Jets after Tony is sent away for nearly killing someone in a previous rumble. It’s a position Riff doesn’t necessarily want, but one he feels obligated to fill – and when Tony comes back into the Jet gang’s orbit, Riff thinks things will go back to the way they were in the past. But the tragedy of Riff’s arc is that the past is gone forever. 

“We realize that Tony is actively trying to be different. He’s trying to change. He’s trying to be a better person,” Faist explains. “And so I keep using the analogy that it’s like coming home to Thanksgiving. The people in your life, love you so much that they want you to stay in that role for themself. But it is at the end of the day, selfish love and a love that will meet with friction and a wall there. … The whole plot was Riff’s inability to accept and see Tony’s transformation.”

Faist is one of many triple threats in “West Side Story”: a strong singer, expert dancer, and perhaps most importantly, an instinctual performer. Case in point, a key character moment for Riff prior to his fateful fight with Bernardo (David Alvarez) that Faist came up with on his own.

“I was having some troubles with the scene and I wasn’t quite sure what else to do with it other than like, just getting the gun,” Faist says of a lynchpin sequence in the film, where Riff goes to procure a handgun before the rumble. “I was trying to figure out how does this further that plot along? And so I showed up on the day. I had this idea and I went over to Steven and Tony. I said, ‘I think I have this idea. Just go with me on it. If you hate it, tell me.’”

Faist’s tweak was to have Riff lean into the gun barrel – a show of his nihilism and general worldview.

“That’s the real moment where you realize just how serious Riff is about it all. And it was always important to me that every single thing that he is doing is to keep the family together and he will die trying to do that,” Faist says. His impulse was rewarded: both Spielberg and Kushner loved the beat and it appears in the film.

“Steven immediately wanted to hear every thought and chasm of a thought that I maybe had and he wanted those ideas,” Faist says about collaborating with the master filmmaker. “He wanted you to show up and like bring those ideas because that’s what it is and that’s what it should be. … Steven is a master conductor director in the sense of every single person that he has hired he trusts them to do their job and he allows them to do it.”

“West Side Story” is out in theaters now.

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