David Alvarez interview: ‘West Side Story’
At 15, David Alvarez became one of the youngest Tony Award winners in history, sharing Best Actor in a Musical with his “Billy Elliott” co-stars Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish at the 2009 awards ceremony. But rather than jumping to another lavish Broadway production, Alvarez fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining the military.
“When I joined the military, I never thought I’d come back to acting or the arts in general,” he tells Gold Derby. “I was actually thinking about making it a career. I wanted to become an officer and hopefully one day a general.”
But after three years, Alvarez realized he missed the arts community. He returned to Broadway in 2015 as a swing performer in “On the Town,” and then took another break to backpack through Mexico and, eventually, study to become a philosophy professor. It was during this stage of his life that casting director Cindy Tolan reached out to see if Alvarez wanted to audition for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” And as luck would have it for Alvarez, the role in question was one he always dreamed of getting to play.
“The first time I really saw ‘West Side Story’ was when I was about 12 or 13 years old,” he says of the 2009 Broadway revival of the show. “I completely fell in love with the characters, the music, the dancing. I mean, it was one of the greatest shows that I had ever seen. I remember walking out of that theater and thinking, ‘I want to one day play Bernardo. I don’t know how or where or when, but one day, it needs to happen.’ So it’s crazy that I’m here right now.”
Written by Tony Kushner and directed by Spielberg, the new version of “West Side Story” goes to great lengths to better contextualize the relationships of its main characters and emphasize an authenticity that was not top of mind in the legendary 1961 original. That film – which won 10 Oscars including Best Picture and remains arguably one of the most acclaimed Best Picture winners of all-time – cast George Chikaris, an American actor of Greek descent, as Bernardo, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, the leader of the Sharks gang, and brother to lead character Maria (played in the original film by Natalie Wood). Chikaris won an Academy Award for his performance – one of two acting honors the film captured on Oscar night, along with Rita Moreno’s win for Best Supporting Actress. But Alvarez and Kushner wanted to make sure their Bernardo offered a different perspective than the original portrayal.
“I remember specifically thinking that I definitely wanted to bring an element of Bernardo that I don’t think had been really seen before in ‘West Side Story,’ which is that balance and play between this really overprotective fighter to also someone who cares and really does love and is really trying to understand [the perspective of his sister, Maria],” Alvarez, a Canadian-born actor of Cuban descent, says. “I wanted to play with that dynamic and I had such incredible actors around me like Ariana DeBose [as Anita, Bernardo’s significant other] and Rachel Zegler [as Maria] who made it so easy, to play off of them. And it is funny because the very first day I met Rachel and Ariana during the callbacks, there was an instant connection. We just got along really well. When we worked together, it just flowed beautifully. We definitely felt like it was right. And then Tony Kushner’s script enhanced those relationships on top of it.”
Alvarez is among the many triple threats in the “West Side Story” cast – and along with DeBose, Zegler, and Mike Faist (who plays Jets leader Riff), has materialized as a breakout performer for his work. Off-screen, the cast has seemingly remained very close since production on “West Side Story” ended two years ago (the release was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic), something Alvarez credits Spielberg with helping foster.
“He shows up on set with a certain kind of energy that trickles down to the entire cast and crew. He’s a kind of man that he does everything out of love, out of passion,” Alvarez says of the filmmaker. “He’s grateful to be there every day, doing what he’s doing. And I think when you see that, when you see your leader leading by example and showing you that yes, you can create art with love and passion and be proud of it and be grateful, everyone was feeling that. … Every day people were crying just because of how happy they were to be there. And I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never seen people cry at a job because they’re so happy to be there. So, it was really beautiful. And I think it really does start with Steven Spielberg. He’s not only a great director, but he’s also a great leader and a great father figure.”