West Side Story's Ariana DeBose: ‘I was enamoured with Rita Moreno’

The performer and actor on playing the classic role of Anita in Steven Spielberg's remake

Ariana DeBose ‘We’re just now getting to the place where I can be all the things that I am and still find opportunity. Photograph: Niko Tavernise

Now this is how you land.

Steven Spielberg's infectious take on West Side Story — a Broadway staple for 60 years — has already turbo-boosted the careers of half-a-dozen hitherto promising young performers. None turned heads with quite such a whiplash as the already experienced Ariana DeBose. The North Carolinian actor, who excels as the irrepressible Anita, was faced with more challenges than most. Rita Moreno won an Oscar as the character in the 1961 film and returns in a new role for Spielberg. She was literally and figuratively looking over DeBose's shoulder.

“I was very aware of the film. I first saw it when I was seven or eight,” she tells me. “I was enamoured with Rita Moreno. And, by virtue of my work on Broadway, I was well versed in West Side Story and Jerome Robbins’s choreography and so on. But, when I was offered this role, I did make the decision to not seek out the film again — because I wasn’t trying to duplicate or recycle anything that had already been done. Rita’s performance is iconic and timeless, and it will remain so.”

I really applaud Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and our casting director Cindy Tolan for their commitment to authenticity

It should probably be left to Latino critics to tease out how the differences in backgrounds alter the flavours of the two performances. Moreno was born in Puerto Rico. DeBose’s father was of Afro-Puerto Rican descent.


“I had to find what I was going to add to this to this character’s journey,” she says. “And by virtue of my being Afro-Latina, I walk through the world very differently than Rita Moreno does. I allowed that to inform the character. But yes, I feel the pressure. I feel the pressure more now than I felt it when I was making the movie. Ha, ha!”

She has little to worry about. The reviews of West Side Story, which has been given significant narrative tweaks by writer Tony Kushner, were largely ecstatic and DeBose has been nudged towards the front of the pack in the race for the best supporting actress Oscar.

Nobody will need to be told that the original show — music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by the recently mourned Stephen Sondheim — adapts Romeo and Juliet into a rivalry between gangs in 1950s New York City. Maria is from a Puerto Rican background. Tony is Polish. Rita is the noisy, charismatic realist who, in America, the show's centrepiece, lays out an ambiguous, cynical vision of the nation's relationship with its non-white immigrants.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in West Side Story. Photograph: 20th Century Studios

Among the biggest changes from the 1961 version is that Latino actors now play all the Puerto Rican characters. Moreno was from that background, but Natalie Wood, who played Maria, was "browned up" in a fashion that would be unacceptable now. Will we ever go back to that dubious practice?

"Personally, I hope not," DeBose says. "I really applaud Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and our casting director Cindy Tolan for their commitment to authenticity. It's really important that — especially within cultural stories — we reflect back to the audience exactly who these people are. In this case, Latinos should be playing Latinos. And we have 50 Puerto Rican characters portrayed by folks of Hispanic descent. That's really, really important. And when you cast an actress like myself, who is Afro-Latina, it's a step in the right direction towards celebrating the fullness of the diaspora. Because there's not just one way to be Latina."

DeBose is still just 30, but she has already packed her CV to groaning point. She made her TV debut in the talent show So You Think You Can Dance. She appeared in the original cast of Hamilton. She received a Tony nomination for her co-lead performance in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. She shone in Apple’s delightful musical comedy series Schmigadoon!. So she is not any sort of unknown.

There was a time not so long ago that queer actresses could not be 'out'. And I don't live in that time anymore

In earlier interviews she acknowledged that there were struggles along the way. Speaking to Out magazine a few years back, she pondered a recent appearance in a TV tribute to the musical Wicked. “If you had told 20-year-old Ariana DeBose that she would sing anything from the Wicked score in any arena, she would have laughed at you,” she said. “There was no space for someone like me, someone to look like me, identify like me, or sound like me.” That surprised me. Have we come so far, so fast?

“Oh, you know, Growing up, I didn’t necessarily feel like I could be fully seen as all the things that I am at one time, right?,” she says with a shrug. “I did feel when I started in the industry that I was viewed as ‘ethnically ambiguous.’”

That feels like several euphemisms in one.

“But you know, I am a black woman. I am Latina. My mother is white. I am queer,” she says. “There was a time not so long ago that queer actresses could not be ‘out’. And I don’t live in that time anymore. Right? I’m very grateful for everyone who came before me that walked an even tougher road than I walked.

Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez. Photograph: Niko Tavernise

“We’re just now getting to the place where I can be all the things that I am and still find opportunity. So, yes, it’s very strange to think that it wasn’t that long ago that I would never in a million years have been cast in something like this. Just by virtue of me either being queer in my personal life, or by virtue of my being a black woman — because the industry didn’t see black women as Latina.”

DeBose is not short of charm. Dressed today in a neat pink jacket, she engages enthusiastically, but is free of the sometimes-wearying polish you get from a lot of well-tooled young performers. There is no sense that this conversation is part of the act.

Of course, she has had experience. Manoeuvring the talent show stream must build resilience. Unless you win the whole shebang, you will leave slightly disappointed. DeBose made it to the top 20 on the 2009 season of So You Think You Can Dance, but had to settle for the booby prize of a Tony nomination, a role in Hamilton and ultimately an Oscar-friendly turn in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. There are worse ways to lose.

I think I was one of the few actors who really did work steadily through the pandemic

“It is a very humbling thing at 18 years old,” she says. “It was my first experience in any sort of professional television show, but you are never prepared. You’re just never prepared. But I can tell you that, had I not done that show, I wouldn’t have really learned how to audition. I came out of that process, knowing I could audition for anything and be successful. It served me really well in that capacity.

“But I also can tell you that it was very hard on me emotionally and psychologically. I had to do a lot of work, because when you go into something like that, and you have such a public brush with rejection, it makes you take seven steps back. But ultimately, that’s what led me to New York City and helped me find to my theatre community. And potentially if I hadn’t gone through that we might not be sitting here talking about West Side Story.”

That resilience must have come in handy even after securing the part. West Side Story was one of many high-profile releases caught up in the Covid rearrangements. Originally scheduled for Christmas of last year, its release was, like other potential awards season films, in a state of uncertainty until late in 2020. It was not until September that the studio gave in and confirmed that the film would arrive in the following awards season. That must have been difficult psychologically. You land this significant part. Then the circus gets packed up and warehoused for a year.

Ariana DeBose: ‘Humans are interesting. We should be more than one thing’. Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty

“Of course, but I think it was the right decision to hold the film,” she says. “So that it could be seen in cinemas and people could really have the full experience of what this movie actually is. But it was a harsh reality to face. Because I was getting really so excited about it coming out. But I am very grateful.”

Theatre and cinema exhibition suffered in the lockdown, but production continued with surprising vigour. Not every actor was left in front of afternoon telly.

"I was able to find other opportunities," she says. "I think I was one of the few actors who really did work steadily through the pandemic. I did The Prom for Ryan Murphy. I worked on Schmigadoon! for Apple TV. I actually cannot believe that in a pandemic I was able to continue making films. Yeah, that's kind of shocking. But I'm very grateful, because I think West Side Story played into that."

Not every one of the younger actors in West Side Story will last as long as Rita Moreno. But, if DeBose and the world are still functioning in another 60 years, I wouldn’t rule out her returning to the 2081 remake in a role similar to that played by the senior actor in Spielberg’s film. She has pretty much all you need. She can act, dance and sing. She can chat. As important as any of those things, she has distinctive character. There is no sense that that she has been hammered out from a template.

“Humans are interesting. We should be more than one thing,” she says, returning to a theme.

We can occupy all kinds of boxes. Or no boxes. That’s the ideal situation. Right?

“No boxes! No boxes!”

West Side Story is in cinemas now