Steven Spielberg, Rita Moreno gush about Ariana DeBose, talk Afro-Latinx casting in ‘West Side Story’

"We have a responsibility to be completely inclusive and also authentic to the story you're telling," the acclaimed director says.

Steven Spielberg wants to transport West Side Story into the modern era.

The legendary director, 74, aims to bring the story of Maria and Tony’s ill-fated love affair into the 21st century with casting that reflects the diverse audiences that will be watching the film today. The 1961 movie adaption of the 1957 musical has been criticized by fans for its casting of White actors in Latinx roles, particularly the casting of Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood as Maria.

In Spielberg’s adaption, the Sharks cast is made up of entirely Latinx actors, with Afro-Puerto Rican actress Ariana DeBose starring in one of the lead roles as Anita. The director told theGrio exclusively that “we have a responsibility to be completely inclusive and also authentic to the story you’re telling.”

Rita Moreno (L) and Steven Spielberg attend the New York premiere of West Side Story on November 29, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for 20th Century Studios)

“The authenticity would not have been possible without the mandate, which I placed down on the whole company, that every single Shark, boy and girl, must be Latinx — certainly descendant from Latinx countries,” Spielberg explained. “There were some wonderful singers and performers that came in [to audition] who weren’t Latinx, even some wonderful Hispanic singers, [but] I needed this to be in complete deference and respect to Puerto Rico.”

He continued, “I just hope the same way Rita Moreno appearing as Anita — the only Latina in West Side Story in 1961 in a significant major role — opened up a lot of doors after that, hopefully we get to open up a lot of doors after our film.”

Spielberg’s adaptation hasn’t avoided its own criticism, however. There are some fans who argue that the 2021 movie musical should have cast only Puerto Rican-identifying actors as Sharks, and included more Afro-Latinx diversity, particularly when it comes to skin tone.

In response to those comments, Spielberg explained, “We have 20 Puerto Rican actors, both Nuyoricans and Puerto Ricans, in our movie — in front of the cameras and a lot more behind the scenes,” adding that DeBose “dazzles” in her role of Anita.

Ariana DeBose, Steven Spielberg, and Rachel Zegler attend the New York premiere of West Side Story on November 29, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for 20th Century Studios)

Rachel Zegler, who stars as Maria in the 2021 adaption, piggy-backed off Spielberg’s comments. The 20-year-old actress, who is of Colombian descent, explained, “I think young people being able to see Ariana DeBose being such a powerhouse, as a Black Latina, is going to be so huge for young Black Latinos all around the world to know that their dreams are not far-fetched. And that it’s okay to make demands and dazzle.”

Rita Moreno, who stars as store owner Valentina in the 2021 reboot, also gushed about DeBose’s performance. The 89-year-old actress said that seeing DeBose take over her original role of Anita, representing for Afro-Latinas, was “fabulous.”

“I think she was an incredible choice. I simply adore the fact that Steven [Spielberg] chose an Afro-Latina,” Moreno said. “There are lots of us around, but it’s so fabulous that he chose her. By the way, she’s an incredible dancer and she’s terrific.”

Moreno went on to reveal her own struggles with insensitivity and racism while making the original 1961 film, reflecting on a time she was forced by white producers to wear dark brown makeup to star as Anita. The Puerto Rican actress shared that Spielberg and the 2021 producers “really killed themselves in every way imaginable to make this right.”

“Even the makeup, if you’re this color [points to hand], then you’ll be this color,” she explained about Spielberg’s adaption. “And you can still be Puerto Rican. I remember saying to the makeup man [of the original film] in absolute frustration, because it kept streaking, because it was so dark. You’d see my skin under and I’d say, ‘I hate this makeup. I’m Puerto Rican. Why can’t I be my color?’ He actually said to me — you won’t believe this — ‘What are you racist?'”

“I know I needed to do [West Side Story] again because it does address the whole Latino question in a very, very much more honest way,” she continued. “…[The Broadway adaption] was incredible, but they didn’t address the social part as much as they might have. Now, we have a very socially conscious West Side Story. …The dialogue has changed somewhat, but the awareness has changed enormously.”

West Side Story is available to watch now in theaters. Fan can watch theGrio‘s interviews with Spielberg, Zegler and Moreno above.

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