Spielberg Relied on His ‘West Side Story’ Actors to Keep Film Authentic to Puerto Ricans

Spielberg wanted actress Rita Moreno to be an executive producer on the film so she could share her perspectives with everyone on set.
"West Side Story"
"West Side Story"
20th Century Studios

One of the biggest films arriving later this year during the Christmas movie season is Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” While Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (the director’s collaborator on “Munich” and “Lincoln,” plus the playwright behind “Angels in America”) are behind the latest film adaptation of the 1957 musical, the director tells Vanity Fair in a new first look at the movie that he was adamant about ensuring his “West Side Story” remain authentic to the Puerto Rican experience. Spielberg says that’s the only reason he wanted to make “West Side Story” for a 2020 audience.

“This story is not only a product of its time, but that time has returned, and it’s returned with a kind of social fury,” Spielberg says. “I really wanted to tell that Puerto Rican, Nuyorican experience of basically the migration to this country and the struggle to make a living, and to have children, and to battle against the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice.”

Unlike Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ Oscar-winning 1961 movie adaptation, which cast a number of white actors in makeup to play Puerto Rican characters, Spielberg only wanted Hispanic performers to play the Hispanic characters in his film. Spielberg tells Vanity Fair that at least 20 of the 33 Puerto Rican characters in his “West Side Story” are “specifically Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent.”

“They brought an authenticity,” Spielberg says. “They brought themselves, and everything they believe and everything about them — they brought that to the work. And there was so much interaction between the cast wanting to be able to commit to the Puerto Rican experience. They all represent, I think, a diversity, both within the Puerto Rican, Nuyorican community as well as the broader Latinx community. And they took that seriously.”

Directing “West Side Story” as a Caucasian filmmaker also meant Spielberg was open to listening to suggestions from his Hispanic cast members. Rita Moreno won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 movie and stars in Spielberg’s 2020 adaptation as a newly-created character. Spielberg made Moreno an executive producer on the film and “urged her to share her perspective” with him and the young cast. Moreno tells Vanity Fair she wanted in on Spielberg’s “West Side Story” so she could right some of the wrongs of the 1961 film, including the whitewashing. The actress said, “That’s what they were trying to fix and ameliorate, and I think they have done an incredible job.”

During one scene in which white cops attempt to break up a fight between the Sharks and the Jets, Moreno stepped in to tweak the reactions of the characters because she didn’t feel the dancers playing the Sharks understood just how bad the situation would be for real Puerto Rican boys at the time. Moreno tells Vanity Fair, “I was using bad language and all that, and I said, ‘You are fucked! You are fucked if they catch you! You don’t have a chance. And they’re all looking at me with big beautiful brown eyes. I said, ‘Talk to each other before you do the scene again! Scare each other!’”

Spielberg also took advice from newcomers such as Ariana DeBose, a Tony nominee from “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” DeBose is playing Anita in Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and she says Spielberg often asked her to speak up if any part of her character rang inauthentic to her. One important conversation with her director took place during the audition process.

“I’m Afro-Latina and I said to [Spielberg], ‘As a woman of color, if you’re going to consider me for this role, I would potentially be the darkest woman to play her onscreen,’” DeBose says. “There’s also the reality that it’s a period piece and there’s racial tension. In one way, you’re not really sure if Anita’s African American or if she’s Latina. I was like, ‘I think there’s really something to lean into, if that’s of value,’ and he was intrigued by that observation. It was fun from the jump to feel like I was contributing to his new vision in a way.”

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is scheduled for release on December 18, 2020. Head over to Vanity Fair’s website to read Spielberg’s first look at the movie in its entirety.

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