Based on the iconic 1957 stage musical, "West Side Story" returns to the big screen but this time with more diversity and even more passion. Acclaimed director Steven Spielberg has reimagined the famed story and enhanced it for a modern audience. It stars an ensemble cast of very talented actors including Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, and Josh Andres Rivera. And last but far from least, the film brings back beloved actress Rita Moreno who actually starred as Anita in the original 1961 film adaptation. Though her role in the new adaptation is different, her presence is certainly felt just the same. In preparation for the film's release, we were able to attend a virtual press conference with the cast, and they expressed the impact that this film had on them while they were making it. Here's the quick Q&A with the cast of "West Side Story."
'West Side Story' Q&A: Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll & Josh Andres Rivera
Q: What was it like passing the torch, in a way, being part of the original, but then also getting to be part of the new film, and see the story happen all over again?
Rita Moreno: Passing the torch, that's a great way to put it. It wasn't easy. I mean, I'm not going to say I wasn't envious. That would be just a bloody lie. I wished I could be that young again and do it again obviously. But that wasn't going to be. And I get this beautifully written part. I love me in this movie. You don't say things like that easily. Because they're gonna say, "Oh, ma, give me a break." I don't care what they say. I love every scene I'm in, therefore I love what I'm doing. And it was difficult. It was absolutely creepy to do the scene, the one scene I did with Anita. And it was strange for her, but it was even more difficult for me. I just kept looking at her, and I had the toughest time getting inside the scene. Because what I was really doing in a way, was saving Anita's life, because these boys were about to possibly rape her, and I had to put a stop to that. Well, I did that scene. And I was really being Doc who stopped that from happening in the original movie. Very strange.
Q: What does it mean to you to be singing his [Stephen Sondheim] words that are still so relevant today?
Rachel Zegler: I think I can speak for everyone here today that a lot of us wouldn’t be here without the words of Steve Sondheim. We were so lucky to not only be able to sing his lyrics but be able to talk to him about them. We consider them silly anecdotes because of how iconic they are, but he was always wanting to change them and always wanting to evolve them, and it was really inspiring as an artist to watch someone who had created this insane piece of work and he has things he still wants to change 64 years later. I certainly wouldn’t be performing without Stephen Sondheim and may his memory be a blessing.
Q: Rita Moreno was saying how it was difficult for her to pass the torch and that it was a significant torch to take over. How did it feel?
Ariana DeBose: I feel like my answer to that question is going to change every time depending on the moment I’m in. But look, when I was first asked to audition, I had to be pushed into the room. I inherently did not think that this was ever a job that I would book. Because Anitas don’t look like us. You know, they look like Rita Moreno. And I was not shocked but just like really amazed that Steven and Tony were open to having the conversation around it ‘cause it was something I said in the room. I was like, "If we don’t want to touch on that by virtue of my being a black woman that that can inform this character’s path, then maybe this isn’t the choice for you. Maybe I’m not the choice for you." And then you get the job and you’re like, "Oh my gosh, okay, cool. I have a point of view, I know what I’m trying to accomplish, and I feel prepared. This is going to be fine." And then you meet Rita Moreno and you’re like, "What was I thinking? This is a terrible idea." I try not to think of the fact that she won an Oscar because if you let that penetrate the process, then it'll feel like failure is just imminent because you’re trying to achieve someone else’s success and I genuinely don’t want that. I just want what’s right for this version of the character in the story. And that’s how I feel about it today.
Q: The scene that both of you have with Crazy Boy was beautiful. Tell me about that scene.
Ansel Elgort: So, Mike and I, Riff and I, we were sort of like Riff and Tony for a long time through the rehearsal process. And we spent a lot of time together and we built that kinda friendship and we imagined what it was like being kids playing as the Jets before things even probably got too violent. It's just us revisiting that friendship and almost having too much fun and playing with fire again and then it gets to the point where he crosses a line and hits me in the face and that’s like, "Woah, what just happened?" But one thing I really appreciate, your compliments, and I have to give a lot of credit to being able to work with such amazing people because I came into that rehearsal when we were rehearsing months in advance, and I was not the strongest dancer. I was definitely the weakest dancer. But you have these incredible dancers who are all around me and also are all supporting me and right after rehearsal, Harrison Cole, who is our dance captain who’s an amazing dancer, he was helping me with my steps. And Justin Peck and Patty and Craig Solstein, they have a team of people who are all trying to help me and make me better...he whole process, singing, dancing, acting, it was like an incubator. And Steven wanted us to all be at our best. So, thank you for the compliments, but I have to give credit really to being part of such an amazing ensemble (with) everybody lifting each other up and lifting me up and making me the best I can be.
Q: How did it feel to play such a complex character?
David Alvarez: It was scary 'cause I didn’t know if I was doing it right half the time. I just felt like I was in such a great environment where Steven and Tony and everyone involved in it, they just wanted to see you do what you want to do. Instead of telling you how to do this or what to do, they just want you to trust yourself to believe in yourself to have the confidence and (find) within yourself what you think you should bring to this character. And that’s really rare in a project. So, it’s scary because you feel like you have all this responsibility to create something. But at the same time, that’s what makes you a better artist, so I feel like they kind of helped us all become better artists through this process. And mainly because of the encouragement of believing in yourself and trusting your instinct.
Q: How do you get into a character that's so multi-dimensional? Because you made him, I wouldn’t say likeable, but at the very least, understandable.
Mike Faist: Well, thanks. That’s really the goal. You have to really lean into where it’s coming from. Obviously fear, but where is that fear coming from? And underneath all of that, there is a love. The background that these boys do have...they don’t have the family that people are attempting to create in a new city. They don’t have that. All they have is this toxicity of a tribe and familial relationship that they’ve built and culminated together and it’s totally unhealthy and co-dependent, but it’s what they've got. And it’s the only thing they've got. So, when Tony comes back and he’s actually trying to change and be different. I keep joking and saying it’s kind of like going back home to Thanksgiving. And the inability to recognize that the entirety of the city is changing before everyone’s eyes and the inability or reluctance to let go of what was and trying to hold onto whatever, the inability to accept change, that’s where that’s coming from. It’s fear, but it’s based off this thing of what we have together. So, like, underneath that fear is a love. It’s weird. It’s complicated. It is complex, right?
Q: What did it mean to you because this film was so much about representation? And how did it feel to be a part of something like this with these actually very complex, nuanced characters?
Josh Andres Rivera: Yeah, I mean this film was a lot of things for me and it’s my first feature. And it’s (the) work of Steven Spielberg. And then it’s that representation of Puerto Ricans and that is my heritage. So, it was just kind of a lot of things at the same time. I mean, when people ask me how it feels, there are so many components to that...what’s nice is you get to really see and understand and empathize with the arcs of all the characters and how everything plays out. You see it in real time.
Q: The language issue was a major part of the film. How was it for you to sort of be on the "Speak English, this is America" side of the discussion?
Corey Stoll: Well, I mean, Tony Kushner’s script is such an incredible addition to telling this story. And I think the understanding of race and ethnicity and language that he brings to it, is more about the systemic forces and then how power instills itself on a community as opposed to that person is a racist so we can pick them out.
Q: Which musical number was the most difficult for you to shoot and why?
Mike Faist: I think from our perspective, I’m not sure if any of it was really, like, difficult. There were challenges, right? There are elements that you have to battle, but at the end of the day, this was such a wonderful and joyous experience to do.
Q: So much of the film was shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn, what was your favorite part of filming in New York City?
Rachel Zegler: It’s a character. New York became a character. I mean, the morning after the balcony scene, the beginning of the scherzo ballet sequence in the music, it’s just shot after shot of New York in the morning, and even if you’re not familiar with 1957 New York, if you’re familiar with New York now, it embraces that so well. And I think the film really became a love letter to New York, not only because of how stunning it was visually, but because of the context that Tony Kushner gave it in the script of understanding the political climate as well. And it was just so cool to walk on Adam Stockhausen’s beautifully defined 1957 set and feel really transported. I think we were all able to really incorporate it into our performances as well because it was so immersive.
Q: How did you use the source material to stay true to the original while also making the story and characters your own?
Rachel Zegler: I made the choice not to. I think comparison was imminent, so when I got the part, I was like, whether they like it or they don’t like it, they’re going to compare, so I’m just going to distance myself as much as I can. The music, you know, you have to listen to in order to study and understand, but it was re-taught to us in a brand-new way by Jeanine Tesori, and conducted by David Newman and Gustavo Dudamel with the New York Philharmonic, and so I think we were all able to kind of look at it with a fresh perspective.
Q: Did you watch the original movie?
Ansel Elgort: No, I haven’t seen it since I was a kid. I used to love that movie, though, especially the prologue. But, yeah, I’ve always been told as an actor you’re not supposed to look at someone else’s performance. But I will say Steven Spielberg loves the original. Obviously, the source material. And it is very much based off of the source material and then reimagined, the way that art is supposed to be.
December 10, 2021
Jesse is a writer and content manager for Noovie. When he's not working, he's on the beach playing volleyball.