Not only is West Side Story a new adaptation of the beloved 1957 Broadway musical and a follow-up to the Oscar-winning film adaptation by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, but it’s also a Spielberg movie. With its accolade-heavy director, responsible for the likes of E.T., Jaws, and beyond, there was a lot of pressure on its sprawling ensemble – many of which were newcomers to the silver screen. This topic was clearly one on everyone’s mind during the film’s global press conference. The new stars were asked about their initial reaction to working with Steven Spielberg and being cast in his version of West Side Story.
David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo – the leader of the Jets, Anita’s boyfriend, and Maria’s brother – spoke frankly; “I mean, my mind was pretty blown. It came out of nowhere. I never expected something like that to happen.” After an extensive process of casting that involved vocal rehearsals and dance reviews, that final call held a lot of weight. “I get the call, and you know, it’s Steven, and I’m like… oh my god,” Alvarez said. “I’m freaking out a little bit, and I’m trying to sound professional. I’m like, ‘Oh, hi, Mr. Spielberg. How are you today? And then he was like, ‘Oh, please don’t call me Mr. Spielberg; call me Steven, because I’ll be calling you Bernardo from now on.’”
Newcomer Rachel Zegler shared her unique story of coming to work with Spielberg, which involved a tape recorded from a summer theater camp production of West Side Story in which she also played Maria. When auditions opened up for the film, Zegler was encouraged by many to give it a shot. “My friend McKenna sent [the tape] to me, she says, ‘You just played this role. Thank me when you’re famous,’ And then I actually went in eight or nine times for the part,” said the actress. “It was a year. I went from January 25, 2018 to January 9, 2019.”
Such a long casting process included many, many different stages; “Some days were workshop, some days were screen tests… Steven apologized profusely for how long it took because it’s not commonplace for things to take that long… It wasn’t until almost a year after I sent in my first tape that Steven actually brought me in-person with Ansel in this ballet studio in Manhattan and I got to find out in person, and the first thing out of my mouth was, I think, a curse word.”
Josh Andrés Rivera, who plays Chino, spoke to similar surprise. “I mean this film was a lot of things for me,” he expressed. “It’s my first feature – and it’s a work of Steven Spielberg.” As was the case with the rest of the cast, there was more to the project that stood out to him than just its creative heads. “It’s that representation of Puerto Ricans and that is my heritage, so it was just a lot of things at the same time. When people ask me how it feels, there’s so many components to that. And to be able to dive into it with the nuance that you saw in all the characters… I thank Tony Kushner for this, he gave me a lot of meat and potatoes, which I really appreciate.”
“When I was first asked to audition, I had to be pushed into the room,” admitted actress Ariana DeBose, who brings life to Anita in the film. “I inherently did not think that this was a job that I would book because Anitas don’t look like us. They look like Rita Moreno.” Representation of an Afro-Latina lead character was extremely important for the actress in her approach to the casting process. “I was not shocked but really amazed that Steven and Tony were open to having the conversation around it because it was something in the room. I was like, ‘if we don’t want to touch on that, by virtue of my being a black woman, 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.’” This was a driving point for her sense of place during production. “I have a point of view, ‘I know what I’m trying to accomplish, and I feel prepared. This is going to be fine,’” she stated. “And then you meet Rita Moreno, and you’re like, ‘What was I thinking?’”
There was also, of course, a lot of pressure to live up to previous adaptations. “George Chakiris, who did the 1961 movie, did a perfect Bernardo, so I was a little scared,” David Alvarez confessed. “I’m like, ‘so what am I gonna do? What can I do?’ But the incredible thing about this project is that Steven, Tony Kushner really wanted you to find your own voice for this character. They didn’t want you to do anything else or look at anything else. They were just focused on you finding your voice and being confident in that voice.”