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‘We Need To Be in the Room.’ West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose on Latino Representation in Film 

9 minute read

West Side Story became an instant classic upon its release in 1961. The adaptation of the 1957 Romeo and Juliet-inspired stage musical, which starred Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10. That year, Rita Moreno became the first Latina ever to win an Oscar, for her role as Anita, Maria’s brother Bernardo’s girlfriend.

But for all its successes, more recent reassessments of the movie point to the ways in which its casting fell short. Years later, Moreno, who is of Puerto Rican descent, admitted that her skin was darkened for the role. Non-Latino actors, like Wood, portrayed many of the film’s hispanic characters.

In anticipation of the release of Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story in December, and in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, TIME100 Talks Host Lola Ogunnaike spoke to actors Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose—who play, respectively, Maria and Anita—about the importance of Latino representation in film and how we can work toward building a more inclusive Hollywood.

Lola Ogunnaike: After a long, COVID-induced wait, West Side Story will finally be in theaters this December. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner with choreography by Tony Award winner Justin Peck. And it stars you two. So on a scale of one to 10, how epic will this remake be?

Rachel Zegler: I’m going to go ahead and say 12. I think it will exceed so many people’s expectations. We can’t wait to share it with the world.

Ariana DeBose: Yeah, I agree. What she said.

Ariana, you appeared in Hamilton and earned a Tony nomination for your starring turn in the Donna Summer musical. Now you’re playing one of the most iconic characters in movie history, Anita. Rita Moreno won an Oscar for this role. No pressure at all, right?

DeBose: It’s really thrilling. I can’t say enough about how generous Rita was with me. And she empowered me to do my own thing. Like Rachel, I’m just really excited for everyone to be able to finally see how we’ve brought these characters to life, how we’ve gone further with them.They’re really lovable characters; you root for these characters.

How did you go about making Anita your own?

DeBose: Well, I’m a Black woman. So right there, we’re going to be different because the way that I walk through the world every day is very different than the way that Rita walks through the world. And that’s where I began: how does this woman walk through the world in 1951?

Rachel, this is your film debut, and you reportedly beat out 30,000 other actresses for this dream role of Maria. Take me back to the moment when you were told that you’ve landed the lead.

Zegler: That was an extreme moment in my life, because I had actually auditioned for about a year. Beyond the feeling of excitement that I got to do my first paid professional acting gig with Steven Spielberg, it was also this big sigh of relief that the process was over. So many beautiful people went out for this role, because it’s such an important role for young Latinas in this industry to see, and I’m really hoping I live up to the hype that those headlines gave me.

The character of Maria was Puerto Rican, but she was famously played by Natalie Wood, who was not of Hispanic descent. Does the reboot get it right this time around?

Zegler: Authenticity is really important when it comes to West Side Story, and authenticity in Latin identity comes in so many different shapes and sizes and colors. We have so many people from so many different walks of life in this movie that are being represented whether they were born and raised in Puerto Rico, Cuba, whether their parents were born here, like me. My parents were born here, but my abuelita was not—she came from Colombia in the ‘60s to have my mom. I think that that’s very well represented in this movie—that there are so many different ways to be Latinx, and so many versions that we don’t talk about in mainstream media.

Ariana, some critics took issue with In the Heights and its lack of Afro-Latino representation. And it sparked some serious conversation about colorism. You identify as both Afro-Latinx and queer. How important is representation to you and your work?

DeBose: Incredibly important. What’s the point of seeing stories that don’t accurately represent who we are within our culture, or just period as a nation? The conversation around colorism is vast, and it will be ongoing. I think part of what is exciting about West Side Story is that you do have a main character in the forefront speaking her truth as an Afro-Latina, and that is something we have not had. Dare I say ever. And that should be a conversation: how we decide what is Latina or Latino enough in this industry. Rachel put it so beautifully that there are many different ways to be Latinx in this world and we have stories being told, unfortunately, still from a white lens. In order to fully celebrate who we are, we have to begin to celebrate the full diaspora. And that includes Black Latinos, it has to.

It brings me to a study that I was digging through recently, a diversity report issued by UCLA. It pointed out that Latinos only held 4.6% of movie acting roles in 2019. And at the top 145 grossing films that same year, Latinos had writing credits on only 2.8% of films, and directing credits on only 2.7%. What work should be done to build a more inclusive entertainment industry?

Zegler: We need to be in the room. How many rooms do we walk into where they are supposed to be Latinx stories, not told in any capacity by Latinx people? We were so fortunate on West Side Story to have a creative team that cared a lot about the authenticity of the story being told. Our first couple weeks of rehearsal included panels with people who actually lived in San Juan Hill in Manhattan in 1957 and understood how the neighborhood changed and why things were getting knocked down and why the gangs were fighting over territory. But that’s not the reality for a lot of Latinx stories being told in Hollywood, on Broadway. Being able to get our foot in the door actually starts with people who are not Latinx giving us the opportunity to do so, because they have the privilege in this industry, and I would even say that I have the privilege in this industry being a white Latina. I’m considered more palatable to audiences. This is a time for people to be using their privilege to bring in people who should be telling these authentic stories.

Do you feel a responsibility to advocate for bringing others into the room, not necessarily only Latinx voices, but people throughout the Diaspora?

DeBose: I won’t speak for everyone, but I realize I only got here by someone holding the door open for me. And now the doors have to get, you know…

Zegler: We need a revolving door.

DeBose: We need a revolving door! Kenny Leon recently said when he won the Tony, no disrespect to Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. They already got seats at the table. We need more seats. We sit here and we talk such a good talk about wanting to hear stories about the world we live in and yet we’re not allowing the people with these perspectives to tell them. So you have very outspoken Latinas like myself and Rachel, trust and believe when we have an opportunity, the door is held open. So if you want to be there, come on, let’s go.

The release of the new West Side Story coincides with the 60th anniversary of the original. And in many ways, it feels like it’s arriving in the world right on time: the nation is currently grappling with issues around immigration, racial justice and the American dream. What do you hope today’s audiences learn from this update?

DeBose: The American dream has to change.

How so?

DeBose: The American Dream used to be synonymous with whiteness. I am America. I am a Black woman, I am Afro-Lat. I’m queer. I literally belong to so many marginalized groups wrapped up in one woman. But that’s America. The dream of success has to be able to be wrapped up in these packages. The only way we get those ideas forward is by putting them on screens and telling those stories. But that’s just one facet of it.

Zegler: I do believe that this is an incredible time for the movie to be coming out. But it’s always been a poignant story with the fear around immigration, or in Puerto Rico’s case, migration. There’s always been a stigma around that. What our movie does so brilliantly is gives the full perspective of why the Sharks and Jets are actually fighting, and how misunderstood they actually are by one another. In the beginning, there’s a great monologue given by Corey Stoll, who plays Lieutenant Schrank, who talks about these people being kicked out of their homes to build the new Lincoln Center, and how they’re all wrong. They’re mad at the wrong people. They’re mad at each other because of their differences, and not understanding that they actually have a lot more in common. That’s a huge conversation we should be having right now: if we just focus for one second on the common problems we all have, rather than the common problems we have with each other, we could actually spark a lot of change.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Write to Jenna Caldwell at jenna.caldwell@time.com