'We're different': Spielberg launches Latina stars in 'West Side Story'

Los Angeles (AFP) – It is every aspiring actor's dream: hand-picked by Steven Spielberg from 30,000 contenders for a starring role that launches her into Hollywood's A-list and Oscars contention.


But Rachel Zegler insists the process of her casting as Maria in the new film adaptation of "West Side Story," which hit US theaters on Friday, was anything but straightforward.

"It didn't feel like a fairy tale when it was happening. I was actually very stressed out!" Zegler, who was 16 when she submitted a video of herself singing "I Feel Pretty," told AFP.

Zegler, a New Jersey native, went through "eight or nine" rounds of auditions over nearly a year.

"I left every single round thinking if I don't get it, I can't wait to see this movie, and I've had today and I've met these cool people, and maybe they'll keep me in mind for the next thing.

"I had the greatest time -- and then I got to actually make the movie," Zegler added.

Due to pandemic delays, the Spielberg motion picture was kept under wraps for more than two years after filming finished, during which time she has been cast as Snow White in Disney's upcoming live-action remake.

Zegler, now 20, is being tipped as a contender for best actress at the Oscars held in March, with the film's campaign blitz launching her into the public eye.

"It's the most jarring, overwhelming experience," said Zegler, adding that "she doesn't know how to feel" about becoming a celebrity.

"Being known is fun, being known is cool too," she said.

'We're different'

Spielberg's decision to remake a beloved 1961 film which won 10 Oscars -- the most ever for a musical -- drew criticism from many fans who felt it could not be improved upon.

Ariana DeBose (L) portrays Anita in Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of "West Side Story," a role that Rita Moreno (R) played to acclaim half a century earlier
Ariana DeBose (L) portrays Anita in Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of "West Side Story," a role that Rita Moreno (R) played to acclaim half a century earlier Charley Gallay GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File

Reviews have been glowing, however, with Zegler and Ariana DeBose -- who plays the fiery Anita -- drawing particular praise.

Additional controversy came from the 1950s Broadway musical's stereotyping of Puerto Rican immigrants as gang members, and its use of racial slurs.

But while the original film version was criticized for casting a white actress as Maria, and painting Rita Moreno's skin darker to play Anita, Spielberg cast his movie more authentically.

DeBose, who is Afro-Latina, said her real-life heritage helped her performance stand out from the legendary Moreno, who joined her on set for Spielberg's film as a new character.

"It wasn't intimidating because we're different. I mean, sure, she's 100 percent an icon, she's beloved," she told AFP.

"But by virtue of me being Afro-Latina, we are inherently different women, with different lived experiences and my lived experience informs this character fully," said DeBose.

"I walk through the world in a very different way. So I feel like when you know that you have something to offer a character you hold fast to that. And you don't focus on the pressures of someone else's legacy."

Moreno, one of the elite club of entertainers to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award -- popularly known as an "EGOT" -- "showed us that there was possibility of success," said DeBose.

"For my character specifically, now young Afro-Latinas finally get to see themselves as a main character in the context of this story."

Zegler, who is of Colombian heritage, added: "As a Latina, I could not be more proud to be a part of a project that represents our people in such a beautiful way, and represents real-life experiences that we've all had, and that our ancestors had when they came here for the first time."