‘West Side Story’ Stars Discuss Playing Two Different Generations of One Character

by Allison Hambrick

West Side Story actresses Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose discussed both of them playing Anita in the 1961 and 2021 versions of the film, respectively.

In Something’s Coming: West Side Story—Special Edition of 20/20, DeBose and Moreno sat down for a side-by-side interview. DeBose gushed over Moreno, talking about how “incredibly awkward she was,” while the former Anita brushed off the praise.

“We’re playing, you know, two different generations of one character,” DeBose stated, with Moreno finishing her sentence. Moreno then continued: “I understood Anita so well because I was born in Puerto Rico, I was brought to the United States when I was five years old. My first American experience was looking at the ‘ice cream cone’ on the Statue of Liberty. “

“I had a similar reaction when I first read this script,” responded DeBose. “I realized very quickly that this was a woman who wanted to assimilate. I am Puerto Rican. I’m also biracial. My mother is white, and I grew up in a predominantly white community. I shed so many things in order to fit in. “

West Side Story’s Anita as a Beacon of Strength.

“And then in my adulthood, I realized I had shed some of the most special and unique parts about me,” DeBose explained. “And that’s where my Anita comes from.”

For her part, Moreno explains that she found a similar strength in playing Anita. After years of being cast in various ethnic roles, West Side Story not only gave her the chance to honor her home country but also to play a character with agency. According to Moreno, “one of the things that absolutely attracted [her] was playing someone who not only had an opinion, but was pleased to opine.”

“Anita has taught me a lot about self-respect,” DeBose responded. “I am someone—I think we can agree—who is not afraid to use the word ‘no,’ but you know, even I have my own journey with self-respect.”

“But you know why that journey is so difficult?” Moreno asked DeBose. “It’s because the first thing we’ve been convinced for too many years in the past that we haven’t earned it. Especially if you come from another nationality. “

At that point in the interview, DeBose got emotional. The actress paused to praise Moreno once again.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to just tell you: thank you,” DeBose said. “I wouldn’t be here without you. I can’t imagine all of the things that you went through, but because of all of those things you went through, I have opportunity. And you’re a hero.”

Moreno Found DeBose “a Beautiful Anita”

Additionally, Moreno praised DeBose, calling her a “remarkable young woman.”

“First of all, the choice to choose you as Anita, I thought was gorgeously placed because I loved the idea that you were Afro-Latina,” Moreno continued. “I put myself in your place when you do ‘America,’ and I just, I glory in it. It is wonderful.”

Throughout promoting the film, Moreno has sung DeBose’s praises. Though it was bizarre for her to see another step into her Oscar-winning role, she found DeBose to be a “beautiful Anita.”

“I am so grateful to the gods up there, the planets aligning, that all of this happened,” Moreno said to a beaming DeBose. “I’m in West Side Story, again!”

The actresses end the interview on a somber note. Moreno references the passing of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, who penned the lyrics for the original musical. Both agreed they shall miss him “dreadfully.” Moreno then expressed gratitude to director Stephen Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner.

“How lucky can you get?” Moreno sang, with DeBose joining in.

Interested fans can relive West Side Story when it hits theaters on Dec. 10.