A cameo would have been ‘a distraction,’ says the actress from the 1961 original, but ultimately she agreed to a heftier part.
Rita Moreno almost said no to Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake.
The EGOT winner starred in the original 1961 movie musical, which tells the story of star-crossed lovers caught between rival street gangs the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and the Jets, who are white. The film took home 10 Academy Awards including best picture.
Moreno, 89, won the best supporting actress Oscar playing Anita, the dynamic and fiercely loyal girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) and a confidante to his younger sister, Maria (Natalie Wood). But the actress was hesitant when Spielberg called her up and asked her to appear in his new adaptation (in theaters Dec. 10), written by “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner.
“I almost wet my knickers. I couldn’t believe this was Steven Spielberg on the phone, whom I so admired,” Moreno said, speaking in support of her new documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (in theaters now).
“But then I had the courage to say, ‘I don’t think I could do a cameo. I think it would be a severe disservice to this movie — it’d be a distraction,’ “ she adds. “And he said, ‘No, no, no. This is a real part. Tony Kushner wrote this part for you.’ ”
Moreno portrays a new character, Valentina, who is Doc’s widow. (In the 1961 movie, Doc, played by Ned Glass, owns a candy store where the Sharks and the Jets hang out.) Valentina is a reworked and expanded version of the Doc character, and sings a rendition of the classic song “Somewhere” in the movie’s first trailer.
In addition to the role, Spielberg also made Moreno an executive producer on the film.
“I felt I had things to tell him about the other production and about Latinos,” Moreno says. “He really went to such lengths to make sure he got that right,” even hosting a town hall at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan in late 2018, where he invited feedback from students, faculty and others before making the movie.
“He said, ‘Tell us what you think about “West Side Story,” tell us what you think about us doing it again, tell us what you think about the original movie,’ “ Moreno says. “And there were some people who said they were offended by some of the things they saw in the film. First of all, the makeup was kind of one color for the Hispanics, whereas Puerto Ricans are a mélange of French, Spanish Spain, Dutch and Taíno Indian, which is a copper color.”
Moreno, who was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, and moved to New York when she was 5, resented producers’ decision to darken her skin for the original “West Side.” The issue resurfaced last when Moreno defended Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose new film “In the Heights” has come under fire for its lack of Afro-Latino actors in lead and supporting roles. (Moreno has since apologized, saying, “I was clearly dismissive of Black lives that matter in our Latin community.”)
“I remember saying to my makeup man once on the original ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Why do I have to wear such dark makeup? I’m not that color,’ ” Moreno says. “And he literally said to me, ‘What, are you a racist?’ He really said that and I was so astonished that I shut up, because I didn’t know what to say to that. If I said, ‘No, I’m not a racist,’ I feel he would not believe me, so I let it drop. But it was shocking.”
As well as the use of brownface, the first “West Side” has been criticized for casting white actors in Hispanic roles and perpetuating stereotypes about Puerto Ricans. But Spielberg and Kushner “corrected all that stuff,” Moreno says. In the update, “every Hispanic [character] is actually Hispanic.”
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