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BWW Interview: Rita Moreno Talks Documentary, WEST SIDE STORY Remake & More

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American Masters - Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It is now streaming on Netflix.

BWW Interview: Rita Moreno Talks Documentary, WEST SIDE STORY Remake & More

EGOT winner Rita Moreno has a career that spans over the course of more than 70 years. From her star turn in West Side Story, to her recent scene-stealing character in One Day At a Time, Moreno has now taken a look back on her legendary career in a new documentary.

After premiering earlier this year, AMERICAN MASTERS - Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It is now streaming on Netflix. BroadwayWorld spoke with her about the documentary, her role in the new West Side Story remake, her advice to Ariana DeBose, and more!


What was the deciding factor for you to make this documentary?

It had a great deal to do with Norman Lear and Brent Miller, who is his producing partner. We were doing One Day at A Time and Brent came to me one day and asked if anyone had ever offered a documentary to me and I said "no". He just said, "Never?" and I said, "No, why?" He said "My God, you've had such an interesting life." So we talked about the possibility of doing a documentary but really, ultimately, it took me almost a year to decide yes. You know, when you make a decision to entrust your life to someone, you better be sure that they're going to respect it. Particularly, in my case, if I was going to do one, it was going to be very truthful, no punches pulled, and I wanted to make sure that that was respected. Brent and Norman and Lin Manuel [Miranda], that just did it for me. And then of course what was so wonderful about it was that I was able to have a woman direct it and she had a producing partner in Puerto Rico and they are both Puerto Rican. Then, it just turned out that the cameraman was Puerto Rican! They all work together. It was just really solicitous and wonderful. The best thing, that I didn't for one minute ever expect, was that its become extremely relevant.

We can see that so much has changed in society since the start of your career, but also a few things have, unfortunately, stayed the same. What are you thoughts on the ways that society has changed since the start of your career and the ways it hasn't?

It's changed in the sense that there are a number of women's movements. The moment those things happened I was really celebrating. I just think its very important. I am and was thrilled about that. More than ever we need organizations like that because things have not changed anywhere near as much as they should have. We have a long way to go still, which is shocking. When you look at my stories and then you look at the newspapers and the anti-abortion game in Texas, you just say 'oh my god.' So little has changed in some ways. Women are still perceived in very restrictive ways. We're getting tough now and we're getting aware.

As we see throughout the documentary, your work has shaped the lives of so many people. What was it like for you to watch this documentary and to hear how much of an inspiration you were to them?

It was thrilling. It was really thrilling. And I remember that after the very first time I saw it, I saw it with my daughter, Fernanda, I said, '"Oh my god, they were right! I have an interesting life." [Laughs] You know, you DON'T think of your life that way, it's your life! It's things that happen. It doesn't occur to you for the longest time, at least in my case, that those things very often had lessons to learn and have history to distribute to people. I'm so glad we did it. I initially couldn't imagine what could be so interesting about me. And once I saw the documentary, I thought, "My God, I'm fascinating!" [Laughs] The fact that I'm still around to say so is delicious and wonderful!

Was this the first time when you were really able to look back on your career and accomplishments?

It really was. This was just an extraordinary experience for me. Extraordinary. All kinds of things bubbled up that I had forgotten. Believe it or not, the rape had completely left my mind. All kinds of stuff. It was just bubbling up to the surface. I loved that. I just did an interview for a very, very famous TV show and new stuff popped up, too. I just thought, "Wow. Look at all the stuff that this little head is containing!" It's astonishing.

Once you put together the right team to create this documentary, did it take any type of contemplating or second thought before sharing these stories or was it just a natural process?

You know, interestingly enough, no. It's as if it needed to be said and I didn't know it. I made one promise to myself. If I were to do this documentary, I would be completely truthful to the best of my knowledge and ability. And that's hat I did. That, in turn, is what made this into a very, very relevant and timely documentary. As far as I can discern, there's not anything in there that's not truthful. So I'm just thrilled to death that I did it and that it turned out the way that it did.

You also have a role in Steven Spielberg's upcoming West Side Story remake. What made you want to return to West Side Story for this new film?

It wasn't what made me want to return to it, it's that I was invited. I first spoke to Steven on the phone, who happens to be one of my all time favorite directors ever, I just think he's astonishing. The same man who made ET, and then does the Harrison Ford movies, and then does Holocaust movies and the Invasion of Normandy, just think of it! The breadth of this man's work is astonishing. When you see West Side Story, it's his first musical, your eyes will pop. There are some incredible moments in this movie. It's so cinematic, but he is a very cinematic person.

You play Valentina in the film. What can you tell us about this new character?

Valentina is the widow of Doc, who used to own the candy store where the Jets hung out. She's the widow, and it turns out, of course, that she's Puerto Rican ... It's Tony Kushner who brought all of this about. She's a marvelous character. It's not a cameo. It's a real part. I wouldn't do a cameo, anyway. The first thing I said to Spielberg, who I didn't even know when he called to ask if I would be in this movie, was, "The idea of a cameo in this particular movie of all movies I feel would be detrimental and distracting."

Ariana DeBose plays your former character of Anita. Did you give her any advice about playing the role before she began shooting?

She plays Anita and she's a ferocious dancer. What a dancer. She looks wonderful in it. When you see "America", you are just going to pee-pee your pants! I didn't want to condescend to her. I did tell her about one moment that I regret not having done in the original. I said it's my gift to her. I DON'T want to say the scene because then people will start comparing them and that's no good. But she was very nervous to meet me. I took her to lunch and tried to make her comfortable. One of the things that makes me so happy is that they chose a girl of mixed color. I think that is so perfect for Anita.

Tony and Steven did everything they could to respect the whole business of being Hispanic and what that means and what that meant at that time. They went to the University of Puerto Rico and had panels with audiences. It shows in the most wonderful and illustrative way how hard they worked just to get it right. The original movie didn't necessarily do that. The ultra-dark makeup and ALL THAT kind of stuff. Which really was Jerome Robbins' contribution, he wanted a big skin color contrast between the two gangs. It was heavy handed and didn't make sense. I remember saying to my makeup artist one day while he was this stuff on me, which was really the color of mud, "I hate this makeup. I''m Puerto Rican. Why can't I be my color?" And he said, "What are you? Racist?" Can you believe that? That was so stupid, my jaw just dropped and I didn't respond because I didn't know what to say. Unreal.

But you're going to want to see this movie again, twice at least. It's just incredible. Just to be tickled and pleased all over again. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you clutch your chest and pat your heart. The romantic scenes are just astonishing. [Rachel Zegler] was seventeen when she started the movie, just like Maria. What a find. I can tell you that two of the standouts in the musical itself are the 'The Rumble' and 'America'. Just killer. I just hope that the people who loved the original DON'T go into this and say, 'Well, I DON'T know how you can top the original.' It's not a question of topping. While it's new, it's just another version if it. And it's glorious.


Watch the trailer for Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It:

Watch the trailer for West Side Story:


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From This Author Michael Major