The Cast of ‘West Side Story’ Talk Remaking a Classic at the Press Conference

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story will be released in theaters on December 10. Before the film’s release, The Nerds of Color had the chance to attend two press conferences with Steven Spielberg, Rita Moreno, and Tony Kushner as well as stars Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll, and Brian d’Arcy James.

At the press conference, I had the chance to ask Rita Moreno what was it like passing the torch, then also getting to be part of the new film and seeing the story happen all over again.

“Passing the torch — that’s a great way to put it. It wasn’t easy,” the actress admitted. “I mean, I’m not gonna say I wasn’t envious. That would be just a bloody lie. I wished I could be that young again and do it again, obviously, but that wasn’t going to be. And I got this beautifully written part by this man, who wrote… you know, I love me in this movie. You don’t say things like that easily because they’re gonna say, ‘Oh my, give me a break.’ I don’t care what they say. I love every scene I’m in, therefore I love what I’m doing.”

“And it was difficult. It was absolutely creepy to do the scene, the one scene I did with Anita,” Moreno continues. “The only scene you have with the Anita on film,” Spielberg added.

“The only one in the film, and it was strange for her, but it was even more difficult for me. I just kept looking at her, and I had the toughest time getting inside the scene because what I was really doing in a way, was saving Anita’s life, because these boys were about to possibly rape her and I had to put a stop to that. I did that scene and I was really being Doc, who stopped that from happening in the original movie. Very strange.”

“But that all by itself could be a Black Mirror episode. Just that,” Spielberg joked, which Moreno agreed with.

I also had the chance to ask the entire cast if they used the source material to stay true to the original while also making the story and characters their own. 

“I made the choice not to. I think comparison was imminent, so when I got the part I was like, whether they like it or they don’t like it, they’re gonna compare, so I’m just gonna distance myself as much as I can,” Rachel Zegler said. In terms of the music, she added, “Well, the music, you have to listen to study and understand, but we were also just… it was re-taught to us in a brand new way by Jeanine Tesori, and conducted by David Newman and Gustavo Dudamel with the New York Phil. So I think we were all able to kind of look at it with a fresh perspective inherently, like through our leadership, but I don’t think it was necessarily encouraged not to watch the film, do watch the film. Definitely Romeo and Juliet was encouraged to look at, by Tony Kushner. He was very much like, ‘Go to the text.'”

“I haven’t seen it since I was like a kid. I used to love that movie, though, of course, especially like the prologue and stuff. But, yeah, once… I’ve always been told as an actor you’re not supposed to look at someone else’s performance, you’re supposed to pull it out of, you know… but I will say, Steven Spielberg loves the original, obviously, the source material. It is very much based off of that source material and then reimagined in the way that art is supposed to be,” Ansel Elgort responded.

Ariana DeBose expressed, “Well, I was well-versed in the movie, but I did not revisit it. I first watched the film when I was like seven or eight, and it was like ingrained in my mind’s eye. So I was… I just let it, the knowledge of it, live with me. But no, I did not seek it out.”

“I definitely didn’t see it… I mean, I saw it when I was young, but I didn’t want to see it ‘cause I didn’t want my idea of Bernardo to change because of the movie, but I did look at Romeo and Juliet,” David Alvarez shared.

“I’m telling you everyone is gonna say the same thing,” Mike Faist commented, but Josh Andrés Rivera surprised everyone by saying that he watched it. Rivera continued to say, “I was terrified, I was like, ‘Alright, what happens?'”

Corey Stoll admitted, “I had never seen it until I was cast.”

“I watched it as well,” Brian d’Arcy James confirmed. “I really wanted to see what was in, and then read what Tony was doing and how it was being reimagined. So I could understand where it was diverging and where it was similar, just for a contextual.”

Lastly, I got to ask Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez about building their characters’ dynamic and making it their own.

“I feel like the first day I met you,” DeBose started as her and Alvarez remembered they were in New York. “We were at some studio in New York and we were doing a chemistry test. I didn’t know who I was chemistry testing with, but he walked into the dressing area, like where you can do little touchups and stuff. You looked at me, and you were like, ‘Hello,’ and something in the back of my brain said, ‘Ooh, I think I’m supposed to know you.'”

“Then after the audition, ‘cause we had danced, and I feel like I stepped on your feet, you might’ve dropped me once, it was going well for both of us,” DeBose joked. “And then after the audition, you walked in, and you said, ‘I think I’m gonna see you again. I think I’m supposed to know you.’ So I felt like we sort of — there was something there.”