The Colombian-American actress is María in Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’, a mythical role played by Natalie Wood in the original film
Releasing the remake of a well-known film like ‘West Side Story’ always involves a risk, but for a director like Steven Spielberg the stake usually ends in success. The director of ‘ET’ dares with the first musical of his career by giving us one of the best films of the year. Loaded with nostalgia, Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is an unexpectedly emotional film, surprising with the dialogues in Spanish that the filmmaker decided not to subtitle for the Anglo-Saxon audience. This classic musical returns to the big screen 60 years after the original film, inspired by the 1957 Broadway production, with iconic music by Leonard Bernstein and the libretto by Stephen Sondheim.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the story tells of the rivalry between two local gangs: the Jets (first-generation white immigrants) and the Sharks (newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants). Leading the cast we discover Rachel Zegler (New Jersey, 2001), who makes her film debut with the role of Maria, a character played in the original film by Natalie Wood.
-What does it mean for you and what do you think it means for young Latinas that the character of Maria is finally played by an actress of Hispanic origin?
-It is an honor to interpret it because a Latin actress had never represented it in the cinema. I’ve had the opportunity to bring authenticity to an iconic role, and that’s a very real thing. As an actress, as a woman, I have wanted to incorporate the experience of Latin women in the United States within the character of Maria, while remaining faithful to the spirit of the first film. Maria is no longer the naive girl who makes hasty decisions; now the character is more complex and shows a stronger will. In this version, María has developed relationships with the characters around her, such as Bernardo, Anita, and Tony.
-I imagine that as a Latin actress it must have been exciting to meet Rita Moreno, who has a role in the film.
-I still pinch myself when I remember. The first day on the set I told her how much I admired her. The first thing he said to me was: your voice is so beautiful that I am a brick next to you. And that set a precedent for the rest of our relationship. Rita allowed me a camaraderie that we maintain until now. It is a privilege to be able to consider her my friend, because she has always been an inspiration to me.
An image from the new ‘West Side Story’.
-The score of this film is memorable, he has to sing songs like ‘I Feel Pretty’. Did you know the songs from the movie?
-Yes. But we are not trying to recreate, frame by frame, the 1961 movie. Steven and Tony explained to the actors that they wanted to do a version of the original Broadway musical and not so much of the movie. This is our version of a story that everyone has heard and that many love. ‘I Feel Pretty’ is an important song for my character that many understand as a two-dimensional theme about love, but it is much more because it defines the character. Culturally it is a song that shows a young woman who feels beautiful being a Latina. Steven Spielberg’s perspective is very different from that shown in the original version.
-You were 18 years old when you made the film, just like the character of María.
-Steven was very clear in that aspect, in fact, he encouraged me to explore that connection with the character. I think the narrative shows a young woman who discovers love for the first time and faces rejection for being an immigrant. She learns to be an adult while experiencing her first love and I learned to be an adult with the character. I think in both cases there is a discovery.
-It emphasizes the idea of identity.
-Yes. For Steven it was important to recreate the original version adapting the cultural aspect of Latinos. All the actors who appear in the Shark gang are Latino by the director’s wish. He dares not to subtitle in Spanish and, as a lover of musical theater, I think his vision of my character is absolutely perfect.
-Your maternal grandmother left Colombia to move to New Jersey. Do you identify her with her character?
-Undoubtedly. My grandmother had to work three jobs simultaneously to support her family. For her, the language was a very difficult barrier to overcome, in fact, she was treated so badly that she came to think that she could not stay in the United States. Yet she was so eager to give her children opportunities that she forced herself to speak English. I am a huge advocate for the fact that there is no one way to be Latina. Our image may not be the same, because we come from many different places, but language unites us and we have reflected that in the film.
Rachel Zegler in ‘West Side Story’.
-Your name sounds like an Oscar. How do you feel about the awards?
-I don’t even want to think about it. I am experiencing so many things with this movie that it is difficult to express my feelings in words. Right now I’m thinking about promoting the film, whatever has to come will come.
-And now she’s going to become Disney’s next Snow White.
-Yes. I tell you that what is happening to me is incredible. The luck that I am having does not escape me, on the contrary, I am very grateful to Steven Spielberg because it is to him that I owe everything I am living.