EXCLUSIVE: After auditioning more than 30K people from around the world, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story has found its Maria in fresh faced 17-year old New Jersey High School student Rachel Zegler who will make her film debut opposite Ansel Elgort as Tony.
Spielberg and his team were committed to finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican as well as the broader Latinx community. The team has been conducting research and having conversations with Hispanic heritage and advocacy groups. In December 2018, Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who is adapting West Side Story, sat with professors and students at the University of Puerto Rico (Universidad de Puerto Rico – Río Piedras) to learn more about performing arts on the island. The production team maintains a dialogue with the University and Puerto Rican filmmakers there.
The new castmembers join Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 movie, will play Valentina, a re-conceived and expanded version of the character of Doc, the owner of the corner store in which Tony works. Moreno also serves as EP. Deadline exclusively broke the news about Moreno.
“When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors. I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community,” said Spielberg. “I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they’ll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that’s more relevant than ever.”
“I simply cannot wait to get on set to work with this group of young actors,” said Moreno. “What an ensemble, and I look forward to passing the baton to this next generation of Sharks!”
Zegler, 17, will join Elgort in leading the legendary musical. Zegler saw the notice on Twitter back in January 2018 for Latinx actors and submitted a video of herself singing “Tonight” and “Me Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”).
“I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast,” said Zegler. “West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”
DeBose, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2018 for her portrayal of Donna Summer in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, will play Anita, the role made famous on film by Moreno. DeBose’s other Broadway credits include the original cast of Hamilton, A Bronx Tale: The Musical, Pippin, Motown: The Musical and Bring It On: The Musical. Her screen debut came in 2009 as a competitor on So You Think You Can Dance.
“I’m honored to follow in the footsteps of the remarkable women who have played Anita – including Chita Rivera and, of course, the incomparable Rita Moreno,” said DeBose. “I relate so strongly to Anita – a strong Puerto Rican woman who came to New York in search of opportunity – and I feel so fortunate for the chance to work with this amazing cast and creative team.”
Alvarez, who won a Tony in 2009 for originating the title role in Billy Elliot: The Musical, will play Bernardo, Maria’s brother and the leader of the Sharks. Following his appearance in Billy Elliot, Alvarez served in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division, before returning to Broadway in 2014 to join the company of On the Town.
“My parents emigrated from Cuba with no connections, knowing no English, driven only by the hope of a better life. I know how challenging the decision was for them, and I see a lot of that internal conflict in Bernardo,” said Alvarez. “I have dreamt of playing this part since I first saw the original film, and I am so grateful for the chance to bring my own perspective and journey to this role – as an artist, a Veteran and a Latino – and to work with this incredible cast to breathe new life into these characters’ experiences.”
Rivera – an actor, singer and dancer who most recently appeared in the first national tour of Hamilton – will play the role of Chino.
“West Side Story is the dream for any performer, and to tackle it with this creative team is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said Rivera. “I feel very fortunate to be able to portray the Nuyorican experience alongside these amazingly talented actors. I’m confident Puerto Ricans on and off the island will see ourselves reflected in this project.”
West Side Story will be produced and directed by Spielberg from a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. The film will be adapted for the screen from the original 1957 Broadway musical, which was written by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and concept, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Also leading the production are Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum and Academy Award-nominated producer Kristie Macosko Krieger.
West Side Story will be released by Twentieth Century Fox. Filming is slated to start in the summer of 2019.
Additional casting announcements will be made in the coming weeks, specifically in regards to The Sharks and The Jets.