Ten years as a working actress on Broadway has given Ariana DeBose a grounded approach to the swell of accolades accompanying her performance as the iconic Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. Following a legacy of iconic performances, both on stage and film, DeBose is allowing herself to pave her own path, giving this moment of successes and critical appreciation a charming, honest, culturally modern spin.
DEADLINE: What was your first impression of the character of Anita growing up?
ARIANA DEBOSE: I grew up watching West Side Story on my grandmother’s television. Turner Classic Movies was playing it and I was really into old movies as a kid. That and soap operas with my grandmother because that’s what we did together.
DEADLINE: Which soap opera did you like to watch?
DEBOSE: Days of Our Lives. I’m still invested in Marlena and John.
DEADLINE: What was it about the character of Anita stood out to you when you watching the movie as a child?
DEBOSE: I was obsessed with the woman in the purple dress. And not until my adulthood did I come to understand the storyline and what Anita went through. That Rita Moreno played her in the film and she won an Oscar, and she’s Latina. And when I moved to New York, I really got into the study of musical theater because I didn’t graduate with a degree in … I don’t have a degree in anything [laughs]. School of life, guys. School of life.
When I began to study in New York with different mentors, that’s when I learned the name Chita Rivera and that she was the OG Anita onstage, and that she was really the quintessential triple threat on Broadway. And since that’s what I was training to become, Chita was very much like a star in my universe that I was trying to reach, and then over here is Rita Moreno, doing the film thing, and I was like, what happens if I could meet in the middle? Didn’t think it was going to be like this, which is very cool. But yeah, that sort of was my introduction to the character and those women.
DEADLINE: From the Broadway show to the 1961 Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise film adaptation, what set apart West Side Story from everyone else and how did the performances push the boundaries of modern musicals?
DEBOSE: If you look at movies made at that time, the women in so many of these films, were choreographed to be typically very dependent on a man. Then you have something like West Side Story that comes along and gives this character, Anita, agency. And yes, she and Bernardo are very much a couple. But when you see her move, she moves as a soloist, unless she’s being lifted by the men in “Dance at the Gym”, or the partnering is to show off the woman. When I think back to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, there’s Fred and there’s Ginger, and yes, they move as a unit, but they are individuals. Whereas for me, Anita had such a strong identity as an individual. And that, was and is, still not often seen, to this day.
DEADLINE: From the body movement to the cadence, there is such a confidence and lived-in feel about your performance of Anita. How long did it take for you to get to that point?
DEBOSE: It was an extremely collaborative process. The way I look at it is Steven (Spielberg, director) came in and gave me his trust and said, “run wild,” and Tony (Kushner, screenwriter) gave me the words, and Justin (Peck) gave me the choreography, but then it really was up to me to make choices with all the tools that I’d spent all those years training to work with. So that’s when artistry and my craft come into play.
Justin and his associates did so much extensive studying about the social dancing of the day. What did the mambo look like in 1957, and how does that inform how we move? I took that knowledge, and then also had to say, what has (Costume Designer) Paul Tazewell put on me for this character in this moment? What dress is she wearing, and how can I use that to my advantage?
At “Dance at the Gym”, you see Anita and Bernardo (David Alvarez), Riff (Mike Faist) and Grazi (Paloma Garcia-Lee) come together in the epic dance battle, and Anita swerves in with her skirt, looks at Grazi, does an eye thing and swings her shoulder. She’s not afraid to check you, but she’s still just having a good time. And I was like, there she is. That’s Anita. So, it’s this full-circle thing of, let me take these steps, in this dress and see how it speaks to who Anita is. Then 10 percent is me just coming in and feeling it [laughs].
DEADLINE: Besides the performative aspect of Anita, how did you embody all her emotional nuances? Did you use a journal to give her a backstory?
DEBOSE: I don’t really know how [laughs]. I kept a journal about events on set, but I didn’t go through the whole process of writing Anita’s thoughts. There are some actors who do that, that keep a journal for their character. That didn’t work for me. Tony Kushner wrote this beautiful backstory with her that informed everything. My homework was to stay very focused on what’s going on in her present.
I just chose to let her live in me. When I read Tony’s script, she just jumped out to me and sat on my chest. A lot of characters do that with me, in my career. It’s kind of weird. It’s a very spiritual thing I’ve got going on with me and these humans that I bring to life. Anita just sat there, and she didn’t leave until she was done. And then she revisited me recently on this awards journey, and I was like, Whoa, girl!
DEADLINE: What was that visit like?
DEBOSE: It was at the SAG Awards and she had a lot to say [laughs]. Honestly, it was my saving grace because I didn’t know what to say on that stage. [The win] was not something that I foresaw happening at all, to be perfectly frank, and so she showed up, which was great. But that happens to me with characters.
DEADLINE: You seem like someone who is grounded and embraces your cultural heritage, how did working on West Side Story amplify your identity, especially as an Afro-Latina?
DEBOSE: I’ve always instinctually known who I am, but I grew up in a largely white community in North Carolina. I always knew I was Puerto Rican, I just never really felt like I had the opportunity to immerse myself in community in that way. Even when I moved to New York, I immediately dove into the business. And the business, I felt, told me that I wasn’t Hispanic enough. So it was one of those moments where I was like, OK, well, then let me be what everyone else wants me to be. So, it’s not that I turned away from my Latinidad, I just found myself in a lane where I was like, I’m going to be unapologetically me. But there was this little part of me, I sort of let simmer instead of being fully expressed, because the world told me that’s what I didn’t have the right to be.
West Side Story allowed me the opportunity to fully immerse myself in community, and that’s a beautiful thing. This film was one of the first opportunities that I felt like my Hispanic heritage was actually a strength, not something that was used to box me in a box I didn’t claim for myself. I was able to walk in a room and it not be questioned, “Well, what are you? What’s your ethnicity? How do you identify?” We’ve gotten so good, in my opinion, about trying to put people in boxes and label of what they are. And I just so am vehemently against that. Your humanity should come first, and all of the nuances of who you are should be celebrated, not used against you.
DEADLINE: I’m sure it was exciting for you to observe all your acting colleagues experiencing the same thing too.
DEBOSE: It was a ‘this is us’ moment. We all came together, Latinos from very different backgrounds. Some of us spoke Spanish fluently, some of us do not, but we all got to commune together and learn about each other. There were no dividing lines. We would have dinners; we’d go out dancing. I’ve never eaten so much mofongo, arepas, arroz con pollo in my life. It was great to finally feel like, these are our expressions of joy. Even our anger comes from a place of love. That’s what I really learned; Hispanic culture is rooted in love in every choice we make.
DEADLINE: The legacy of Chita Rivera on Broadway allowed for Rita Moreno to be on the big screen to then allow for you to perform as Anita now. Have you had a chance to connect with the next generation of Anitas yet?
DEBOSE: There are many young Anitas out there, and they all come in various shapes and sizes. It’s exciting to me that so many young people, young women, no matter if they’re Afro-Latina, Latina, young beautiful Asians, I’m talking about young girls who identify in a myriad of ways, are seeing themselves in this work. And that’s why you need to do it. That’s why you tell stories like this, to show people that it’s OK to work for your dreams, to play characters like this who have agency, who can show great euphoria but also can show you the breadth and the depth of your grief and that it’s 100 percent OK to be exactly who you are at any given moment, because otherwise, what’s the point of this thing called life?
DEADLINE: Tell me you have text chains with Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg.
DEBOSE: I don’t text Steven, but I do text with Tony, and he is a blessing. He’ll share a TikTok with us, which I’m just like, Yes, Tony Kushner and TikTok, amazing.
DEADLINE: You give off this empathic energy during this chat and I was wondering how being so tuned into your emotions has served you during the past few months.
DEBOSE: In the last couple of months, I’ve had to really protect my energy, because I am very aware that I do take on the feelings of others and the energies of others. I have such compassion for people in the world, and that’s the thing: there’s a lot going on in the world. My own personal energy has been very heavy and quite conflicted with the reality of how do we celebrate moments like these and also acknowledge that parts of the world are burning, and they need our help, and perhaps we’re not doing enough? So my empathy has really challenged me to find ways to keep my energy up and to continue to show up my best self for every single moment, but also commune with the folks that are around me and say, Yeah, we’re all feeling the same thing, so what can we do?
DEADLINE: It must be fascinating to be getting all this attention.
DEBOSE: That’s been a beautiful discovery around this journey. I didn’t think I would find myself in rooms like these. Now that I’m here, how can I participate in them in a way that is still moving us forward? It’s so funny to be able to say “we,” because it feels like I’m in it, and I really hope I get to stay, because I am having fun with these opportunities. I’m trying to take it all in and just see what I can do with my small little corner of the world.
DEADLINE: Your little corner of the world is now expanding to three films (Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s I.S.S., and J.C. Chandor/Marvel’s Kraven the Hunter) where you don’t have to sing and dance. I’m curious how that feels.
DEBOSE: I’m curious, too [laughs]. I’m someone who really believes in challenging myself, and that’s why I said yes. At the end of the day, the world has now seen me in Hamilton, The Prom, Schmigadoon!, and West Side Story, and I love the musical genre, but I don’t like doing the same thing twice. Once I wrapped Schmigadoon!, I thought it was time to try something new. Now, don’t be fooled. I’m sweating because I have seen none of these. I don’t know if I’m good in them. Everybody’s going to be like, “Great, great, we love Ariana DeBose… but can she actually stand there and talk?” It’s a real question, and we’ll find out together. And you know what? If it’s not great, then maybe I’ll make more musicals.
DEADLINE: I just had to ask, sometimes when you give interviews you break into an accent that feels like a fun character, alter ego. Does this person have a name and when will they have a solo cabaret show?
DEBOSE: I haven’t named her, but she shows up every once in a while. She’s fun. She’s how I defuse feeling uncomfortable or being nervous or thinking I’m saying something stupid, like right now.
DEBOSE: I realized she’s starting to sound like Kate McKinnon, which is not great, because I hosted SNL and did a number with Kate McKinnon, and I was like, I think I just mimicked Kate McKinnon in front of Kate McKinnon. But now that you mention it, I’m going to work on her.
DEADLINE: I want a producer credit if the show happens.
DEBOSE: You’re getting it.
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