It’s no secret that Rita Moreno has left her mark on Hollywood. From West Side Story to One Day at a Time, her characters have become memorable, iconic, and ones we revisit over and over. Now, Rita is looking back on her career in her new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.
A few weeks ago, Rita sat down with us to talk about her new documentary, why she thought West Side Story wasn’t going to be a “hit,” how she joined One Day at a Time, her love affair with Marlon Brando, and what it was like remaking West Side Story at almost 90 years old. Here’s everything we learned:
First, did you know when you were filming the original West Side Story that it was going to be huge? Did you ever imagine it would become a classic film?
I had seen the play, and I had already worked with Jerome Robbins in The King and I. So, he was co-directing West Side Story and I thought it was a classic show that I enjoyed. But do you want to know the truth? I remember walking down the Goldwyn lot with George [Chakiris, who played Bernardo], who to this day is a very dear and close friend. I had my arm in his and I said, “You know, George, I don’t want you to be disappointed because this is not going to be a hit.” [Laughs] He said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Look at it this way: First, not one costume has a little spangle on it or sequins. Second, the colors they use on the costumes are really odd. They’re maroon and dark. And number three, people are not singing in operatic voices. George, do you really think people are gonna drop everything to run and pay $4 to see this?!”
I had him really kind of sad by the time we reached our destination. He thought I was smart and trusted me too. But, obviously, I was very wrong. Now, they’re redoing it. Somebody else is putting their stamp on it. It’s amazing.
BuzzFeed: So winning your Oscar in 1961 must’ve been a total shock.
Right. More people than I had ever dreamed loved the movie, including my people. Some didn’t. Those people were in Puerto Rico itself and felt that we were misrepresented. But people truly loved the movie, including people in Hollywood.
Is there a moment when you look back on the original West Side Story that you are most proud of?
First, I think the most important part of being in that movie for me was playing a character who had a sense of self-respect. I played a lot of Latinos up until then, many of whom were spitfires and ultra sexy, couldn’t speak English well — some were even illiterate — and they were really kind of sex objects. Anita was the only Latina I ever played, at that point, who actually had an identity that was understandable. I realized that the moment I read the script. I thought, “Please, God, please let me get this part.”
BuzzFeed: In your documentary, you say that Anita became a role model for you and someone you looked up to as well.
Right, but that was a bit later in life. I think I was like 26 when I did West Side Story, I wasn’t exactly a teenager. I don’t think any of us were. There were really no other Hollywood role models who were Latina that I could look up to. So, Anita became my role model.
What was it like taking part in the West Side Story remake? What was it like being involved in the story again?
It’s nuts how these things work out. It’s such a full-circle moment. If you remember the movie, Doc had a candy story where the Jets hung out. I am Doc’s widow Valentina [in the remake]. It was Tony Kushner’s idea to replace Doc, who had a very small part in the original. I always felt bad for the actor Ned Glass, a lovely man, who had nothing to play. He just had those very few lines and that was it. Valentina is a whole person. It’s not a cameo as some people may think. It’s a real part. I wouldn’t do a cameo in a movie like this.
When Steven Spielberg called me about this — I did not know him before, by the way — he said, “We’d love to have you in West Side Story,” and I literally did a “Who, me?!” kind of thing. I was so shocked. I was trying to be cool, which was very hard. I said to Steven, “Doing a cameo in this movie, I don’t think is a wise thing. I think it would be distracting.” He interrupted me and he said, “No, this is a real part. Tony Kushner wrote this part for you.” Like, this is Angels in America Tony Kushner. It turned out he was a fan, which I had no idea. You never know who loves you and your work.
BuzzFeed: Also, hearing you sing over the remake’s first teaser trailer was extraordinary.
I didn’t know it was gonna happen. In fact, I was going to present at the Oscars and Steven told me, “I’m going to send you the trailer because it’s going to be on the Oscars.” So my daughter and I sat down to watch the trailer. We’re watching it and we started screaming. I yelled, “That’s my voice! That’s my voice!” Like, talk about not subtle. I was screaming. My daughter was screaming. I thought nobody would recognize it, too. But everybody recognized it. Everybody.
BuzzFeed: I immediately tweeted about hearing your voice in the trailer, so people noticed right away.
Oh my god, really?! I truly did not think anyone would recognize it.
In your documentary, you mention how the scene in West Side Story where Anita’s attacked was difficult to film — both physically and emotionally. Looking at the remake, did you have a hand in changing some scenes you hoped to make better this time?
That scene is still in the movie. Of course, Anita is now played by Ariana [DeBose], who is just fabulous. But I’m in that scene also because I’m this version’s Doc. In the original, Doc puts a stop to the boys who are abusing Anita, so it was so weird visiting that scene again from another perspective. I had this out-of-body moment where I remembered being Anita, but now I’m watching it unfold and I’m the one to help her. Could you imagine revisiting that scene? Like, I’m almost 90 years old now, playing this scene with another Anita. I really had a hard time filming that moment in the original, but the way Steven has directed it in the new version is amazing.
You’ve talked about how after West Side Story — even though you won an Oscar — you weren’t offered many roles. Did that affect your mental health at all?
Hollywood really took a break from me. Nobody gave a shit. It broke my heart. Absolutely broke my heart. I was offered some gang-type movies on a much lesser scale. I remember taking my Golden Globe and my Oscar and just saying, “I’m never gonna do those kinds of parts again. I just won’t.” And I showed them. I didn’t work in a movie for seven years. I was offered some [roles], but it was those kind of movies and I knew I couldn’t do that to myself. Playing those kinds of roles did dreadful things to my self-esteem. It was the thing that eventually sent me into psychotherapy. It’s a good thing I got help because I don’t think I could’ve done anything without it.
Has it gotten easier to publicly talk about mental health?
It wasn’t difficult even then for me. I believe in [talking about mental health] so much. Therapy is something that really saw me through some horrible times in my life, particularly things having to do with prejudice and bias. I don’t think I could’ve done it on my own. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know who I was. At the time, I thought I was somebody who was unworthy. But some instinct said, “No, I think you’re better than that. You need help.” Actually, the person who sent me to therapy was Marlon Brando, who I had a tempestuous love affair with for about eight years. I think about that now and I really do laugh because he definitely needed therapy too.
There’s a scene in The Night the Following Day where you and Marlon Brando are arguing, the director didn’t stop rolling, and you said you were getting all of your anger at him out. Do you remember filming that?
Oh my god, I attacked him, but he also attacked me. I know, they didn’t stop rolling. The funny thing is, my husband was with me at that location in France. I remember telling him, “Would you go to see the dailies two days from now? To see how that scene went? Because I don’t think I can do it.” So, he went and it turned out to be one of the best things in the movie. The movie became kind of known for that scene. I remember my husband came back and said, “Gosh, you two are such terrific actors.” He knew Marlon was my former lover too. It’s not like he didn’t know.
BuzzFeed: Did you sign on to the movie with Marlon already attached to star?
Marlon was attached and he actually suggested me for it. They didn’t want to hire me. They wanted some other sexy actress or something. But Marlon really fought for me. He fought very hard for me. They reluctantly hired me for that part because he was insistent and he knew I was out of work. After our relationship, we had a phone friendship. We talked on the phone a lot.
Were you looking for a TV role when you booked One Day at a Time? How did starring in that show come about?
I was looking for work. It’s very hard. Then, Norman Lear comes along. He said, “We have this show we want to do and I would just love to have you.” I had a conference call with Norman and the two head writers, Gloria [Calderón Kellett] and Mike Royce. I remember saying one very important thing for my character: If I was going to do it, I was only going to do it if she was a sexual person. She’s Latina, she’s a woman, and just because she can’t conceive anymore doesn’t mean that she can’t be sexy. They loved the idea. They said, “Oh my god, a sexual grandma. That never, ever happens on TV.” As a matter of fact, they loved it so much they had me doing things where I would say, “You want me to say that? Gloria?! Are you sure?” I come from another era. I really think Gloria is going to be one of the leaders for Hispanic representation on TV too.
You and the rest of the One Day at a Time cast have such a strong relationship. How was it working with them?
Here’s one of the wonderful things about us. We really behave like a family off set. We dish out advice. We commiserate when something not good has happened. We’re on Zoom and keep in touch. We text each other constantly. Telling each other news and stuff like that. I don’t know if too many casts have that same bond. We’re very, very attached. We became a family very quickly, which was interesting.
I remember when we had our very first script reading, where you read the script out loud so everyone can hear and see how it sounds, if the jokes work, and all of that. So, everybody showed up and we literally had an audience of writers, producers, and executives. The second we opened our mouths, we were like a family. We had this astonishing, really amazing rapport and chemistry. It was like we’d been there for months and as if we knew each other really well. We just matched. We were so happy being together. I remember the producers and the writers were absolutely slack-jawed because at that reading nobody made mistakes. It just came so naturally.
The Electric Company is still looked at as one of the best children’s TV shows. Did you feel a spark with that cast immediately too?
We absolutely did. We had such a good time. You know, at that point, the producers of The Electric Company already had Sesame Street. So, they pretty much knew what they wanted. They kept learning as we went along. I remember they played some of our scenes for children in a room where they had toys. They were a little dismayed at first because the children would start playing with the cars and blocks or whatever. But they learned that they absorbed everything they heard from the show, even if they weren’t watching. So, we knew we were doing something right, and The Electric Company did stand the test of time.
Have you ever kept anything from set — whether it’s a prop or outfit — after filming wrapped?
Well, if I could’ve at the time, I would’ve asked for Anita’s “America” costume from West Side Story. But, at the time, I thought I’d be turned down. I didn’t want to be embarrassed if they told me that I couldn’t keep it. It’s possible that I would’ve been able to get it a few years later. I had my costume designer make the “America” costume for me for my concerts though. I did “America” a lot with my daughter Fernanda when she was in her teens. We danced together quite a bit.
BuzzFeed: How has it been being able to share the stage with your daughter?
It’s so special. We even did plays together. We did The Glass Menagerie. We did Gypsy where I played Mama Rose. We did that all in summer theater. It was fabulous.
Is there a role that you’d still love to play? Whether it’s a type of role or a specific character?
I do love big characters because, emotionally, I’m a big person. I got to play somebody that I’ve always wanted to play, which was Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. I did the London production for a few months and it was thrilling. I did the lead in The Glass Menagerie at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, which was exciting. This was all stuff that I did to keep my acting chops in tow. I’ve stopped singing because my voice isn’t what it was and I get hoarse sometimes. But I still love to sing and dance. So anything where I get to do that is still a dream.
And finally, are there any of your roles you’d love to go back and play again?
I would love to play Anita again. There are some things I didn’t do the way that I would do them now. Especially with the hindsight and wisdom that I have now looking back on it. I won’t get the chance to play her again, but I really would love it.
You can watch Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It in theaters now.
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