August 8, 2022

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What makes Anita of “West Side Story” so iconic? “She’s a beacon of self-respect and...

What makes Anita of “West Side Story” so iconic? “She’s a beacon of self-respect and agency. She speaks her mind. Those kinds of characters were typically described as ‘difficult women,’” says Ariana DeBose. You get the sense that playing the part came somewhat easily for her. “It wasn’t a stretch,” says the actress, flashing the smile that dazzled Keegan-Michael Key’s character in “Schmigadoon!,” and Jo Ellen Pellman’s Emma in “The Prom.” 
Today I’ve caught her on Zoom, wrapped in a charcoal-colored linen bathrobe, her short hair tousled, blue-blocking glasses on. This is the calm before the storm of premieres kicks up.

Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated take on the classic, 1950s-set musical, with a new screenplay by Tony Kushner, is finally here. Shooting wrapped in 2019, but you know how these things go in the pandemic era. The 30-year-old DeBose steps into the role Rita Moreno played in the 1961 movie, as the girlfriend of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo, and friend to his sister, the lovelorn Maria. Moreno won an Oscar — the first Latina ever to do so. DeBose has big shoes to fill, and you don’t doubt that she will. As the queer actress wrote in a Pride-themed essay, several years before she’d get the role: “My brown, singin’, dancin’, lady-lovin’ ass is AMERICA and I am so proud of who I am, what I stand for, and all I’ve accomplished so far.” Could there be a better performer to literally belt out “America”?
Still, the journey wasn’t without its bumps: DeBose shot the film while nursing a sprained ankle, injured while just “being human,” she says. “I was in pre-production, and I jumped up to hug someone, and twisted my ankle. Man, it was so random.” But the consummate Broadway professional soldiered on. She looks back particularly fondly on shooting the “Dance at the Gym” number: “One of the only times you really see all the Sharks and the Jets together in one scene,” she says. “It was five or six days of sweaty, dancing bliss.” She remembers kicking back with her foot up on a break, surveying the surreal landscape of a massive Spielberg set: “You’ve got Steve in the corner in Video Village, sneaking a Pop-Tart, and then you’ve got the Shark girls having a conversation over there, and the Shark boys and the Jet boys had this ball they would kick around. It was like this really cool, very expensive, awesome summer camp vibe.” 
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She’s proud of what this version achieves, especially its new curiosity for the realities surrounding the Sharks. “It gives the audience an opportunity to fall in love with this Puerto Rican community and shows what was actually going on for these people at the time, which is something I think productions in the past kind of skimmed over,” she says. “I think the film does a really beautiful job of allowing that conversation to be had.”
When she got to set, “I had such a clear vision of the character,” DeBose says. “I really wanted to try and explore how the audience could witness Anita’s joy, and at the same time get a good look at how hideous and hurtful her lived experience could have been, and probably was, for darker-skinned Latinas of the time.” This is one of several ways in which her Anita will be unique: “I’m a black woman. That’s the biggest difference between Rita Moreno and me.”
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Moreno’s also in the new movie, playing a sage older character named Valentina. How could she not be? The film legend raved to us about DeBose: “Boy oh boy, I think she’s just great. She’s a fabulous dancer. I think Steven Spielberg’s most inspired idea was to find this marvelous, talented Afro-Latina. That’s one thing I couldn’t offer as Anita — the color of my skin.”
It’s her biggest part yet, but DeBose has had a busy last few years. “Schmigadoon!,” the Apple TV+ love letter to drama geeks, showcased her theatrical chops alongside fellow stage actors such as Aaron Tveit and Kristin Chenoweth. “The Prom” put her firmly on the YA map. She’s been on the rise since 2009, when she appeared on “So You Think You Can Dance” and made it into the top 20. A trained dancer, she branched into theater acting and made her debut in 2011’s “Bring It On: The Musical,” going on to garner a Tony nomination for the title role in 2018’s “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” 
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But DeBose may still be best known for her role in “Hamilton” as the Bullet, the curl-topped character who augurs death for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton. DeBose was in the off-Broadway production, and continued on with the show to Broadway.
Mystifyingly, the Tony-nominated actress was never invited to audition for the 2020 Broadway revival of … you guessed it, “West Side Story.” But given the way things worked out, DeBose — who was cast in Spielberg’s movie shortly afterward — is pretty sanguine about the slight. “I think everything happens for a reason,” she says. “That was not my blessing. That was somebody else’s blessing. And you know, I was really happy to see the two productions exist in the same time period. That’s a testament to the power of the piece.”
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DeBose is a New Yorker now, but she grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of a white mother and an Afro-Latino dad. “I grew up in a very white community,” she says. “Doesn’t make me any less Latina, doesn’t make me any less black.” She’s proud to be from the South, although she’s also quick to call it out. “I choose to identify as a Southerner. I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t love that we have plantations, and that slavery was rampant.” 
She came out to her supportive mother when she was 13, and has been open about her sexuality throughout her years in the spotlight, even giving an interview to Playbill in 2015 with her then-girlfriend, Broadway props master Jill Johnson. (The two have since split.) Her home state is not always friendly to the LGBTQ community. “There are parts of North Carolina I would not walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand,” DeBose says. “But then, there are parts of New York where I wouldn’t do that. They have that everywhere.
From left, Ilda Mason as Luz, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Ana Isabelle as Rosalia in “West Side Story.” AP
“Can I get a vaccine for prejudice and oppression and racism?” she yells into the ether. “That would be awesome!”
She thinks back to the movies and shows she grew up with, and how “leading characters have been synonymous with whiteness for a long time. That was just a fact.” One of her favorites is “The First Wives Club” and she loves “The Golden Girls.” “I watched ‘Frasier’ as a kid. A weird kid … There was no one I saw who looks like me. I’m very grateful that my mother instilled a powerful work ethic in me. And my grandmother was also incredibly influential in my life. They both taught me to follow my dreams and that I could be successful if I worked really hard.”
She gives props to the A-list women of color working to change the ratio in the industry. “Thank God for people like Regina King and Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay and Kerry Washington. Women starting their own production companies, telling their own stories. It’s really important.”
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DeBose hints at her own plans along those lines: “I’m excited to share them when the time is right.” Meanwhile, she’s got designs on playing all manner of characters, queer and cis. Will Hollywood be onboard with this? “I don’t feel like I’m in Queer Purgatory, by any stretch of the mind, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I think people are waiting to see what happens with ‘West Side Story.’”
For an actress who wants all the options, Alexa provided a wardrobe to match. “For the shoot,” she says, “it wasn’t just one type of dress. There were so many things. Which I thought was a fun concept, given who I am: I’m a big ol’ trail mix.”
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She still wonders what, exactly, queer and BIPOC actors have to do to get Hollywood to give them leading roles. And she’s going to keep bringing it up with the people who can make it happen. “I think if you were to ask Steven Spielberg about me, he’d say, ‘She’ll tell you what she thinks!’” she says. “I’ll say it with respect, but I’ll tell you what I think.”
Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Photo Editor: Jessica Hober; Fashion Assistant: Sean Rodriguez; Hair: Mitchell Ramazon using Oribe; Makeup: Quinn Murphy at The Wall Group using Nars; Manicure: Leonobi Galvez

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