You cannot take your eyes off her.
Whenever Ariana DeBose is on-screen in Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of the classic musical West Side Story, her lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry and effervescence capture your attention. When she takes to the streets of San Juan Hill in the legendary number “America,” DeBose controls the film’s narrative in a show-stopping collection of brilliant acting, singing, and dancing. This moment is a triumph not only for her as a breakthrough performer but also for the Latinx community where a Black-presenting Latina completely owns one of the greatest roles in musical theater.
This is her moment. DeBose’s confidence in her ability to deliver it has never wavered. So much so, in fact, that she practically auditioned Steven Spielberg’s willingness to take her on as his Anita.
“The bulk of what I wanted him to really receive from me from the get go was that I am not a typical Anita, at least on screen. I don’t look like Rita Moreno. We have completely different skill sets and strengths. While we’re both fiery, as an afro Latina I walk through the world differently,” DeBose explained. “If you’re not interested in acknowledging that lived experience, the difference between a white-presenting Latina and a black-presenting Latina, then you shouldn’t hire me because it’s actually very important. It changes the dynamic of this character and how she walks through the world.”
Spielberg understood and agreed. And history was made.
As Anita in the brilliant film ensemble of West Side Story, DeBose has so far received nearly a dozen critics’ awards in addition to Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe nominations. And while it’s entirely premature to have such conversations, it is worth noting that the role of Anita did garner the legendary Rita Moreno an Oscar for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 Best Picture-winning classic.
Moreno returns for the re-imagined adaptation in the role of “Doc,” traditionally played by a man. But when the two actresses met on stage, they didn’t discuss Anita and how DeBose should try to play her. Instead, Moreno encouraged DeBose to make the role her own, to rely on her lived experience to bring a new Anita to life.
“She said, ‘You got this, just infuse her with everything that makes you special and unique.’ And that was it,” DeBose recalled. “Over the course of making the film, she did share stories from her life. Stories about how she navigated the industry and experiences she had on set. Her experience as a Puerto Rican woman in the United States of America. Those were the stories that I actually found most helpful and sort of inspired this version of Anita in different ways.”
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, DeBose quickly discovered an affinity for dance. That talent, in addition to her singing and acting prowess, took her from TV’s So You Think You Can Dance all the way to Broadway’s Hamilton and eventually a Tony nomination for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
In West Side Story’s crowd-pleasing take on “America,” DeBose conveys the inner fire of her Anita through dance itself.
“You get to understand her life force through her movement and her physicality. Her dancing shows you her confidence, her joy, her hustle, and her resilience. With one shoulder move, you see how she brushes off adversity and keeps it moving,” DeBose said. “I keep coming back to joy, though, because it’s not every day that you get to see laughter and joy depicted on screen. There are countless depictions of Hispanic people as drug lords or people causing trouble with the law. That’s not what you’re seeing here. You’re seeing women with ambitions, goals and dreams, and that is important for women to see.”
That joy, of course, is fleeting as the film’s last scenes are some of the most emotional of the year. Anita’s great love Bernardo (David Alvarez) dies at the hands of Tony (Ansel Elgort), setting into motion an inevitable series of tragic events. For a key scene late in the film, DeBose and co-star Rachel Zegler needed to navigate tricky emotional territory as Zegler’s Maria still loves Tony despite his actions.
DeBose’s Anita must decide between her hatred for Tony’s action, her grief at losing Bernardo, and her maternal love for Maria. That conflict is expertly conveyed through a single song, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” where the early promise of DeBose’s brilliant performance in “America” pays dividends in the darker moments of the film. DeBose drew from all of her young life’s experiences to convey the mixture of terror, grief, repulsion, and rage required for her closing scene — a tense and near-unwatchable confrontation with a group of white Jets.
“With a scene like that, I just wanted to play the truth of it. When I looked around the set that day, I saw that I’m the one Black woman in the middle of 12 or 15 white boys. There are women in parts of the world where that scenario is very real for them,” DeBose explained. “I’ve had moments in my own life where walking down the street is not a safe thing for me to do. So, to have that many eyeballs looking at you with that much hate and that true intent to harm your person, it’s impossible to not react to it.”
In the end, accolades aside, the experience of creating a new Anita for Spielberg’s West Side Story emerged as a deeply personal one for DeBose. It helped bring her closer to and far more comfortable with expressing her own Hispanic heritage.
To make the film at all remains the greatest award for DeBose.
“I’m very clear of the fact that just being given the opportunity to make this film like this… that was the win. I got the job. I got to do the job,” DeBose enthused. “Anything that happens from here is just icing on the cake. I’m so grateful to have been seen in the work. That is a gift, a gift of sight.”
West Side Story is now playing in theaters.