When Ariana Debose got the call from the team attached to Stephen Spielberg himself to do a reading for his film adaptation of one of the Broadway stage’s most beloved classic stories, she did the unthinkable for a young actress with singing and acting chops carved on that very same platform.
She said no.
With only a few hours’ time to prep for the impromptu audition, Debose chose to flat out tell the director that she would not read lines for the role. Where many actresses would have done anything a director of that caliber asked for a sliver of a chance at a role in one of his films, she stood firm in her decision to only do what she could master in the moment.
“In my experience, ten-plus years in the Broadway world specifically, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, I couldn’t go in and half-ass anything,” Debose said. “I had to go in over-prepared, quite frankly to prove I was better than the other candidates.”
Debose felt that if she was going to go out for a role of this caliber, she would give nothing less than the absolute best she had to offer.
“I had gotten the ask at like 10pm, and they wanted to see me at about 9:30am the next day. I was like ‘I really am grateful for the opportunity, but I don’t havethe time to fully prepare these scenes.’”
“I guess I look at it as a form of self-respect to hold the boundaries,” she said of her decision. “I’m very grateful that [Spielberg] wasn’t offended by that no!” she laughed.
In Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story, just released in theaters today, Debose delivers her spin on Anita, the hard-working, street-wise confidant to main character Maria and secret-keeper of the forbidden love affair at the center of this classic New York-spun rendition of the Romeo & Juliet story.
The role was first popularized by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation of the classic Broadway musical. DeBose realizes she has rather large shoes to fill.
“A very specific portrayal of this character is beloved across the entertainment industry,” Debose said of her take on Anita. “You always just hope that there will be enough space for what you have to offer.”
Though she initially found taking on the Anita mantle a bit intimidating, she allowed her unique-to-Hollywood personal identity inform her role and give the classic story a modern spin, even in its original mid-1950’s setting.
“I’m very grateful that Stephen Spielberg and Tony Christian invited me to the table, and validated my lived experience by allowing my experience as a Black woman, an Afro-Latina, to inform this character,” she said. “It allows this character to stand on her own two feet because she is so massively different from Anitas we have seen before just by that one fact. The way that she walks through the world is going to be different than a beautiful white-presenting Latina would.”
While the very existence of Afro-Latinx people is a relatively new realization for many and a hotly debated diversity checkbox for others, Debose sees it as an essential part of her identity, just as it is for so many others like her.
“I’m someone who has the lived experience of not feeling like she was enough,” she revealed. “There have been times when I’ve been told I’m not Black enough. I was not Latina enough. There was a moment in time when I did not know you could be both.”
Having a chance to bring an unambiguously Black Latina character to the screen in this fashion was exciting for Debose, who says it speaks to the diversity within her own culture that is often overlooked in the media.
“It’s not every day that you see this lived experience represented in mainstream media. That is what makes this portrayal exciting. It’s not the only thing that make it exciting, but it makes it different. Those differences are our strength.
“Ultimately, we are not a monolith. There’s not one way to belong to any culture. You are what you are, and you are inherently enough, by virtue of being on this planet.”
West Side Story is open in theaters everywhere today.