Rita Moreno pushed back against dark makeup in original 'West Side Story': 'I'm not that color'


Rita Moreno almost said no to Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake.

The EGOT winner starred in the original 1961 movie musical, which tells the story of star-crossed lovers caught between rival street gangs the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and the Jets, who are white. The film, which is considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, took home 10 Academy Awards including best picture.

Moreno, 89, won the best supporting actress Oscar playing Anita, the dynamic and fiercely loyal girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) and a confidante to his younger sister, Maria (Natalie Wood). But the actress was hesitant when Spielberg called her up and asked her to appear in his new adaptation (in theaters Dec. 10), written by “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner.

Rita Moreno pushed back against dark makeup in original 'West Side Story': 'I'm not that color'

“I almost wet my knickers. I couldn’t believe this was Steven Spielberg on the phone, whom I so admired,” Moreno told USA TODAY last month, speaking in support of her new documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (in theaters now).

“But then I had the courage to say, ‘I don’t think I could do a cameo. I think it would be a severe disservice to this movie – it’d be a distraction,’ ” she adds. “And he said, ‘No, no, no. This is a real part. Tony Kushner wrote this part for you.’ ”

Rita Moreno pushed back against dark makeup in original 'West Side Story': 'I'm not that color'

Moreno portrays a new character, Valentina, who is Doc’s widow. (In the 1961 movie, Doc, played by Ned Glass, owns a candy store where the Sharks and the Jets hang out.) Valentina is a reworked and expanded version of the Doc character, and sings a rendition of the classic song “Somewhere” in the movie’s first trailer.

In addition to the role, Spielberg also made Moreno an executive producer on the film.

Moreno, who was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, and moved to New York when she was 5, resented producers’ decision to darken her skin for the original “West Side.” The issue resurfaced on Twitter this past week, when Moreno defended Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose new film “In the Heights” has come under fire for its lack of Afro-Latino actors in lead and supporting roles. (Moreno has since apologized, saying, “I was clearly dismissive of Black lives that matter in our Latin community.”)

“I remember saying to my makeup man once on the original ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Why do I have to wear such dark makeup? I’m not that color,’ ” Moreno says. “And he literally said to me, ‘What, are you a racist?’ He really said that and I was so astonished that I shut up, because I didn’t know what to say to that. If I said, ‘No, I’m not a racist,’ I feel he would not believe me, so I let it drop. But it was shocking.”

Rita Moreno pushed back against dark makeup in original 'West Side Story': 'I'm not that color'

As well as the use of brownface, the first “West Side” has been criticized for casting white actors in Hispanic roles and perpetuating stereotypes about Puerto Ricans. But Spielberg and Kushner “corrected all that stuff,” Moreno says. In the update, “every Hispanic (character) is actually Hispanic.”

That includes the new Anita, played by Ariana DeBose (Netflix’s “The Prom”), whose mother is white and father is Afro-Puerto Rican.

“She was quite nervous to meet me,” Moreno says of DeBose. “I watched a lot of the dance rehearsals and she’s a ferocious dancer. She’s fabulous. And what I love about Steven choosing her is that she’s Afro-Puerto Rican.”

Rita Moreno pushed back against dark makeup in original 'West Side Story': 'I'm not that color'

The stage and screen legend also lavishes praise on “our beautiful Maria,” Rachel Zegler. Unlike Wood, who was white, Zegler is of Colombian and Polish descent.

“Oh, she’s lovely,” Moreno says. “She’s Maria: She’s young, she’s sweet, she was 17 when we started this, the way Maria is supposed to be. A lot of this stuff is so true to what it was meant to be. Whether you’re disappointed because the choreography isn’t the same or some scene didn’t work out for you as the audience, you still absolutely have to see it.”

‘Incredibly disappointed with myself’:Rita Moreno after defending ‘In the Heights’ amid colorism controversy

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