Actress Ariana DeBose has been scooping up awards left and right for her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaption of “West Side Story.”
The role was popularized by Puerta Rican actress Rita Moreno, who became the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar in 1962.
Ariana DeBose Scoops Up A BAFTA & Critics Choice Award On The Same Day!
The actress and singer won both a BAFTA and a Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress on Sunday, March 13 (both events were held on the same day).
In her BAFTA acceptance speech, DeBose said, “This means so much to me. I am someone who sings, dances, acts. I speak dance better than I speak English. So, I am truly honored by this recognition. It’s not every day that you get to bring to life a character using all of these disciplines.”
In her Critics Choice Award speech later in the day, she thanked EGOT winner Moreno for originating the role in 1961. “You made space for me to thrive beside you,” she said. “I am not in front of you, I am not behind you, I am beside you. And, that’s the greatest gift you could have ever given me.”
In a new interview with Deadline, DeBose revealed what her first impression of Anita was like growing up.
Ariana DeBose Explains She First Saw ‘West Side Story’ With Her Grandmother
When asked what her first impression of Anita was, DeBose explained that “I grew up watching West Side Story on my grandmother’s television. Turner Classic Movies was playing it and I was really into old movies as a kid. That and soap operas with my grandmother because that’s what we did together.”
“I was obsessed with the woman in the purple dress. And not until my adulthood did I come to understand the storyline and what Anita went through. That Rita Moreno played her in the film and she won an Oscar, and she’s Latina,” she continued. “And when I moved to New York, I really got into the study of musical theater because I didn’t graduate with a degree in … I don’t have a degree in anything.”
“School of life, guys,” she joked. “School of life.”
“When I began to study in New York with different mentors, that’s when I learned the name Chita Rivera and that she was the OG Anita onstage, and that she was really the quintessential triple threat on Broadway,” she added.
“And since that’s what I was training to become, Chita was very much like a star in my universe that I was trying to reach, and then over here is Rita Moreno, doing the film thing, and I was like, what happens if I could meet in the middle? Didn’t think it was going to be like this, which is very cool. But yeah, that sort of was my introduction to the character and those women.”
Ariana DeBose Explains The Collaborative Process That Led To Anita
When asked how she prepared for the role, DeBose called it, “an extremely collaborative process.”
“The way I look at it is Steven (Spielberg, director) came in and gave me his trust and said, ‘run wild,’ and Tony (Kushner, screenwriter) gave me the words, and Justin (Peck) gave me the choreography, but then it really was up to me to make choices with all the tools that I’d spent all those years training to work with,” she explained. “So that’s when artistry and my craft come into play.”
“Justin and his associates did so much extensive studying about the social dancing of the day,” she continued. “What did the mambo look like in 1957, and how does that inform how we move? I took that knowledge, and then also had to say, what has (Costume Designer) Paul Tazewell put on me for this character in this moment? What dress is she wearing, and how can I use that to my advantage?”
“At ‘Dance at the Gym’, you see Anita and Bernardo (David Alvarez), Riff (Mike Faist) and Grazi (Paloma Garcia-Lee) come together in the epic dance battle, and Anita swerves in with her skirt, looks at Grazi, does an eye thing and swings her shoulder. She’s not afraid to check you, but she’s still just having a good time,” DeBose continued. “And I was like, there she is. That’s Anita. So, it’s this full-circle thing of, let me take these steps, in this dress and see how it speaks to who Anita is. Then 10 percent is me just coming in and feeling it.”
Ariana DeBose Revealed That She Let Anita ‘Live In Me’
Although some artists like to give their characters their own backstory, DeBose revealed that she didn’t need to create her own.
“I kept a journal about events on set, but I didn’t go through the whole process of writing Anita’s thoughts,” she explained. “There are some actors who do that, that keep a journal for their character. That didn’t work for me.”
“Tony Kushner wrote this beautiful backstory with her that informed everything,” she added. “My homework was to stay very focused on what’s going on in her present.”
“I just chose to let her live in me,” she continued. “When I read Tony’s script, she just jumped out to me and sat on my chest. A lot of characters do that with me, in my career. It’s kind of weird. It’s a very spiritual thing I’ve got going on with me and these humans that I bring to life. Anita just sat there, and she didn’t leave until she was done.”