Ariana DeBose opens up about playing the iconic Anita in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story and her self-discovery journey as a queer Afro-Latina.

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Ariana DeBose
Credit: Greg Williams/August

When she first auditioned for the iconic role of Anita on Steven Spielberg's much-awaited film West Side Story, Ariana DeBose didn't know the renowned director would be present. "That was a shock," she tells People CHICA. Although she wowed him with her dancing on stage, she refused to read her lines in front of him because she didn't feel fully prepared that day to do her best.

"Nobody wants to embarrass themselves in front of Steven Spielberg," she jokes. "I said no to him, and he was very shocked. Thankfully the casting director came to my aid and helped me explain." They agreed she would return another day to read her lines. "I think that, in and of itself, was very Anita," she laughs. 

The fiery and brilliant Anita was portrayed by Chita Rivera in the Broadway musical and by Rita Moreno in the original film version in 1961. "They are incredibly large shoes to fill. I've admired both of those women for a really long time," says the 30-year-old actress, who makes Anita her own in the new film, coming to theaters in December.

Ariana DeBose
Ariana DeBose
| Credit: Greg Williams/August

DeBose, of Puerto Rican descent, says being part of West Side Story helped her explore her Latinidad. "I said: 'I don't think you should consider me for this role if you're not willing to acknowledge the fact that I'm an Afro-Latina. There has never been anyone that has been given the opportunity to portray this character that has my skin color and my background, and I would really encourage you to take that into account if you are going to seriously consider me to play this part,'" she told the director, who said he was glad she shared this with him. "He was an incredible collaborator and there was never a moment that he didn't ask: 'How are you feeling about this? Did this feel authentic to you?'"

Ariana DeBose in West Side Story
Ariana DeBose as Anita in West Side Story
| Credit: Niko Tavernise

Living her truth outside the set is essential to the performer, who identifies as queer. "I was so lucky to have a loving and accepting experience coming out," DeBose told People en Español, which named her one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in 2021. "My mother was my rock. She has always been accepting of who I am even when she doesn't understand my choices. She has always let me follow my heart and be exactly who I am," she adds. "That doesn't mean that we don't have certain squabbles, but she has been my constant comrade, my partner in crime."

In Netflix's series The Prom —where she shares credits with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman—she plays teen Alyssa Green, an overachieving cheerleader who struggles with coming out and taking the girl she loves to her high school prom.

Ariana DeBose
Ariana DeBose
| Credit: Greg Williams/August

"The Prom is really important to me because it's not every day that young girls of color, specifically in their teenage years, get to see their stories told this way. Both young black girls, AfroLatinx girls —and Latinidad at large— we don't really discuss the impact of the coming out process on our young women," she says. "I would go out on a limb and say that we're a little more sensitive to young men coming out than we are to young girls coming out. So I was so honored to have been a part of The Prom so that young women can see that it's Ok to be who you are."

The Prom - Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose
(L to R) JO ELLEN PELLMAN as EMMA, ARIANA DEBOSE as ALYSSA GREENE in THE PROM.
| Credit: MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX © 2020

Playing a mesmerizing LGBTQ+ character like Alyssa is a dream come true for DeBose, who  felt judged when she danced with a girl in her own prom. With her Prom co-star Jo Ellen Pellman, she founded the Unruly Hearts Initiative to help other LGBTQ+ youth, and "build a bridge between young people and their parents— and the resources to help them along their journey—understanding identity and the nuances of the coming out process." The organization's website provides vital information on mental health access, education, crisis management and "any and all things that can help you understand yourself or your child."

Although the confident star now seems to be on top of the world, her self-discovery journey was filled with challenges. "I was crushed when I was voted off So You Think You Can Dance at 19 years old. I was young and needed to sit with my emotions surrounding those voices and how I heard the criticism. Once I was ready, I got back in there and trained harder, and I moved to New York to prove to myself that the things echoing in my head were not true," she recalls. Leaving  her college classes in North Carolina, where she was born and raised, and heading for the Big Apple to pursue her dreams turned out to be the best choice.

Like any aspiring actress in the asphalt jungle, she struggled financially and slept on a friend's couch while she auditioned and started landing major roles. She shined in the Broadway production Hamilton and played Disco Donna in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Being part of projects like Hamilton or Apple TV's musical comedy Schmigadoon! —which celebrate diversity and inclusion— is a way to honor her own roots.

"Schmigadoon was recorded during the pandemic. I was in Canada for three or four months. I play Emma Tate, which is like a version of Marian Paroo from The Music Man, Mary Poppins, Lulu from Pennies From Heaven played by Bernadette Petters, but every character I mentioned is usually represented by white women," she reflects, adding it's fulfilling to break the mold and "to be a black woman having the opportunity to sing in a golden age style of musical."

Ariana DeBose in “Schmigadoon!”
Ariana DeBose in “Schmigadoon!”
| Credit: Apple TV+

"I like to portray characters coming to terms with how to live authentically and accept themselves for exactly who they are. To have the opportunity to let Emma manifest in my beautiful form I think was quite a departure for this type of character," she adds. "It was very exciting for me to play."

Ariana DeBose in WEST SIDE STORY
Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in West Side Story
| Credit: Niko Tavernise

It's also exciting to be part of iconic projects that celebrate Latinidad. "I'm a Latina who came to understand her culture later in life. It's a wonderful journey that I'm on," she admits. "One of the greatest gifts West Side Story gave me was the opportunity to really understand how much my ancestors influence everything that I am. Whether or not I had access to my culture growing up it actually doesn't matter, it doesn't make me any less Latina. I am so Latina it hurts," she laughs. "It's in the food that I like, the way that I dance, the way that I communicate, the way that I love."

On her free time, she values her solitude. "I stay at home and light a candle. I cook a really good meal and I listen to my favorite music. For a while it was the new Selena Gómez album, now it's the new Ben Platt Album, but sometimes you have to go back to your classic Marc Anthony or Joni Mitchell," she says. "In the kitchen I keep it simple, every once in a while I'll bring out a cook book. My favorite right now is Ottolenghi Simple, the recipes are really fresh and they take like 30 minutes to prepare, which is great for a girl on the go."   

Ariana DeBose
Ariana DeBose
| Credit: Greg Williams/August

No matter how hectic her schedule gets, social justice is on her mind and her Instagram. "I use my platform to talk about what is going on in Europe, in Afghanistan, in Haiti. This is my way of encouraging people to pay attention to what's going on in the world, because we share this planet with millions of people, and we need compassion," she says. "I think ultimately —why we should do everything and anything— is to find ways to connect with the people we share the world with."