Colombian American star Rachel Zegler opens up to Chica about playing the iconic role of María in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, becoming the first Latina Snow White in Disney's upcoming film and her new life away from the set.
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Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
Rachel Zegler
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

As a child, Rachel Zegler remembers watching the original West Side Story with her mother and her abuelita, never imagining that a decade and change later she would be starring in Steven Spielberg's remake of the classic film.

"That original film will forever be a film icon, that film is forever in everyone's hearts as this thing that will stand alone," Zegler tells People Chica. "I watched it for the first time when I was 6 or 7 years old, it was on Turner's Classic Movies, and I just fell in love with Rita Moreno in her purple dress dancing around on the rooftop, and I was just enthralled by her performance."

And she adds about the powerhouse actress who won an Oscar for her Anita in the 1961 film, one who also stars in the Spielberg version that hits theaters on December 10: "She was a pioneer, she still is, and she has incredible stories to tell and advise to give and anecdotes about that set, and about the people she's encountered in this lifetime. I'm so grateful to have been able to spend even an ounce of time with her." 

Getting the starring role of María in this new adaptation was also a dream come true for Zegler. "She has a lot more agency in this movie," she says about her María, who's an 18 year-old in the movie, just as Zegler was in real life at the time she filmed it. Because of this, Spielberg and the film's scriptwriter, Tony Kushner, told her to tap into her own experiences for the role —advice she was very grateful for.

Also important for the now 20-year-old is spending time with her family and living a normal life, all of which has become somewhat challenging post filming West Side Story due to "the lack of anonymity" and how "life wasn't as safe as it once was."

Days before her first film hits theaters, Zegler opens up to Chica about her experience and how she's working through her new-found fame, her love life and her upcoming projects like Shazam 2 and Disney's new live action adaptation of Snow White. 

Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
Rachel Zegler as Maria in WEST SIDE STORY
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

What was the audition process for West Side Story like?  

Oh, my goodness! It was a very long process. From what I've heard it's abnormally long for the industry. I auditioned the same day Cindy Tolan, our casting director, tweeted out that she was looking for the four leads for Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, and my friend McKenna sent me her tweet and said: 'Thank me when you're famous'. I auditioned that night. It was January 25, 2018. Ended up getting [the part on] January 9, 2019.

How is your María different from the one played by Natalie Wood?  

When it comes to [her] performance [it] is iconic. People love her performance in that movie. Cultural differences aside, it is considered a great performance in Hollywood, and she does play that final scene so beautifully. I personally could do without the darkened skin makeup and the over-enunciated accent, but that unfortunately was the time. And I still argue that sometimes, in this day and age, we live in a similar time where that cultural appropriation is there. But it's one of the most iconic film performances of all time, and I tried to steer clear of it when I got the part —not necessarily intentionally— but I knew that people were going to compare us no matter how well I did or how poorly I did in the film. People are going to compare us, so I didn't try to do that to myself.

Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in West Side Story.
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

What was it like working with Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno and with the rest of this great cast? 

When it comes to working with Ariana and Rita —who are both forces of nature— they are incredibly inspiring women. I was so grateful to share the screen with them and also to just share conversations with them and share time. [I was able to] talk to Rita about this industry and about the moves she made for us as young Latinas in Hollywood. She was a pioneer, she still is, and she has incredible stories to tell and advice to give, and anecdotes about that set, and about the people she's encountered in this lifetime. I'm so grateful to have been able to spend even an ounce of time with her. 

How do you feel about playing Snow White in Disney's new film?

We haven't started yet and there is so much that I don't even know. The version of the script that I read is absolutely beautiful in the sense that Snow White is a strong young woman now. If you remember the 1930s cartoon she is constantly singing about waiting for a man to come and save her. [She was] waiting for a man to come and give her life meaning and purpose and that's not really the story you want to tell in 2021. We want to show young people everywhere to have agency and to make choices for themselves, to want to rule, to want to make change and to want to care about other individuals.

Also at the heart of the original cartoon —and that remains here— Snow White is very kind and her whole character is rooted in her kindness and her acceptance of individuals of all shapes, sizes, colors, sexuality and genders. I personally love that about this character, and I can't wait to be the first Latina Snow White on screen, I think that's so exciting. I hope young people are inspired by that as well.  

Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
Rachel Zegler
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

You're Colombian with Polish roots. What was it like growing up in your house?

I grew up in what I consider a very Colombian American household. My dad's side of the family is of Polish origin, but it's very far back in our lineage so there's not a huge tie to Poland itself. I love being Colombian—I love the food and the music and the dances and the culture. It was something that I didn't fully understand until I was working in West Side Story and I was surrounded by the biggest amount of Latinos I've ever been surrounded by. [It made me realize] how much we all had in common, being from different countries in Latin America. It was wonderful and it inspired so much about the heart of our story, which is those conversations about similarities and differences.  

What can you say about your character in Shazam 2?

I wish I could [say something]! We just had our first look come out the other day at FanDome, which is crazy because we wrapped a month and a half ago. We quite literally wrapped like August 31, so the fact that there's already footage out there in the world it's crazy. I will say my character is very sweet and fun and I love her so much. She is going to surprise so many people. Her outfits are really sick; everyone saw the purple jacket, which was a little bit of a moment. People saw that she has an interesting gold costume on that may give something away, but she's really cool and I had the time of my life making that movie. That cast is filled with the biggest sweethearts in Hollywood, so I'm a lucky girl. 

Have there been any roadblocks you've faced on your path to success? 

I started on YouTube, and I wanted to use it just to share my talent with the world. Then I realized through getting emails from companies asking me to come and audition for Broadway musicals and different movies that it was a huge networking opportunity. So I started using that for my advantage and it worked. I was invited to audition for the West Side Story revival and the In the Heights film and the Hamilton tour. That's how it really got started. It was rooted in a lot of rejection until I got the 'Yes' in the West Side Story film, which was my first professional gig. 

I'd say the biggest roadblocks came after West Side Story [with] the lack of anonymity and this sudden realization that people knew who I was and that life wasn't as safe as it once was. [It] has since gotten worse, but I'm figuring out how to deal with that. My relationship with social media has changed a lot; the things that I share are not the things I probably would've shared a couple of years ago. Social media is a farce. Nobody's life is perfect and that's really important for me as I move forward.  

Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
Rachel Zegler in West Side Story
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

How do you keep a normal and safe environment? 

I'm in therapy. Sometimes it's kind of hard to help my therapist understand just how difficult it is because it's not something a lot of people can relate to. It's terrifying, it's an unexplored type of lifestyle that only happens to a handful of people.  

My friends and my family keep me grounded. My best friends really help. Other people who were in the film —one of which is my best friend in the whole world— he really helps me to remember that I'm a human being and reminds me constantly whether he means to or not. I thank him for it constantly, and my family, too. My mom and dad remind me that these people don't really know me, and I know me. I know my intentions and I know my heart and as we move forward that's what's going to be most important: knowing what's real and what's not. That's how I keep it normal.

Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
Rachel Zegler
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Let's talk about Rachel outside of the set. What makes you happy? 

Spending time with the people I love most in the world, consuming as much art as I can in any medium. Last night, I went to a friend's comedy show. I listen to a lot of music, I play a lot of instruments to clear my head. I journal a lot; my journal has become like my scrap book, and I love that so much. I have a collection of favorite movies that can bring me out of a funk. [I also have] collections of music that I love to listen to and playlists that I love to create and curate for very specific moods that nobody else will ever understand. At the heart of it, I'm an artist that loves art, so when I'm not making it I'm consuming it.  

Did your family always support you wanting to be a performer? 

My family has always been very supportive. I know my mom and dad probably wished that I had waited a little bit longer before blowing up the way I did, but unfortunately I couldn't help it. Just because I think a 25-year-old would've had a better grip on the life changes that came my way when I was 17. I understand that and I respect that, but they were always very supportive of my ideas for my future.  

Are you in love? Is there space for that now in your life? 

I accept love where I can and I give it always. It's a journey. It's always something, but that's really what it is: I love at every opportunity I have, and when I receive it in return that's awesome too. I'm always with my heart on my sleeve and the best intentions.  

Rachel Zegler - West Side Story
West Side Story
| Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

What has your self-love journey been like? Were you always this confident?

I would argue that I'm still not where I should be in the self-love section of my life. That chapter is still being written. When you're in the public eye it's very easy to hate yourself, extremely easy. It's a lot of reminding myself not to compare, reminding myself that I am enough and other people's opinions do not define me, that I am not for everyone and that's okay.  

How do you feel about representing other Latinas on the screen and what other roles are on your wish list? 

Besides really wanting to play Joan Baez in a biopic about Joan Baez (or in any capacity if Joan Baez is in a movie), I want to normalize stories where Latinos can exist and where it's not a character trait that they are of Latin origin. One of my favorite movies of all times is Inside Llewyn Davis. Oscar Isaac is a very talented Latino actor and being Latino is not part of the movie, he just happens to be in real life. And that's what I feel Snow White will probably be—where there is not an emphasis on ethnic origin or ethnic background. She just exists as a Disney princess who happens to be played by a Latina. That would be my dream for the future of Hollywood when it comes to Latinx representation.  

How would you describe your sense of style? 

I love a good jean! The last time I bought jeans was with Helen Mirren, she gave me jeans advice. I love her to death! I love funky statement pieces and I love jackets. I have an obsession with jackets. I have really cool Dock Martin boots. I have these four-inch black cherry-colored Dock Martin heel boots that I actually wore when my feet were off camera in West Side Story because my leading man is 6 foot 4 and I'm 5 feet 2, so I used to wear those big heels. I wear them all the time. I don't really have a big emphasis of fashion in my life, other than when I get to work with cool brands. I've gotten to work with Dior and Michael Kors and that's been really cool. When it comes to beauty, I'm not wearing any makeup at the moment, and I don't really do my hair. When I do, I like to have fun with it. I like something very simple and I don't like to feel like I'm wearing a lot of makeup because it makes me anxious.

What are you plans for the end of the year?

There is a lot of voice over work coming up that I'm really excited about. I intend to spend the rest of the year promoting West Side Story, getting to talk about that and share that with the world. I'm spending the holidays with the people I love most. We are so blessed to have made this movie, so please come out on December 10 to the theaters!