For our annual “The Originals” issue, we asked creatives—pioneers in the fields of art, design, fashion, comedy, activism, and more—to share their insights on staying true to themselves. Read all of this year’s interviews here.
Your starring performance as Anita in the 1961 film version of West Side Story made you the first Latina to win an Oscar. This year, you’re appearing in the remake, directed by Steven Spielberg, in a new role created specifically for you. How did that happen?
My agent called about three years ago and said, “Steven Spielberg would like to speak with you.” He’s one of my favorite directors ever. And we heard Tony Kushner was going to write it. Spielberg gets me on the phone, and we’re talking, and he’s just one of those very accessible, charming, very smart guys, and he said, “I would like very much to have you take part in it.” Tony wrote this wonderful part. It’s not a cameo. It’s not a huge part, but it turns out to be very important. She’s almost the heart of this film.
What was your experience like on set?
The kids were anxious to meet me. That surprised me. Every lunch hour, during rehearsals, they would all start to gather little by little to ask questions about the original movie. And it was just lovely! Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, was 17 when she got the part. That’s a real Maria. And she’s Hispanic! What’s wonderful about this movie is that everybody who is supposed to be Hispanic is!
Do you consider yourself a political person?
It never occurred to me when I was 10 years old that I was going to end up representing an entire—not just community, but nationality. That’s not something I ever thought of, because I wasn’t a political person then. But I was forced to become one because of the circumstances. At some point, I discovered that a lot of people were suffering unnecessarily. I really started to understand that everyone has a responsibility to others and to a community, that you are not the only person in the world you simply represent, whether you like it or not.
In your new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, you speak about some very painful moments, especially with regard to a lot of the sexual abuse you faced in Hollywood. How difficult was it to excavate some of those memories and share them publicly? Or were you happy to get it all out and release it?
I knew that if I was going to do a documentary about my life, I was going to do everything I could to be as truthful as possible. I mean, what’s the point of doing a documentary about your life if you’re going to lie? How could you feel good about yourself? As painful as some of it was, I’m proud that I did it. And mostly because it’s affected people in such a marvelous way.
You’ve said that you didn’t always think so highly of yourself. How and when did you discover the power of confidence?
I think it happened through therapy. A lot of people go into it thinking that the doctor is going to solve everything for them. And they discover, with a terrible thundering shock, that it’s really not the doctor who is going to do that; you do a lot of the work. That’s something that I think surprises everyone. It certainly surprised me.
What’s the most unoriginal thing people ask you?
It always starts with, “What does it feel like…?” That’s a very difficult question to answer, because it’s phrased so stupidly. What does it feel like to be an actress, or well-known? Huh? I’m just sitting here in my flannel pajamas and my little furry Ugg moccasin slippers, and that’s part of how it feels. That feels wonderful.
West Side Story will be released the day before your 90th birthday.
I have a great sense of humor about aging, and I think I’m one of the funniest people I know when it comes to aging, because I misplace stuff and I drive everyone crazy looking for the house keys or something. Once, I couldn’t find my purse, and I upended the car, upended the house. I could not find that fucking purse. And then two days ago, I opened the cabinet in the kitchen where all the doggie stuff is, and guess what? I had put it in there. I started laughing so hard, I nearly peed. I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought, You silly bitch.