SAG Honoree Rita Moreno on Fighting Ethnic Stereotypes and Meeting Amy Poehler (Q&A)

6:00 AM PST 01/17/2014 by Stacey Wilson

The guild's 50th Life Achievement honoree reveals what really went into casting "West Side Story" and the role that scared her most: "I didn't look gorgeous, but I got respect."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

More than 50 years after her career-defining performance as Anita in West Side Story, Rita Moreno, 82, lives a quiet life in Berkeley, Calif., near her daughter and grandchildren. While enjoying a bit of distance from Hollywood, she admits she was "totally shocked and honored" when SAG selected her for its annual career-excellence award. On the eve of the SAG Awards, Moreno was characteristically outspoken about her journey from immigrant to movie star, why not working for seven years probably saved her career and why resilience is an actor's most powerful tool.

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You are a rare EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner. How does it feel to add a SAG Life Achievement Award to your collection?

I'm astonished. It's the last thing I ever expected, honestly and truthfully. As far as I'm concerned, this is the closest thing to an Oscar that you can earn. That's a big deal! I just turned 82, and performing is all I've ever done. I would dance to records for Grandpa back in Puerto Rico. Remember records? He'd say, in Spanish, "¡Rosita bella!" ["Pretty!"] I'd start shaking my little booty and prancing around the room. It all started there. (Laughs.)

Your family left Puerto Rico for New York City in 1936, when you were only 5. When did you start performing seriously?

At first it was just tap-dancing lessons. A friend of my mother's, Irene Lopez, was a Spanish dancer. She saw me bopping around the room and said to my mother: "Rosita might have talent. Can I take her to my dance teacher?" There was no thought of a career at that time, but I knew I loved the attention, and that's so much a part of being a performer. If someone tells you otherwise, they're lying.

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What was your first SAG job?

I was in my early 20s and wanted to be an extra in a film the Army was making. I couldn't do it unless I had a SAG card, so my mom helped me become a member. I remember it was very expensive -- like $75 or $100. I was so thrilled.

The role that has defined your career best was that of Anita in the film adaptation of Jerome Robbins' musical West Side Story. What do you remember about the casting process?

It took a very long time to cast. They were determined to get people they thought were right for it. I know they tested a number of "young girls with big, brown eyes and dark hair" who probably might have been more right in the role. Natalie [Wood] had just begun to make a name for herself. She had just done Splendor in the Grass, which was very big, and she was wonderful in it. Elia Kazan directing and Warren Beatty co-starring -- not too shabby. So they gave Natalie the lead in West Side Story, but she was miscast -- and I think she ultimately felt that way, too. She was very uncomfortable and out of her element. She didn't do her own singing. She didn't have a terrible voice -- she just didn't have the right brand for the movie. She really felt uncomfortable. It's a shame. It's easy to just be critical, but I think she did the very best she could have done.

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Wood was white but playing a Hispanic character. As a Latina, did you feel you were given equal consideration for the main roles?

Oh gosh, I auditioned for every part. Acting, dancing, singing -- I had to do everything. And for a short while there, I thought I might not make it because of my dancing, ironically. At the time I hadn't danced in years, so prior to the audition I ran to the dancing school. I nearly killed myself trying to catch up. I think I was about 27 or 28 by then. It was like suddenly trying to play three sets of tennis a day -- you can only do so much.

Did you have to fight harder not to be relegated to a background chorus role?

You can never fight for a part or can't beg them to do another audition. You can try, but that rarely works. They really were enthused about me. The choreographer's assistant and dance director said: "She's going to need a lot of work but has a great sense of humor, style and energy. I think we can pull it off." But it was a chore. I was replacing Chita Rivera, who'd played Anita [in West Side Story] on Broadway. I'd never been Chita Rivera in any sense of the word in terms of dancing!

You won a supporting actress Oscar for West Side Story, the first for a Hispanic woman. What do you remember most about that night?

I was sure that Judy Garland was going to win for Judgment at Nuremberg, but I wanted to be there just in case. I was in the middle of doing a very crappy World War II film, playing another one of those dusky maidens, and I came to California for the show. I thought, "If nothing else, a nomination is pretty spectacular." When my name was called … my so-called acceptance speech was embarrassing. I was so unprepared! I said, "I can't believe it!" Then there's a pause. "Good Lord, I can't believe it. I leave you with that." Then I burst into tears. It was so unbelievable. This little Puerto Rican kid? It took me months to completely accept.

You've said you had a hard time landing good parts after winning the Oscar. Why?

It was one of the heartbreaks of my life. I didn't work for a long time because, I'm guessing, I'd already played the definitive "Latina character" for so long. I was offered a couple of films, but they were B, black-and-white movies about gangs. I thought: "No, that day is over. I'm not doing that again." Ha, I showed them! I didn't do a film for seven years.

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How open were you about why you were turning down roles?

Nobody knew -- all they knew is that they suddenly weren't seeing me in films. When I tell them now, they say, "Yeah, good!" This business is so hard. It's no wonder that people in my business very often are very taken with themselves. Actors very often are people who think it's always about "me," and I can see why! No one else is going to support you or say, "Gosh, I'm sorry about that," or, "Here, let me give you a job." It doesn't happen that way. You can see why performers get very self-absorbed. But I didn't work at all, so that helped me become humble very quickly.

Another turning point in your career came in 1997, when you were cast as the sympathetic nun on Tom Fontana's HBO prison drama Oz. Were you reluctant to take such a raw, dark role?

(Laughs.) Yes, a lot of people ask me, "How did that happen?" Tom always felt that people shouldn't be stereotyped, but God -- me playing a nun? When I told my daughter, she said, "Wait, you're playing what?"

She didn't think you were virtuous enough to play such a plain, stripped-down character?

Yes, even my daughter! Actually, when I was offered the part, I had to say to myself: "OK, you are at a turning point. You know how you're going to look in the show, but if you turn it down, you could lose out on something really wonderful" -- which it turned out to be. What was really great is that I got a lot of respect within the industry. I didn't exactly look gorgeous -- those lights were so harsh! -- but I got respect. People said, "I didn't know she could do that." That's why I did it.

You recently met Amy Poehler, who gushed that she was a huge fan of yours. How does it feel to have a younger generation of performers say you have inspired them?

When Amy said: "Oh my God! I love you!" I said, "Really?" And she said, "Of course, really!" I thought, "I can't wait to tell my daughter." I genuinely don't expect those moments. It's not false modesty -- it surprises and delights me.

Is there something you'd tell your younger self about surviving in show business?

I would say, "It's harsh, and it's hard." You need to have the kind of emotional stamina that it takes to be rejected over and over and over again, even when you've got the stuff. You really have to be able to handle that and not become … well, I was going to say a "neurotic actor," but then I don't know anybody who isn't somewhat neurotic! I've been neurotic in my life; I've had neurotic relationships with men. What else is new? But you really have to learn to be resilient -- able to bounce back, pick yourself up and just keep moving.

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