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“I’m very, very busy writing acceptance speeches,” says Rita Moreno, the “eighty-fucking-seven”-year-old EGOT winner who will add a Peabody Career Achievement Award to her crowded mantel at the May 18 fete (hosted by Ronan Farrow), which honors excellence in TV, radio and online media. “I’m delighted, but I’m beginning to think some people are thinking, ‘Quick, before she kicks the bucket.’ “
She won’t be slowing down any time soon: A three-season run on Norman Lear’s update of One Day at a Time now segues into Steven Spielberg’s controversial remake of West Side Story. Moreno, who won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film, boarded the update as both an actress and an executive producer — a role that’s intended to help guide the project away from the original’s dated and racially insensitive elements.
The Puerto Rico-born actress spoke with THR about all the recent attention, why she almost quit the original West Side Story and her history with Marlon Brando.
You and Norman Lear recently wrote a rather damning piece for THR about Netflix’s decision to cancel One Day at a Time.
We’re just so sad. I’m still puzzled, because we were kept in the dark. But as Norman said, “You’re never too old to have your heart broken.”
How optimistic are you that the show will land somewhere else?
We’re still trying, so that means there’s plenty of hope. It would be wonderful if Netflix would let go of it. I think that’s really the heart of the problem. I suppose them not letting go of it is going to determine its demise.
Before you were involved with the new West Side Story, you said in an interview that you were “excited and scared to death” that the movie was being remade.
I was nervous. If it was a contemporary redo, what happens to this glorious movie? For all of West Side Story‘s faults, I was concerned that somehow the beautiful music would suffer. Turns out that won’t be a problem, because it’s taking place in the same time period as our show did — 1957. In fact, I had wardrobe fittings in New York the other day, and I said, “Oh, my God. This is what we wore? Ew!”
Because you’re also acting in it, yes?
I’m playing Valentina, who is Doc’s widow. She’s obviously not wearing anything glamourous. But I was just astonished. This is what we wore in the 1950s? Give me a break. I am having the time of my life, though. I’m eighty-fucking-seven, eighty-fucking-seven. They’ve extended the part — it’s a bigger role than Doc’s — and I have the deep pleasure of working with Tony Kushner, whom I absolutely adore. It was his idea to bring in the character.
Spielberg went to Puerto Rico to talk through some of the problems of the original. One big concern among many Puerto Ricans is Anita’s speech before singing “America.”
There’s a lot that’s interesting about the objection to that number. In defense of the original, some people choose to be offended by the things that are said about Puerto Rico — but they completely disregard that it’s one native’s point of view, which is why the number turns into a song that’s really insulting America. “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean” … that one really clings to people’s hearts. It still does. But let me sing you the original three lines: (Singing) “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases.” That is venal.
That is much worse.
I wanted this part so badly, so badly. But a few weeks after I got it, I suddenly remembered that lyric. Nobody knows this, but I said, “Those words won’t come out of my mouth.” I was going to give it up on principle, not because I was brave — but because I couldn’t bear the thought of doing this to my people. But then [Stephen] Sondheim changed the lyric.
What’s it been like working with Spielberg?
Steven Spielberg is just walking around during rehearsals like a child. He’s so delighted. He hasn’t lost any of the enthusiasm that people lose when they get older. It’s as if he can do nothing wrong. He just hired the conductor. Who is he? Only a genius named Gustavo Dudamel, who happens to be Hispanic.
What assurances did you get from Spielberg about not repeating the first film‘s mistakes?
He had sent me a script, and it answered a lot of questions. My agents said he was offering EP credit. My teeth nearly came out of my mouth. Seriously?
They kind of needed you to give this a seal of approval.
Very likely that’s how they feel. Two white jews, as they say, tackling this material? it’s important to them. But they have done everything right. They went down to Puerto Rico of their own volition, they called the University of Puerto Rico and said they’d like to do a panel of people coming in to talk about the movie, their objections, what they love about it, just their thoughts. Nobody thought of that during the original!
Is this really your first EP credit?
Oh my God, yes! I don’t know any Hispanic people who get those things, even now. The first thing I asked my manager is, “What the heck do executive producers do?” Steven answered for me, without even being asked. He said, “You are the bridge to this movie. You can tell me things no one else can tell me.” We talk a lot, and now and then I disagree with him and tell him so. This film will be out when I’m 89. I hope I’ll be around.
You’ve spoken about your other issues with the original.
I remember I had to use extremely dark makeup, all the Sharks did. One day, I remember saying to the makeup man, “I hate this makeup. It’s so damn dark.” And he actually said to me, “What are you, a racist?”
I had to remind him. Puerto Rico was colonized by the French, the Dutch and the Spanish. We have that blood in us. And the people indigenous are Taíno Indian. That’s why there are Puerto Ricans are white as milk and the color of charcoal. We are everybody. The makeup man didn’t know quite what to say to me.
So are there any changes to “America” in the new version?
“Let it sink back in the ocean,” it still exists in the lyric, but it is different in that it’s really just Anita voicing her opinion how wonderful America is and, to her mind, Puerto Rico is not.
People can have complicated feelings about where they’re from.
Oh boy. There’s a lot of sensitivity — and I believe it, because we have been treated so poorly. And it’s gotten even worse in this administration. It’s horrific.
So many people in America still have such a loose grasp of how devastating Hurricane Maria was to Puerto Rico.
It’s astonishing. To have taken much-needed funds away from the reparations that are needed is heartbreaking. Just now, finally, the last little town in the mountains is finally electrified. What is this? Two years later? One of the worst moments in that time was when our president, in the presence of all these Puerto Rican people in San Juan, actually said, “How many people have died in this thing?” At that time it was thought, like, 16. And he said something to the effect of, “God, that’s nothing compared to Katrina.” I can’t remember his exact words, but I remember my jaw dropping down to my kneecaps. But you have to get over stuff like that, because you can’t live that way.
I thought I knew your entire résumé, but I just learned that you were in a TV adaptation of 9 to 5.
The series, yes! I loved doing that. I played the Lily Tomlin part. And do you who was in it and got fired?
Oh, you’ll love this. I forget names, which just sucks, but the actor who played the transgender woman in that comedy — Jeffrey Tambor! He played Mr. Hart. I thought he was fabulous, but he got fired. And they put in Peter Bonerz, who was the most cliche character actor, to replace Jeffrey. We were in shock.
Who’s the most exciting scene partner you’ve had?
Marlon Brando was my absolute favorite — a lot of improvisation. We did a small movie called The Night of the Following Day. This was way after we were lovers, but he got the part for me. It had a great look to it, cinematically. It was not the most marvelous script in the world. I don’t know why he would take some of these awful parts. I think it was the money, which is very disenchanting.
It’s hard to diagnose why people pick the projects they do, especially when you assume they’re in the position to be choosy.
There’s a film out right now. I don’t even want to describe it, because you’ll know what it is, but I turned it down. I was astonished at how really insulting it was to older women. It’s meant to be a comedy. Oof, no. I’m looking at the casting thinking, “Wow, they took this part?!” I’m astonished! And it’s not like these people are poor or struggling. Go figure.
What’s still on your bucket list?
I’d love very much to play a character that isn’t necessarily Hispanic, and I’m doing that a bit with a recurring part on Bless This Mess. It’s a very funny show. I hope it works.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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