When Rachel Zegler was 16, she was cast as Maria in a local production of “West Side Story” in Englewood, New Jersey.
It was four or five months before she auditioned for the same role in Steven Spielberg’s dazzling new adaptation (now in theaters), which reimagines the star-crossed love story between a white boy (Ansel Elgort) and Puerto Rican girl (Zegler) in 1950s Manhattan.
Back during her summer community theater production, "I guess we had no budget for sets, so the balcony scene took place on painter’s scaffolding, which is not safe at all, really," Zegler recalls with a smile. "I had to stand on it while it was moving and try to maintain my balance in heels – it was a whole thing."
Fast-forward to the set of the reported $100 million movie, and “I’m very grateful I am in the Steven Spielberg ‘West Side Story' because I didn’t have to do anything dangerous like that!”
Now 20, Zegler is still in disbelief her screen debut is opening at all. The movie musical wrapped shooting in early fall 2019 and was scheduled for release last December before COVID-19 hit.
“It’s hard when you are placing all your bets on this one project to skyrocket you to a place where you can book the next thing,” Zegler says. “It was a reminder that at the end of the day, we are our own advocates.”
Rather than sit at home and wait for “West Side” to open, Zegler continued to network and audition. She filmed a mysterious new role in DC superhero sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (in theaters June 2, 2023), bonding with co-stars Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, with whom she still has a "very wholesome" group text. She also signed on to play Snow White in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake – a surreal dream for the girl who grew up singing along to "Beauty and the Beast" and "Mulan."
"To look back at those years and say, 'Now you're going to be a Disney princess,' it's kind of crazy," says Zegler, whose "West Side" performance earned her a best-actress award from the National Board of Review, topping A-list contenders including Nicole Kidman and Kristen Stewart. “It’s not lost on me how lucky I have been. I'm so fortunate, and I owe a lot of it to Steven.”
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Spielberg selected Zegler from a pool of more than 30,000 applicants to play the iconic Maria, last portrayed onscreen in 1961 by Natalie Wood, a white actress doing a broad accent in the 10-time Oscar-winning original. Unlike Wood’s doe-eyed take on the character, Zegler’s Maria is hopeful yet headstrong, butting up against older brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) as she tries to carve out a life for herself in New York as a young Latina. She falls fast for Elgort’s Tony but isn’t totally naïve to the consequences their forbidden romance could have on rivaling gangs the Sharks and the Jets.
“I wanted (Maria) to be very young,” Spielberg says. “Rachel was 17 when she got the part and blew out her birthday candles on set when she turned 18. It was really important to me that this is a story about youth: When we're that age, we think we know so much more than we actually are prepared to speak about.”
Zegler related Maria’s experience to that of her maternal grandmother, who moved from Colombia to Hoboken, New Jersey, in the 1960s and worked three jobs.
“There was the language barrier and people who were not very nice to her,” Zegler says. “At one point, she didn't think she could have a life here. She very much had the idea in her mind that her daughter was going to be American: ‘You're going to have the opportunities I did not have, you're going to learn English and you're going to speak English.’ That was the reality for so many of our ancestors who came here.”
Zegler is excited to hear what her grandma thinks of the film, particularly how it incorporates Spanish. Much of the dialogue between Maria, Bernardo and his girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), is spoken in their native language with no subtitles onscreen, adding another layer of authenticity and nuance to their conversations.
“I’m a huge advocate for the fact that there's no one way to be Latina," Zegler says. "We look so many different ways and come from so many different places, and I love that about us. That’s so important for the next generation to see themselves onscreen and know that they, too, can dance and express their Latin joy.”
Despite the dramatic nature of the story, it was important for Zegler to accentuate that joy throughout “West Side.” She worked closely with choreographer Justin Peck and screenwriter Tony Kushner to create a lighthearted moment of Maria in her bedroom, clumsily trying to hide that she met with Tony the night before and fell asleep in her clothes. Maria’s signature song, “I Feel Pretty,” is also wonderfully whimsical as she prances through a department store trying on shawls and sun hats and swooning over mannequins.
“When we were watching (that scene) for the first time, I could not remember for the life of me what I did that day,” Zegler says. “Bruce Springsteen and Stephen Sondheim were on set (visiting) and I was just not present at all. I was trying to immerse myself in the performance, but I think I blacked out.”
Contributing: Brian Truitt
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'West Side Story's Maria: Rachel Zegler is also Disney's Snow White