It’s hard to imagine anyone but Ariana DeBose in the role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story, but that was almost the case as DeBose said no to the role four times before accepting the offer. The long-awaited adaptation is boasted to be a full adaptation the original 1957 stage musical with nods to the 1961 film. The film stars Baby Driver‘s Ansel Alegort and newcomer Rachel Zegler as star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria. Since the film’s full theatrical release in December, the film opened to less than stellar box office numbers due to the ongoing pandemic, but critic reviews for West Side Story were overwhelmingly positive, which has put the film in the running for more than a few awards.
DeBose has split her career between theater and film, establishing herself with ensemble roles in Hairspray, Les Misérables, and even snatching the featured ensemble role as The Bullet in Hamilton. Her film credits include 2011’s Company, and the 2020 musical film The Prom, where she played Alyssa Greene. DeBose even has some TV credits with Apple TV+’s Schmigadoon! and her recent gig hosting Saturday Night Live. Before DeBose was confirmed as the new Anita, Baby Driver star Eiza Gonzalez was in the running for the role, however, the official announcement of her casting came in 2019 a few months before filming started.
Now, West Side Story casting director Cindy Tolan tells Variety that audiences almost missed DeBose’s Anita because she declined the role four times. Tolan knew DeBose through her Broadway career and believed she would be perfect for the role of Anita, but DeBose couldn’t see herself in the role. Tolan doesn’t say how she finally got a yes from DeBose, but she expressed that even her associates could see DeBose in the part. Read Tolan’s full comment below.
“I asked her to come in and she said no. She refused four times and I had to talk her into coming in.”
DeBose plays spirited and sarcastic Anita, girlfriend to Sharks leader Bernardo and Maria’s closest friend. Tolan said she wasn’t looking for triple threats, but quadruple threats, someone who could dance, sing, and act, of course, but also someone the camera would love. She found that in DeBose and it is apparent Tolan’s instincts were right because DeBose has received several nominations for her role, including a Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actress. The role of Anita has a history of award success considering Rita Moreno, who originated Anita in the 1961 film, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
West Side Story is making it big among award circles. Despite the rocky start at the box office, the film has turned itself around with outstanding performance among critics. The positive criticism of course is in no small part due to Spielberg’s vision, but can also be contributed to the breakout cast of new faces who will surely continue to light up the screen. Hopefully, West Side Story will release to streaming sooner rather than later, so more people can see the film and experience another outstanding film from Spielberg.
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