Ariana DeBose is a triple threat force to be reckoned with. From the moment she arrives on the screen of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the classic musical West Side Story, it is clear we are in the presence of singular talent that expertly performs any task she is assigned. Since the film’s release, she has become an overnight sensation and the front-runner to take the Best Supporting Actress prize at this year’s Oscars, but if you have followed her career, it’s not surprising that she is in this position.
DeBose began her career in 2009 as a contestant on the dancing show So You Think You Can Dance, where she finished in the Top 20. She then landed roles in musical productions of Bring It On, Motown, and Pippin, where she landed the understudy role and eventually, for Pippin, was the star of the show. These projects led her to the part of “the bullet” in the ensemble of the Tony-winning Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton.
From her time on Hamilton, she moved on to playing Disco Donna in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, where she landed a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. With this, DeBose was able to make the transition to the big screen and small screen, with prominent musical roles in Ryan Murphy’s The Prom and Schmigadoon! from AppleTV+.
But it’s with West Side Story, and her layered, energetic, passionate interpretation on Anita, a role made famous by the legendary Oscar winner Rita Moreno, that has brought Ariana DeBose the most praise and accolades of her career to this point. And with her Oscar nomination, she is the first Afro-Latinx actor to be nominated for an acting prize, as well as one of the few nominees in the history of the Academy Awards to be openly out as a member of the LGTBQ+ community. This brings enormous pressures and power being in this position, but after speaking with her, it is clear she is taking it all in as gracefully as one can be at this monumental moment in their career.
Within the first moments of speaking with her, I marveled at how down to earth and open she is. As the conversation started, DeBose arrived on the zoom humming a song with subtle lyrics about getting set up for our chat. About five minutes in, as she is answering a question, her Airpods went out, and as she responded, she quickly configured her settings, all the while staying focused, smiling the entire time. Midway through, her cat started to crawl right next to her and she grab it and put them on her lap as we finished out our time together. Completely comfortable and authentic, she spoke to me about her love of musicals, the important relationships with her West Side Story co-stars, what she is going to look for in future projects, and so much more.
By the end, as we parted and exchanged goodbyes, she struck me by the way she said goodbye, as if it was a friend saying goodbye to someone they know, someone they will see again down the road. In a world that is harsh to navigate through, DeBose shows in this interview, and the variety of others she has done throughout this awards season, that her kindness, relatability, and comfort within who she is is infectious and leaves you with a smile on your face and a warm heart. Good things happen to good people, and Ariana DeBose is beyond good, she is phenomenal. I hope our paths do cross again; till then, listen or read my full conversation with the recent Oscar nominee.
Ryan McQuade: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I really appreciate it.
Ariana DeBose: Of course. Yes. My pleasure.
RM: What was the first musical either on screen or on stage that inspired you as an artist?
AD: Ooh, it really started with movie musicals for me. And it depends on what you consider a movie musical. I grew up with Disney animated films. Those are musicals. Love me some Mary Poppins. And then I really…I think Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, really triggered something in me. And that’s when I started seeking out old Hollywood films, old Hollywood musicals. And that’s when I discovered The Bandwagon and Silk Stockings and Singin’ in the Rain and The King and I. So I guess you could say Moulin Rouge! was really something that triggered me in a positive way. And then once I saw Rob Marshall’s Chicago, I was done for.
RM: I was too. That was my first musical in a theater. And I remember I was way too young to see it, but I saw it anyway.
AD: Same, same! It was my first movie musical in a theater as well because Moulin Rouge! I watched at home with my mom. (Laughs)
RM: So getting to this project, what did the musical West Side Story mean to you before making the film, and what does it mean after making this movie?
AD: Well, I remember watching West Side Story when I was in my grandmother’s living room as a kid and I didn’t understand what was going on, but I knew I liked the dancing and I was enamored with the woman in the purple dress. Later on I came to understand what was really happening and that the lady in the purple dress was Rita Moreno. And I just thought she was spectacular. I found her very inspiring. But I would be lying if I said that from there West Side Story became the pinnacle of musical theater to me. In truth, it’s not. I believe it to be a wonderful musical. And what Jerry Robbins and Peter Gennaro were able to do with the choreography, it defined the possibility of choreography as a storytelling tool for a generation. So that’s important and wonderful.
After the fact, after making this movie, after everything that has happened as a result of the opportunity to make the film, I can say West Side Story has taught me many lessons. It’s brought me closer to my heritage. It was an experience that also, on a personal note, allowed me to fully embody parts of myself that I had never really been able to explore. I remember at our wrap dinner party I thanked everyone for giving me the opportunity to feel more myself than I had ever felt in my life. And I feel that way now. I feel like I can stand on my own two feet in my own humanity. I think West Side Story was a conduit for that.
RM: For you, specifically when you were given the chance by Steven to play Anita, what was the one key thing you knew you wanted to do to separate your version of Anita from the other versions of the character?
AD: Well, I knew from the get go she needed to be unapologetically Black. She needed to be unapologetically Afro-Latina. And some of that comes with having it infused in the script, but also with a character portrayal being willing to bring it up. Being willing to, in the context of a scene, call out, “you know, this wouldn’t really happen this way” because they would have the microaggression of you’re not part of this family right now. “Oh, okay. I’m not? You want to talk about that? You don’t? All right. Let’s move on!” It’s like an aggressive way of being not aggressive, but so aggressive. And also just allowing the prejudice to hit you. I mean, not for nothing, this film takes place in 1957 and prejudice is blatant everywhere. But for this Anita, she walks down the street a Black woman. She’s living in San Juan Hill. So if people don’t know, she’s just Puerto Rican, but she’s a Black Puerto Rican. It’s not a portrayal you see every day. The reality is San Juan Hill was filled with Black Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and beautiful people of color of all varying shades. But it’s not what you see all the time. So it was really important to me that, that was reflected. And if I was going to do (the film), it was paramount.
RM: Yes. And I think that all goes back to the collaboration process with you and Steven and everyone?
AD: Yes. They had to be willing to hear it. I’m a young woman who has a lot to say. But I wanted the opportunity to be heard. They gave me that, invited me the table to collaborate. What was so cool is, I walked in thinking Steven Spielberg going to say,” you’re here. And now it’s my way or the highway.” And instead he said, “What do you think? Are you comfortable? Does this feel authentic? What does authenticity mean to you? What does that look like in your mind as an artist?”
RM: Yes, because if you’re going to have a film with Latinx actors and it being a Latinx story, you have to hear those perspectives, right?
AD: Yes, exactly.
RM: The America sequence, as well as the Mambo in the gym, highlights not just your amazing singing but your excellent dancing. So do you mind talking about those two sequences and what you brought to them to make them pop out on the screen?
AD: I don’t know if I actually know what makes them pop on the screen, but I can tell you that my approach to dance and choreography is it’s all about the dancer’s relationship to the music. I’m very clear. The music is not dancing me. I am dancing it. It sounds like a simple distinction, but sometimes it’s not. It can be a fine line. But in the ladies dance in the America’s sequence, there’s that [inaudible 00:09:37], and you see Anita to do this windmill thing step, or at least that’s what I call it. The very technical term of windmill thing. And that’s a prime moment where you really see Anita and the music are one and the same. They’re telling the same story. That was what I wanted. If she was going to move, there was a reason for it. She’s dancing every single note because every note of the music is an expression of an emotion going through her body, through her lived experience. And also Justin Peck created an entirely new choreographic world. He pays beautiful homage to the original work, but he’s doing his own thing. That does not necessarily mean that every step is fully influenced by Latin dance. Some of it is, but some of it is just beautifully Justin Peck, which also meant there was space for Ariana. Well sometimes you got to put some spank on it. You know what I’m saying?
RM: The bond between Anita, Maria, and Bernardo is the bedrock of the film. What was it like creating that with Rachel (Zegler) and David (Alvarez) on and offset?
AD: In both areas, on and off screen, it was just instantaneous. I remember the moment I met David there was just something about him. And I was like, oh, I’m supposed to know you. He was just a soul that I recognized. And I think he did the same thing about me. We have said it about each other to each other. So I don’t feel bad saying that. Rachel, again, there was just something about her that I saw and recognized and loved immediately. She literally is like my little sister. We drive each other crazy. But there’s a fierce love there and respect. We all genuinely respect each other and treated each other like a family. And to this day we fiercely protect each other to the best of our abilities. You cannot teach anybody that type of chemistry. It’s just there amongst humans and amongst professionals or it’s not. So to some degree, you’re like, well, great. How many acting do I have to do here in regards to that? Is there something that just lives or do I have to fake it? And we didn’t have to fake it, which is a blessing.
RM: Between the casting, the script, and the decision not to use subtitles in a few scenes, this movie was able to capture the soul of the Latinx community beautifully. What did it mean for you to see this much thought and care being put into this Latinx story?
AD: Well, you know what’s so interesting for me, my family, the ones I’m closest to are not Spanish speaking. So from my perspective it was really interesting for them to say, “I knew what was going on, but I didn’t understand the language. And I thought I was going to be mad that there were no subtitles.” And then they took a deep breath and they still received it anyway. And they could repeat back to me what was going on in the scene. And I was like then I rest my case.
For my fellow Latinos who are Spanish speaking, the reception that I have gotten in regards to the choice to not include subtitles, which by the way was not my choice, but I do agree with it because it’s real, it’s reality. Especially Latinos today, if you speak Spanish in your home you go back and forth between English and Spanish. And it just is what it is. And if people who come into your home don’t speak Spanish they figure it out.
I think it was a beautiful, respectful thing to do to not other our language because there’s no official language of the United States of America. And there’s more than 50% of people who are Spanish speaking in this country. So I think it was a great idea and I personally applaud it and it will be one of the, it’s one of the bravest things I think our film does.
RM: Yes, for sure. Obviously, this work of yours, it’s Oscar nominated, and totally deserved…
AD: Thank you!
RM: You’re the first Afro-Latina nominated in this category. You’re also openly part of the LGBTQ community. Personally and professionally to you, what does it mean for the industry to honor your work like this? And what does it mean for chances for others down the road to get roles and/or to be nominated for an Oscar just like you?
AD: I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful moment and indicative of change. I mean there was a time where you couldn’t honor or you did not honor, and by you I mean the industry, the work and the person. There was a separation of church and state in a way. And so I think it is indicative that you can be 100% yourself. You can live an authentic life whatever that means to you. For me it means you can, I can be out and proud and Afro-Latino and mixed race and love all these nuances about myself and be excellent at my job. Be excellent at my craft and not have to be disassociated with either. They can live in the same space. And I think that’s an exciting thing for especially young people coming up young artists because at the end of the day your art, your humanity is your art. So it’s hard to separate the two. And I think especially for young people of color and many young people who identify on the LGBTQAI+ spectrum that it shows them that they are possible. They are infinitely possible. Their dreams have validity. And that’s a good thing.
RM Absolutely. Last question. What is the most important factor for Ariana DeBose when picking future projects now for the rest of your career?
AD: That’s such a good question. I think I’m still actively trying to figure that out. Prior to West Side Story, I would say that I was looking for job opportunities, projects, that were tangible to me. Musicals were tangible because it’s what everyone knew that I could do. And they gave me time and space to do that. They would take me serious as an actor if it was a musical vehicle. Now I’m in a moment. And I think it’s worth saying that The Prom and Schmigadoon, they were made after West Side Story, but again, musical vehicles. Varying subject matter, but I was able to be taken seriously as a viable lead in various degrees within the musical vehicle.
Now I’m sitting in a moment where I’ve been so lucky to receive a few different offers that are not contingent on the piece being a musical. And it’s so nice. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’m just looking for roles that will challenge me. These roles are not specifically LGBTQAI+ oriented. Some of them have an identity component to them because I enjoy explorations and identity. But ultimately, I’m looking for dynamic stories and also opportunities to have fun. I don’t always want to have to cry my face off. Granted if it’s of service to a character that is just so, that it’s just called to my spirit that strongly than I absolutely do it. I want to work with nice people. I really have no interest in working with assholes. I just don’t. And it’s nice at this moment in time to have choice and to be able to say, you know what, I don’t have to. I don’t have to work in a hostile work environment. I don’t have to take this particular thing. It’s the first time that’s ever happened in my career. I’m enjoying it well at lasts.
But I’m just looking to tell great stories and also to keep the conversation going. Yes, I’m the first Afro Latina to be nominated in this category for an Academy Award. I’m the first openly queer woman of color to be nominated for an Academy Award. And I think those conversations are right and good. And I feel like if I can continue to work and also continue to hold doors open for anybody who wants to be here that identifies in that way then forward motion and we get more accurate portrayals of diversity in our industry. And then maybe we can really talk about what it means to be diverse and authentic.
Because we’ve only scratched the surface of that conversation! (Laughs)
RM: No, for sure. Well, I’m just a big fan of yours and I loved your performance in this. It was an absolute thrill to talk with you. And good luck in March (The Oscars) and good luck this weekend at the SAG Awards. We’re all rooting for you.
AD: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time, Ryan. Thank you.
West Side Story is in theaters now and will be streaming on HBO Max and Disney+ March 2, 2022.