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West Side Story Ariana DeBose Shares Fears Of Not Being Latina ‘Enough’ To Play Anita Before Nabbing Role And Oscar Nomination

Ariana debose as Anita in America, West Side Story
(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Making a lasting impression on audience and voters alike, Ariana DeBose’s Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is one of 2021’s biggest success stories. Nominated for an Academy Award in this year’s Best Supporting Actress race, DeBose has already won that very category in several major awards competitions so far. However, there was a moment that where the actor didn’t think she’d get the part, as Ariana DeBose feared she wasn’t “enough” of a Latina to be considered.

Speaking with Lin-Manuel Miranda during a Vanity Fair interview, both participants were asked about working in the Spanish language for their respective projects. In DeBose’s case, previous remarks of being “intimidated” by West Side Story’s dialogue were cited, which led her to explain those fears a little further:

It was totally scary. I do not speak Spanish. I’m not fluent. I thought, for the longest time, that it made me less of what I was and maybe I shouldn’t talk about my background because, perhaps, I didn’t represent the community well enough even though I can’t be less of what I am, I’m half Puerto Rican.

Anyone with a Latine surname can relate to what Ariana DeBose described above, as one of the first questions people would tend to ask someone like her is whether or not they speak the language. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s wildly-praised remake, the Spanish dialogue in West Side Story seemed all the more important to get right, as it remained untranslated in the final film. Those audience members listening for authenticity would be more likely to pick out any flaws, which only adds to the intimidation. 

Scared as she may have been, Ariana DeBose still went for Anita, the role originated by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation. It’s a good thing that she did too, as the eventual process of shaping up West Side Story’s latest incarnation provided DeBose with a safety net that helped her learn pretty quickly. Here’s how things played out, starting with the audition itself:

So when [West Side Story] came around, and even just deciding to walk in the room, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m really what you’re looking for. I have the skillset but maybe my background isn’t good enough.’ I feel like there are pockets of society that like to define what enough is for each culture and that’s a very hard thing to reconcile, but I was pleasantly surprised that this was a group of people that was like, ‘No, you are very much enough and we love you. We will hold your hand. You are our Anita.’ When it came to the Spanish I was very adamant. So they brought in incredible dialect coaches and Spanish coaches—Victor Cruz, I couldn’t do what I did without him. Not only that, my cast embraced me and gave me opportunities to learn. We had dinners and we went out dancing and they spoke Spanish around me all the time. Not to make me feel like I didn’t belong, but just to normalize hearing it all the time because when you don’t grow up with it you can feel like an outsider but it’s also, I think there’s a part of your DNA that understands that’s your language, it’s your native language, and you take to it very quickly. But still, it was a getting out of my own way moment if that makes sense.

Building a formidable career through roles of stage and screen, Ariana DeBose had already distinguished herself with some pretty cool hallmarks. Her most recent accomplishment in West Side Story could be her crowning achievement thus far, especially if DeBose ends up winning the top honors in a pretty competitive field. It's hard to imagine the success of this film without Ariana DeBose's part to play in the overall formula, making her decision to pursue the opportunity even more impacting.

West Side Story is currently available for streaming, both on HBO Max and Disney+. You can also obtain the film, on physical and digital media (opens in new tab), wherever you purchase your films. Next up for Ariana DeBose is a role in Henry Cavill and Matthew Vaughn’s espionage adventure Argylle, as well as her latest casting in Sony’s Kraven the Hunter movie. Last, but not least, don't forget to tune in for the 93rd Academy Awards, which will air live on Sunday, March 27th, only on ABC! 

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