Original West Side Story Actress Rita Moreno Explains Why She Loved Playing Anita

Screenshot of Rita Moreno as Anita.

Hollywood has come a long way when it comes to diverse representation in film. When the original movie version of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story first premiered in 1961, most of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors (even romantic lead Maria, who was played by Natalie Wood). One of the major exceptions was Anita, one of Maria’s best friends and girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The role was played by the one and only Rita Moreno, who recently explained why she loved playing the role so much.

According to Moreno, Anita was a welcome departure from her past roles. While speaking with Esquire about her upcoming duel role in Steven Spielberg's remake, she spoke about

Anita [in West Side Story] was the first Hispanic character I ever played who had a sense of dignity. She had self-respect, and very strong opinions, and a deep sense of decency. She became my role model.

Rita Moreno has previously spoken about the stereotypes she had to deal with working in Hollywood. She spoke about what that experience was like to the Miami Herald, saying:

What is interesting to me is having the vision so early and yet feeling so inferior to everybody else in the business for years and years because I believed I had to be subservient to anybody who wasn't Latino. Before West Side Story I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else.

But Rita Moreno’s talent could not be denied. She ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in West Side Story. In 1977, she joined the top tier of Hollywood royalty when she received an Emmy Award for an appearance on The Muppet Show, cementing her EGOT status (she also won a Grammy for The Electric Company and a Tony Award for The Ritz).

Despite her past success, the 89-year-old actress is showing no signs of slowing down. She has recently starred in the hit Netflix sitcom One Day At A Time. Later this year she’ll release a documentary about her life entitled Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.

Oh, and one other thing: she’ll be starring in the upcoming remake of West Side Story. The film, which Moreno is also executive producing with director Steven Spielberg, is set to be released in theaters December 10, 2021. It will also star Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort as Tony, newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, and Broadway vet Ariana DeBose as Anita.

Her days of dancing at the gym may be behind her, but Rita Moreno has much more to look forward to.

Rachel Romean

Actor, singer, and occasional dancer. Likes: fashion, books, old buildings. Dislikes: cilantro, the NJ Turnpike, sneaker wedges.