Is there a moment when you look back on the original West Side Story that you are most proud of?
First, I think the most important part of being in that movie for me was playing a character who had a sense of self-respect. I played a lot of Latinos up until then, many of whom were spitfires and ultra sexy, couldn’t speak English well — some were even illiterate — and they were really kind of sex objects. Anita was the only Latina I ever played, at that point, who actually had an identity that was understandable. I realized that the moment I read the script. I thought, “Please, God, please let me get this part.”
BuzzFeed: In your documentary, you say that Anita became a role model for you and someone you looked up to as well.
Right, but that was a bit later in life. I think I was like 26 when I did West Side Story, I wasn’t exactly a teenager. I don’t think any of us were. There were really no other Hollywood role models who were Latina that I could look up to. So, Anita became my role model.
What was it like taking part in the West Side Story remake? What was it like being involved in the story again?
It’s nuts how these things work out. It’s such a full-circle moment. If you remember the movie, Doc had a candy story where the Jets hung out. I am Doc’s widow Valentina [in the remake]. It was Tony Kushner’s idea to replace Doc, who had a very small part in the original. I always felt bad for the actor Ned Glass, a lovely man, who had nothing to play. He just had those very few lines and that was it. Valentina is a whole person. It’s not a cameo as some people may think. It’s a real part. I wouldn’t do a cameo in a movie like this.
When Steven Spielberg called me about this — I did not know him before, by the way — he said, “We’d love to have you in West Side Story,” and I literally did a “Who, me?!” kind of thing. I was so shocked. I was trying to be cool, which was very hard. I said to Steven, “Doing a cameo in this movie, I don’t think is a wise thing. I think it would be distracting.” He interrupted me and he said, “No, this is a real part. Tony Kushner wrote this part for you.” Like, this is Angels in America Tony Kushner. It turned out he was a fan, which I had no idea. You never know who loves you and your work.
BuzzFeed: Also, hearing you sing over the remake’s first teaser trailer was extraordinary.
I didn’t know it was gonna happen. In fact, I was going to present at the Oscars and Steven told me, “I’m going to send you the trailer because it’s going to be on the Oscars.” So my daughter and I sat down to watch the trailer. We’re watching it and we started screaming. I yelled, “That’s my voice! That’s my voice!” Like, talk about not subtle. I was screaming. My daughter was screaming. I thought nobody would recognize it, too. But everybody recognized it. Everybody.
BuzzFeed: I immediately tweeted about hearing your voice in the trailer, so people noticed right away.
Oh my god, really?! I truly did not think anyone would recognize it.