More: Congrats on your hit biographical show, now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Why is it called Life Without Makeup?
Rita Moreno: Because it is a real unvarnished look at a life, which has nothing whatever to do with gossip or dropping names. It begins with my arrival in America from Puerto Rico on a ship. It’s about a young girl who comes from another country and finds it’s an unhealthy thing to come from that other country.
We have five musical numbers and some wonderful dancing. I have a brand new left knee. I’m 79 and I’m going to be 80, so I call it “sort-of, kind-of dancing.” I haven’t danced for years and years so I had to get in shape. Let me tell you something, the way I work in this show in terms of putting out physical energy, I am huffing and puffing and getting that heart rate up.
More: I’d love to see you on Dancing with the Stars.
RM: I don’t even know that I could do that! My knee is not terrific.
More: In the show, you talk about some of your great romances, like Marlon Brando.
RM: I talk about two: My husband [the late cardiologist Leonard Gordon] and Marlon. Marlon played a huge, huge part in my life. For good and for ill, but mostly for ill. And because our relationship ended in near tragedy [Moreno tried to take her life in Brando’s home in 1961], it’s not something I can avoid or it wouldn’t be my life.
More: It must be hard to go back there.
RM: That isn’t hard. What’s hard is some of the stuff about my mom and what’s really hard is the Hollywood stuff, where I was treated so poorly by so many people—that one I have to control myself not to get too teary.
More: At the start of your career, you seemed to be dropped into any ethnic role. What was that time like for you?
RM: It’s something that followed me later. My first film was a musical with Mario Lanza. It was called The Toast of New Orleans and I was playing a little Cajun girl from Louisiana. And then the other movie was Pagan Love Song, where I played a little Polynesian girl. I always thought that my makeup box consisted of very dark pancake makeup and a hoop earring. It was very hard, but those kinds of things can also be turned around and that is what makes you a survivor.
More: Did you think you’d never break away from the typecasting?
RM: I thought of it every two minutes! I spoke better English than most of the young actors because it was my second language and because it was so important to me to communicate, and that's one of the things that was so frustrating. You wait for a job and you wait and you wait and you are jubilant—until you get the script and you see you’re playing a little slave girl from Ethiopia.
I have been a Gypsy, an Arabian girl, an Indian girl, and of course all of these things required an accent, which was just so frustrating and hurtful and damaging. It began to distort my image of myself. I was the utility ethnic and it’s a term we use a lot in the play.
More: And now you play a Jewish mother to Fran Drescher on Happily Divorced.
RM: Oh god, do I love that! I love working with Fran. What a marvelous woman. It’s like a huge, crazy, wacky family on set.
More: Do you think things have improved for Latinos in Hollywood?
RM: I think they’re a whole lot better, a whole lot better. I always quote actor Ricardo Montalban, who said “The door is ajar.” You have to push it open and I still haven’t seen too many roles for Latinos that might make them eligible for the big awards. It’s not complicated at all: you have to be given those kinds of roles.
I’ll tell you what: I think that Jennifer Lopez should have been nominated El Cantante. She was good in that! Since then, she has made other choices, but she was really good in that. She played a character role rather than playing herself. She was very impressive and very nomination-worthy, certainly
More: Can you believe it’s been 50 years since West Side Story?
RM: [Laughs] Yes because I’m about to be 80! That is the only way you can prove it to me. What’s amazing to me is its long life. I’m in a few of those real classics: The King and I was one, Singin' in the Rain, Carnal Knowledge.
More: What do you remember about making West Side Story?
RM: It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my whole life. At the time that I got the role of Anita, I hadn’t danced in 15 years. I hadn’t lifted a toe, because nothing had been offered and I didn’t go to class or do anything that real dancers do. So I remember being intimidated by the enormous talent of the young dancers.
[Choreographer] Jerry Robbins was a very tough taskmaster. We really had a good time, but we were also injured a lot because his sort of choreography was brutal. He would make you do things 10, 20, 30, 40 times. Jerry beat the hell out of us and just … made us better, made us a great as we were capable of being.
More: As a Puerto Rican, how did you feel about the role of the Puerto Rican heroine, Maria, going to Natalie Wood?
RM: Well, I thought it was strange. They did screen tests, anybody who had brown eyes and brown hair was screen-tested, and it’s possible that the people they tested weren’t up to the mark, but I don’t think that was the reason. I think Natalie at that time was beginning to get a name for herself, though she wasn’t a big, big star yet.
More: How was she on set?
RM: We were never close. She wasn’t ever rude, she was aloof. I wasn’t crazy about her. I felt like she wasn’t friendly to us. Nothing about her behavior was wrong, just distant. Now I suspect she felt out of her element, and she was.
All she really had to do was say to everyone in the cast—they were all dying to be close to her, including myself—“Hey, some Sunday come over to my house and we’ll swim and have hot dogs and have some drinks.” But I don’t think she knew how to do that.
More: You and George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, both won Oscars for your roles. Do you still see him?
RM: Absolutely. He’s my pal. We’re in touch with each other and he can’t wait to see my show. He’s still beautiful, skinny as a pencil as he was in the movie and he’s my friend.
More: Any fun memories of filming with him?
RM: George has a huge, delicious sense of humor. We laughed a lot. There was a little mafia: He and I and a girl named Yvonne, who was a Shark girl. I was always wetting my hose even at that early age because I laughed so damn hard. We had a great time.
More: When is the last time you watched West Side Story?
RM: I think it was a year ago and they were doing it outside somewhere. You really have to see it on the big screen. What a difference! I don’t care how big our screens are at home. It’s really amazing seeing it on the big screen, fabulous.
More: You’re so busy! What’s next for you?
RM: Ultimately, what I really, really want to do is take Life Without Makeup to some major cities and of course we hope to come New York.
More: How do you have time for it all?
RM: I feel like this year’s Betty White! I am just flying, it is so much fun! I can’t believe I’m really, really having fun.
Rita Moreno's Life Without Makeup plays at the Berkeley Reperatory Theatre through November 12. Click here for more information.
Two 50th anniversary collector's editions of West Side Story will be released on November 15. Click here to order.
Want MORE? Check out our interview with Fran Drescher.
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