Rita Moreno: "I Feel Like This Year's Betty White!"

In this Web-exclusive bonus, the perennially busy legend candidly discusses her new one-woman show, her Hollywood struggles and the 50th anniversary of the movie that made her a star, 'West Side Story.'

by Mary Kate Frank
rita-moreno-image
Photograph: Mike LaMonica

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.

First Published October 25, 2011

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