Steven Spielberg says he committed to authentic representation when casting 'West Side Story'

Steven Spielberg said he went to great lengths to cast a diverse group of Latino actors as the Sharks.
PHILADELPHIA -- Steven Spielberg's new take on the timeless tale "West Side Story" is being called "triumphant" and "a masterpiece." The A-list director says his version is not a remake of the 1961 film, rather it's inspired by the original Broadway musical.

He also worked hard to make sure his cast is as culturally diverse as the story.

The lead role of Maria is played by a New Jersey newcomer, Rachel Zegler, who was singing in her bathroom with a hairbrush when she got the call that would change her life.

"I cast Rachel when she was 17," said Spielberg. "She was a senior in high school when she got the part."

Zegler says she gets emotional thinking about the past three years.

"I never imagined I would do this on such a big scale, let alone in a film directed by this man right here," she said, referencing Spielberg.

Her Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, is also in awe.

"Mind blown," he said. "And we got to work with the late, great Stephen Sondheim. May he rest powerfully in peace forever."

After 60 years in Hollywood, Spielberg was making his own childhood dream come true.

"This project has been part of my life since I was a 10-year-old and I first heard the Broadway cast album," said Spielberg. "I am so proud and honored that I got this shot so late in my career."

For Spielberg, authenticity and representation led the way. He went to great lengths to cast a diverse group of Latino actors as the Sharks.

"It is time," said Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita. "It just deepens the work and allows for an even larger social commentary."

"It's just going to open so many doors for the Latin community in this world, in the film world," said David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo.

Rita Moreno knows those open doors well. She won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 film version.

She's back as a cast member and executive producer.

"Steven was doing the very smart thing to get someone who is Hispanic and Latina, who knows the scene, who knows the struggle," said Moreno. "He asked me to tell the kids, both gangs, the actors, what it was like and I danced with them just for the hell of it. It's a miracle I didn't break a knee or something."

It's a cast of true triple threats. Spielberg says it took him over a year to find his actors, the longest search of his storied career.

"West Side Story" is rated PG-13. It opens Friday, Dec. 10.

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