How Rachel Zegler Relates to Her 'West Side Story' Character Maria

The 20-year-old is gearing up for her major movie role in Steven Spielberg's upcoming musical.

It's as if Rachel Zegler was made for the role of Maria in West Side Story.

The 20-year-old actress will make her feature film debut in Steven Spielberg's upcoming film of the beloved musical as the lead star. The role, she expresses, was one she related to on a deeply personal level.

"Every Juliet-based character is pure and innocent. She’s the Virgin Mary, and she can do no wrong. But in reality she’s 18. She’s discovering so much about herself and the way she thinks about the world," the actress tells Town & Country about her interpretation of Maria and how it's mirrored her own coming of age. "What does it mean to be an 18-year-old discovering all of these things about herself in 2019 - or in 1957, which is when West Side Story takes place? There are layers of being an immigrant: How long has she been here? How long does she plan to stay? She plans to stay forever. Does Bernardo want her here?"

West Side Story is based off the classic Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, and was first a Broadway musical in 1957. It follows the love story between Tony and Maria, whose friends are a part of rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Ansel Elgort stars as Tony.

It's been more than two years since Zegler landed the role that has already changed her life -- even if the film hasn't been released. It was originally slated to hit theaters in December 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was pushed back to Dec. 10, 2021.

For Zegler, her journey into becoming Maria started with an open call for a Latina actress between the ages of 15 and 25. Her friend, Makena, sent her the casting and told her, "Thank me when you’re famous."

Since the age of 12, the Colombian American actress knew she wanted to do theater. "The endgame was a Tony Award; that was what I wanted. I just wanted Ben Brantley to write me a good review. That was my idea for the rest of my life… Musical theater and that’s it," she tells the magazine.
Now, leading the West Side Story remake, Zegler is still adjusting to her newfound fame. She's since landed a role in Shazam! Fury of the Gods, as well as playing Snow White in the upcoming Disney live-action movie.
"I haven’t done any other film projects, but I’m constantly pinching myself -- there’s no way this is my life. That comes with a lot of gratitude and a lot of anxiety and a lot of impostor syndrome," she admits. "I do have moments when I’m like, ‘I am worthy, and I got this job for a reason…But then it immediately fades into, ‘Oh god, Helen Mirren!'"

While fans have yet to see Zegler in a film, she does note that Spielberg's iteration isn't a remake. Instead, she calls it a reimagining of the original musical.

"We’re not trying to recreate, frame for frame, the 1961 film. That film exists as this incredible piece of pop culture that everyone has seen and been affected by in some way. I don’t think any of us would ever try to recreate that,” she explains. "There are things to improve on and things to address. It’s such a cultural phenomenon, that film and the musical in general. I think the way Steven and [writer] Tony [Kushner] framed it to all of us when we were auditioning, when we were rehearsing, when we were shooting, was, ‘We are making a movie of the original Broadway musical. This is our take on a story that everyone has heard, and knows so well, and really loves.'"

West Side Story also co-stars Rita Moreno as Valentina and musical up-and-comer Ariana DeBose, who recently starred in the film adaptation of Prom, as Anita. Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film adaptation, which starred Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony.

Watch the trailer above.



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