'West Side Story' Stars Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose on Their 'Natural' Connection (Exclusive)

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Poised to be the breakout stars of West Side Story,Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose are ready for what comes their way. The actresses have been navigating press together for the highly anticipated musical, directed by Steven Spielberg, and formed a "natural" connection on and off the screen.

"Honestly, it was really comfortable, and in true Latina fashion, we didn't speak about it at all. I mean, how could you not love that face?" DeBose told ET's Nischelle Turner about her co-star, with Zegler echoing the exact sentiments. "It was natural. It was really natural and it was one those things that in very Latina fashion, we didn't talk about."  

Zegler was just 17 years old when she landed the coveted role of Maria. The musical -- inspired by the 1957 Broadway production -- marks her feature film and acting debut. She's also the first Latina to play the part onscreen. As for DeBose, known for competing on So You Think You Can Dance, the 30-year-old became Anita after coming off of her exceptional role in Ryan Murphy's musical The Prom.

As West Side Story fans recall, Maria and Anita have a deep and sisterly relationship, only intensified and put to the test after Maria falls for rival street Jets gang member Tony (Ansel Elgort). The forbidden romance brings trouble for all, including Maria's brother and Anita's boyfriend, Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez).

"You know, I feel bad I slapped her in the context of the film. But honestly, I have the honor of slapping Rachel Zegler and I will take that with me as long as I live," DeBose jokingly said, about one of their most intense and dramatic scenes.

"We were like, it’s a very Latina thing to just have to do a scene where she slaps me in the face and we just never talked about it again," added Zegler. "Honestly, I think we got closer after we were done [filming] because we were very, very focused on our work while we were going. But there were moments where I was very stressed out, or she was very stressed, and we would just call each other and show up for each other."

The now 20-year-old rising actress added that women in Hollywood "have to stick together," before touching on their shared connection. "This is a very tough industry, especially for us and then as Latinas too, it was really comforting, based off of our identity and how we're evolving and how we're changing and having those tough conversations as well," Zegler continued. "And she's always been there for me. I'm always there for her and we FaceTimed a lot during the pandemic. So I think that made us closer too."

As DeBose explained, "it's been quite a journey" for the two actresses to get to the film's release. After being delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, West Side Story is finally in theaters. The reimagined version still touches on the race issues between Americans and Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. This time, it's actual Latinos taking on the roles of the Puerto Rican Sharks, while the 1961 film mostly featured white actors in makeup.

"What Tony Kushner has done with that screenplay and that adaptation, it takes what we've already known about West Side Story and takes it a step further. It's socially conscious and shows you what's really going on with these communities. It shows you why these communities are fighting. It helps audiences understand why they're being pushed out, why they are angry," DeBose noted. "Because I think it's really easy to show marginalized groups of people as angry for no reason, and that is not the case. I think it's a real testament to Tony and Steven Spielberg's commitment to authenticity and to making this movie in a way that could honor who we are, the good, the bad and all the lovely things."

With the original film nabbing 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a Supporting Actress Oscar for Rita Moreno, there's much buzz surrounding the leading ladies as awards season gears up. Zegler beautifully belting out the songs of Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim puts her in the top ranks of Hollywood's most talented performers. Meanwhile, DeBose's Anita has not only been lauded by critics for her exceptional dancing, but also the powerful and soul-baring performance that stays with viewers after leaving the theater.

"It's quite a journey Anita goes on, isn't it?" DeBose quipped. "You get to see her joy and her pain, and I think there's beautiful strength in both. That's what women today experience all the time. I am Afro-Latina, but this woman’s journey is not only a representation of what Afro-Latinas go through, it is a representation of what all women go through."

After witnessing Zegler's rendition of "Tonight" and the dynamic and colorful "America" sequence DeBose fronts, there's no denying these two actresses will be on everyone's mind. When asked if they are ready for the success and potential awards headed their way, they said they're just happy to be part of the conversation.

"No, I'm not afraid of it but I'm just really proud of what we made," DeBose expressed. "I think anybody recognizing this work, I'm grateful to them for seeing it, for giving it a chance and I think if one person or one department is recognized, that's a win for all of us. I'm just grateful to be a part of the conversation. I never thought I'd get this far, so here we are!"

Zegler, on her end, has already lined up a handful of projects. She's portraying a goddess in Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and will take on the role of Snow White in Disney's upcoming live-action version. As for West Side Story being her "star-making role," she said she's not approaching it in that way because if she does, "it won’t be what I want it to be, in the sense that it’s just my ushering into a new world."

Quoting the Star Wars character Obi-Wan Kenobi, Zegler stated, "These are your first steps and that's all this is." "And I've been guided by the best of the best. Steven Spielberg is the most genuine, generous human being I've ever met, and so to be led by him and to be surrounded by such wonderful people, that’s the blessing in it of itself," the young performer marveled. "Whether it makes me a star or I never work again, I am so content with this moment today."

West Side Story is now in theaters.


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