'West Side Story': Steven Spielberg on Assembling His Perfect Cast (Exclusive)

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When Steven Spielberg announced his plans to mount a new film adaptation of West Side Story, one thing everyone knew he would need is an amazing cast.

A Romeo and Juliet story told in 1950s New York City, the beloved musical explores a rivalry between two street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, and the turmoil that ensues when a forbidden romance between a former Jet and the sister of a Shark sparks new conflict between the warring factions.

The 1961 adaptation of West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and featuring the legendary music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the most revered movie musicals of all time. It was the highest-grossing film of the year upon its release and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 10 -- including Best Picture and supporting acting recognition for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.

Spielberg first announced his plans for an updated adaptation in 2014 and spent years developing the project, with a script by Tony Kushner. In 2018, he issued an open casting call for the film's four leading roles, María, Tony, Anita and Bernardo, finding his performers in established Hollywood stars and up-and-coming new faces.

In ET's exclusive new series, the director details how he assembled his cast, explaining why each of the leads was the perfect talent to take on an already-iconic role:

Ansel Elgort as Tony

"I had met Ansel a couple of times, and he sort of stuck in my mind, but I had no idea he was a singer," Spielberg recalls of casting his leading man. "I knew in Baby Driver, he moved really well, and I thought he had a lot of personal charisma, especially onscreen charisma. But I didn't know if he could sing or dance, so I just asked him to come in and audition."

However, Spielberg recalls that Elgort was sick on the day of his first audition, and almost lost himself the part. The director's first impression was that the actor's voice was too high to play Tony, but he later doubled back on the young star after learning the truth about his tryout.

"Once I found out that he had been ill and didn't tell anybody he was under the weather, I had him come back in five days later and retest," he recalls. "And he got the part in the retest."

"He's just phenomenal in this," Spielberg raves, as a behind-the-scenes clip shows him declaring, "That's a movie star."

Rachel Zegler as Maria

Spielberg also had nothing but praise for newcomer Rachel Zegler, who makes her film debut in the upcoming adaptation as Maria, the young Puerto Rican protagonist who begins a forbidden romance with Tony, a former member of the Jets.

"The high bar was set by Rachel Zegler on the first day of casting," Spielberg recalls. "I just kept looking and looking and looking and she was the bar that no one reached... How could I get so lucky on the first day of casting?"

Zegler, a New Jersey native whose mother is of Colombian descent, was a 17-year-old high school senior when she sent in videos of herself singing "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty" to the open call. She had acclaimed musical theater experience and a popular YouTube channel, which featured videos of her singing, but no previous film experience, yet she wowed Spielberg enough that he ultimately made her his Maria.

"When she began singing ['Tonight'] live, it was just, tears," the director remembers. "Not just me. Everybody around me, tears. It's extraordinary to watch her do that."

"Everything that Rachel sings, comes from in here," he adds, motioning to his gut. "This is just a gateway, it really begins inside."

Ariana Debose as Anita

Ariana DeBose came on the scene as a competitor on So You Think You Can Dance, before earning acclaim for her work on Broadway in shows like Hamilton, A Bronx Tale and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Spielberg admits, "The first thing I noticed about her was her dancing... She came in to audition, and she was a great dancer."

Cast in West Side Story before her recent breakout roles onscreen in The Prom and Schmigadoon!, DeBose was put through her paces in the audition process by her director, who noted early on that she was "magnetic" in the room, but wanted to see if her acting and singing could measure up to her dance skills in the film's pivotal supporting role -- which earned Rita Moreno an Oscar for the 1961 adaptation.

According to Spielberg, the actress more than measured up.

"I saw somebody who had tremendous personal charisma. It was alive and vivid in the room, and I kept thinking, 'Once I get her on video, during these rehearsals, I bet she doubles down on that,'" he remembers. "And that's exactly what happened. She quadrupled down, in fact."

"It just blossomed on the screen, and eventually, I said, 'She's Anita,'" Spielberg recalls of the performance.

David Alvarez as Bernardo

When it came to casting Bernardo, Maria's protective older brother -- a role which won George Chakiris a supporting actor Oscar for the 1961 adaptation -- Spielberg knew he needed a specific type.

"For Bernardo, I wanted somebody who could be a street leader, and was not just going to command based on his appearance, but was going to command based on his gravitas," he shares in the clip. 

Alvarez, who won a Tony at age 15 as one of the original Billys in Billy Elliott, obviously came in to the audition process with major performance chops, but it was his onscreen presence that wowed Spielberg the most. 

"He was a wonderful actor," the director recalls of the audition. "I think what convinced me, more than anything else...was when he read for the part. He earned the role because of his acting."

Adding to that Alvarez's dance skills and dynamic with DeBose, and it was a perfect fit.

"He said, 'Thank you, Mr. Spielberg,' and I said, 'Call me Steven, because I'm going to start calling you Bernardo from this point forward,'" Spielberg remembers. "That's how he knew he got the part."

Mike Faist as Riff

In perhaps the highest praise a director can bestow on an actor, Spielberg admits, "I was actually considering delaying the movie to get Mike Faist to be in it."

Faist started his theater career as the original Morris Delancey in Newsies, before earning a Tony nomination for originating the role of Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, so there was no question that he was up to the task when it came to his dancing skills.

"I saw him dance before he read for the part. And his dancing was off the charts," Spielberg recalls. "The way he could extend his body was just extraordinary... But it's when he read for the part of Riff that I knew I wanted to cast him."

As Tony's best friend and the film's primary antagonist, Riff has meaningful emotional weight to carry in West Side Story, so it was important that the actor who took on the role be able to shine in quiet close-ups as well as the ambitious performance pieces.

"Mike is a soulful, deep thinker, a deep feeler -- as an human being and as an actor," Spielberg praises. "He just reached for the stars."

Rita Moreno as Valentina

"I wish I could say it was my idea," Spielberg said of creating a role for the original West Side Story star. Instead he credits Kushner's husband, Mark Harris, with the idea of adapting the original character of Doc -- an old man who runs a local soda shop -- into his widow, "and having his widow be Puerto Rican, and have her be Rita Moreno."

"I didn't know if she would want to be in West Side Story twice, but we brought her the offer and she read the script and adored Tony's screenplay," he added of pitching the idea to the EGOT winner. "It was just a natural fit."

Moreno, who will celebrate her 90th birthday on Dec. 11, also serves as an executive producer on the new adaptation, and Spielberg marveled at the way she was able to bring vitality to the project, and help to produce and frame "the messages that West Side Story needs to extend to people who see it."

"She danced with the Sharks and the Jets during rehearsals," he recalls. "She came in every week and talked to us about what it was like growing up as a Puerto Rican in America. She brought so many interesting stories and she so motivated the cast."

The legendary actress also gets an iconic musical moment in the film, singing "Somewhere," which she performed live on the day.

"She did it with a cold," Spielberg marveled. "And it was so authentic, I didn't want her to come back into a recording studio and change it."

Check back throughout the week to see more from ET's exclusive casting series. West Side Story is in theaters on Dec. 10.


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

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