Rita Moreno interview: Hollywood pioneer and humanitarian

Rita Moreno headshot by Austin HargraveMulti award-winning actress, singer and dancer Rita Moreno blazed an iconic trail as the first mainstream Hispanic actress to grace Hollywood when she exploded onto the big screen as Anita in the 1961 classic film, West Side Story.

The role earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, crowning her the first Hispanic performer to ever win an Academy Award. But even after taking home Hollywood’s top prize, Moreno’s career started and stalled repeatedly throughout the 1960s as she fought to be cast in roles that didn’t box her into antiquated stereotypes.

Since film roles for Hispanic actresses were few and far between at the time, Moreno turned her attention to television and music, taking home a Grammy Award in 1973 for Best Children’s Album during her stint on the popular children’s television program The Electric Company.

Then came a Tony Award in 1975 for her work in the Broadway production of The Ritz. Two primetime Emmys followed in 1977 and 1978. Moreno was hard at work establishing herself as a bona fide triple threat. She cemented an indelible legacy as one of the world’s most versatile and talented performers.

Throughout the ensuing decades, Moreno continued to take on roles on her own terms, proving her staying power for six decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she played Sister Peter Marie Reimondo on HBO’s first original and groundbreaking dramatic series, OZ.

Moreno currently stars as Abuelita Lydia Riera, the hilarious and spicy grandmother on the new incarnation of Norman Lear’s television creation, One Day at a Time, now streaming its third season on Netflix. The show’s official premise is, “Two Cultures, One Familia.” It’s an updated version of the 1975 hit series starring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington, but with a twist. The reboot centers around a Hispanic American family, no doubt Lear’s way of thumbing his nose at some of the more racist rhetoric flung through the 2016 presidential campaign.

In 2014, Morgan Freeman presented Moreno with the Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, calling her “a world class actress, singer and dancer,” and just as significantly, “a fighter, who battled to break free of racial and sexual barriers that plagued Hollywood’s Golden Age.” Before there was Rosie Perez, Salma Hayek or Jennifer Lopez, there was the inimitable Rita Moreno.

Recently, Moreno got a call from Steven Spielberg for an upcoming remake of the film that made her an icon — West Side Story. Moreno will play a role in the film as well as executive produce. I recently sat down with Rita Moreno to discuss her one-of-a-kind career and journey. ~Allison Kugel

When you won your Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1962 for West Side Story, you thought you would transcend racial stereotypes with the parts you would be offered.
And I was very disappointed (laughs). Not only disappointed, but it really, really broke my heart.

Your famous quote about this phase of your career was, “I showed them. I didn’t work for seven years.”
When I say, “I showed them,” of course, I’m being facetious.

Any regrets about taking that stance?
I think it was a very good decision on my part, because the only thing that was being offered, really, were gang movies, and they certainly weren’t as interesting as West Side Story. I think it would have depressed the heck out of me to go back to that stuff. It paid off in the sense that I had peace of mind and I didn’t feel like I was being insulted.

Let’s talk about the amazing Norman Lear and the One Day at a Time reboot on Netflix.
Isn’t he something?!

I think he is a genius!
He is a genius, you’re right. He’s still going strong. He’s going to be 96, and he can speak and he can walk (laughs). He’s a remarkable man, and a lovely, lovely person.

The way he has tackled race, gender, religion, sexuality… has helped reshape our society. The original One Day at a Time that premiered in 1975 was very progressive, in that single motherhood was much more taboo at that time. With this updated version, there’s an extra layer to the story in that the family are Hispanic Americans. After all you went through in terms of fighting for roles that accurately represent Hispanic people, do you feel a sense of vindication at portraying a positive representation of a Hispanic family on television?
Vindication implies that I’m still angry. No, I don’t feel any sense of vindication. I’m just so happy and so proud that Hispanics have more representation. I think we’re still not there. I think we are underrepresented.

I was watching an episode in which your character Lydia is talking about the racial slurs she had to endure in her time. When her daughter and granddaughter ask her for specifics, Lydia summons up the courage to say the word “spic” out loud. The context of the scene is that she is disempowering that word that was so painful for her. 
What was so remarkable about that scene is that kids don’t even [fully] understand that word. It’s bizarre. Lydia is carrying on and on about the word “spic,” and everybody in the room is like, “Yeah, so?” It was a terrible word in my time. I love that!

What do you hope viewers of the updated show will learn about Hispanic American families?
People who are not Hispanic are learning that family is family, is family. It’s universal. That’s what Norman was hoping for. You want the universality of the situation to work on people, and that’s what has happened. The moment of, “Oh my God. We’re like that too!” Just add in some spice and some deliciousness, which is the Hispanic nature of the show.

If you live in a smaller town in the United States, where you are only surrounded by people who are just like you, it’s so easy to dismiss other types of people, because you don’t have to get to know them. Once you get to know people who are different from you and you see their humanity, it becomes much harder to be dismissive.
Yeah. And I find that a lot of people who watch our show just love Lydia. She’s so outrageous and so big. Children love Lydia. Go figure!

Because your character is that bridge between what was and what is. You’re teetering on the edge between the old school stuff that you came of age with, while trying to embrace the world we’re living in now.
She’s familiar with what she calls “JouTube” and “SnapChap.” (Laughs) But she’s familiar with it, which is terrific. It’s because we have a room full of young writers who are all into that kind of stuff. For the new season, there’s an episode that guest stars Gloria Estefan. It’s hilarious. She plays my sister, and all I can tell you is we hate each other. The whole episode is centered around a funeral of an aunt, and Gloria’s character comes to town to attend the funeral. Gloria is absolutely, deliciously funny! And of course, we’re both over the top as we’re trying to do air kisses that are about three feet apart.

When you hear other Hispanic performers speak, and I know I have heard this from Jennifer Lopez, they always refer to you as the gold standard of excellence and inspiration. You were the performer who made them believe that this career was achievable for them. Have you had a chance to speak to younger Latino actors and singers about your influence on them?
I’ve heard it from Jennifer, and I’ve heard it from Rosie Perez, and also from Andy Garcia.

As someone who emigrated to the States from Puerto Rico as a young girl and who wanted to be a performer, who did you look to as a blueprint?
Well, you know what? There were no role models when I was young and in the movies in my late teens. There was nobody. So, I chose one for myself. I chose Elizabeth Taylor because she was close to my age and she was brunette (laughs); and she was beautiful and gorgeous. I made her my role model. But, you know, there was just nobody that looked like me in a public [space]. The Hispanic community very often calls me La Pionera, the Pioneer.

How do you define yourself as a human being?
I’m a family person before anything else. I have a daughter, Fernanda Luisa, that I’m insane about. And I have two grandsons, and that is where I live. They are in my heart all the time. I adore them, and I don’t have much family; I never did because I left Puerto Rico with my mom on a ship, and that was the end of family. I never saw them again. I had a brother that I never saw. His name was Francisco.

There was no contact after you left Puerto Rico?
No, and I attribute that to my mom. For whatever reasons, she just stayed away. I don’t know how to explain it, because I don’t understand it. By the time I did try to find him, I couldn’t find him. About a month or two after my book came out (Rita Morena: A Memoir), I heard that he died. I have a half-brother, Sam Alverío, because that’s my true [last] name. I’m Rosa Dolores Alverío (she speaks her full birth name, punctuated with the pride of a strong Puerto Rican accent). I speak to him on the phone now and then. That’s about it. Like many Hispanic people, I’m sure I have tons and tons of distant cousins.

How do you find peace in your heart regarding the brother who passed away?
I just have to tell myself that it’s not my fault. My mom, for whatever reason, she always had difficulties with men. I had four stepfathers. It doesn’t make me happy, but that’s the reality of the situation.

Let’s talk about the upcoming remake of the film West Side Story
Isn’t that astonishing though? Talk about coming full circle.

How did you become involved as executive producer?
Steven Spielberg always wanted to do the film, and he was a good friend of Robert Wise, who co-directed the original film with Jerome Robbins. When the original West Side Story film came out [in 1961] Steven was crazy about it, and that’s when he got very close to Robert Wise. He said he just hounded him about how the film was shot. It’s something he always wanted to redo. The interesting thing is that he’s not updating it. It will still take place in 1957. What’s wonderful about the young girl that he chose for the remake (17-year-old newcomer, Rachel Zegler) is a young girl. Natalie Wood was a woman. I was a woman, playing Anita. I was really, way too old for that role. But that’s how it happened, then. Tony Kushner is doing the script. He wrote Angels in America. They both thought that the original part of Doc (the candy store owner in the 1961 film, played by Ned Glass) was not fully realized, which I think is true. They both agreed that they weren’t terribly interested in that role for the remake. One, or both of them said, “What about Rita Moreno as Doc’s wife?” So, the storyline in the new film will be that Doc passed away, and now it’s Valentina who runs the candy store. They offered the executive producer credit to me, because Steven feels that I am the bridge to this movie.

You’re offering all this first-person insight into what went on during the filming of the original movie.
Exactly. He’s asked me a lot of questions, and he will probably ask even more. We talk about the shots all the time, because, you know, the director of the original film, Bob Wise, was really an editor. He was a great, great editor. He did Citizen Kane with Orson Welles.

In the original West Side Story, Natalie Wood who played Maria, was not Hispanic. She also didn’t sing. She lip synced the songs (Marni Nixon voiced Wood’s songs). This isn’t a knock at Natalie Wood, who did a great job in the role, but with the times we’re living in now, people would now be hyper-sensitive to something like that. Is the young actress who will play Maria in the remake of Puerto Rican descent?
She’s Hispanic and that’s what counts. I think she’s Colombian. Here’s the thing; she’s Hispanic, she sings and she’s seventeen. With Romeo and Juliet, that’s how old Juliet was supposed to be. She’s very young. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner have been absolutely crazy when it comes to finding Hispanic people to play the Hispanic roles. They even called the University of Puerto Rico and made an appointment for a panel meeting with an audience who were allowed to ask questions about the movie, and [express] how they felt about it. So, they really, really killed themselves with respect to that. But I did tell Steven, I said, “You know there are always people with agendas. There will always be somebody who’s not happy with it because of… whatever. So, get used to that. It’s going to happen.”

You can’t make everybody happy. I remember when Jennifer Lopez played Selena Quintanilla in the biopic, Selena, and people were in an uproar because Jennifer’s not Mexican like Selena was.
That just makes me furious. Let’s put it this way, if I’m playing a Jewish person in a movie, is it going to matter if I am a Sephardic Jew or a Russian Jew? It’s outrageous. You can’t always find the one you want because we’re now talking about someone who can sing and who knows music and can dance, come on!

I’m sure you’ve heard the acronym, EGOT — for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner. You are one.
Mine has one extra letter. I’m a KEGOT. The “K” is for a Kennedy Center Honors award. How do you like that?

Where are all these awards displayed throughout your home?
They’re on several shelves, because I have a bunch of them. And, oh my God, this year I’m getting so many. I have a feeling that they’re all saying to each other, “Quick, let’s honor her before she kicks the bucket!” Now it’s getting ridiculous, and I’ve actually turned some of them down.

You could get a really big, ostentatious wall unit curio and make it the awards curio.
(Rita bursts out laughing at this idea) There is a thing called overexposure. I’m really trying to cool it a little bit.

How do you process that? It’s hard enough to break through as a performer, but you’ve won every coveted award there is. Do you process it through your ego? Do you process it through your heart? Do you see it from a higher perspective?
When I pass by all of these awards in the living room, and my living room is two steps down from the rest of the house, so I don’t go in there often… but when I’m in the living room and I look at these shelves, I sometimes stop and look at them and say, “My God. What an extraordinary journey this has been.” This little Puerto Rican girl; born in Puerto Rico, brought up in the United States… how astonishing is that? It’s fabulous and I cannot be casual about it. I’m not. I’m absolutely stunned.

You feel a sense of awe. It’s not, “Look at me.” It’s, “Look at this amazing journey.”
Oh hell no! I feel a sense of awe. How did this happen?! I say that to myself, “How on earth did this happen? Wow!” I wish so much that my mom was alive to see this. Oh God, I miss her so much. She would be so proud. She did live long enough to attend the Oscars with me.

Photo Credit: Austin Hargrave.

Season 3 of One Day at a Time is now streaming on Netflix. Follow Rita Moreno on Twitter and Instagram @theritamoreno.

Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record available on Amazon. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.

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Comments & Discussion

  1. Brooks Blanchard • February 18, 2019 @ 6:14 PM

    Frank Laurance the Main act at the Concord Resort 1945-1950 is my father. He was good friends with you Rita and he took me to see West Side Story when it was released in1961. I’m just saying hello and best wishes to you…Brooks

  2. Bertie • March 14, 2019 @ 8:20 PM

    I LOVE HER. SHE IS QUEEN.

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