Five Minutes With Rita Moreno
by Cathy Corcoran
Over the course of her 70-year career, Rita Moreno has acted, sung and danced her way to an Oscar, a Tony, two Emmys, and a Grammy Award. Born in Puerto Rico, she and her mother moved to New York when Rita was a child. At age 11, she was reading Spanish-speaking voices for Hollywood films. She made her Broadway debut at age 13. She has starred in London’s West End, appeared in more than 40 feature films, and numerous television shows. Her one woman show, Life Without Makeup had a long run at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
She recently completed a 30 city concert and lecture tour and is currently starring in the Latino remake of Norman Lear’s classic sitcom, One Day at a Time on Netflix. She voices the character “Abuelita” on NBC-TV’s Sprout Network animated series, Nina’s World, and was the voice of Carmen Sandiego on Fox's animated series Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? She is the author of the New York Times bestselling Rita Moreno: A Memoir and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Who is the person (persons) you most admire? And why?
I admire many people, but my current co-star Justina Machado (One Day at a Time) never ceases to amaze me. This woman is insanely crazy talented. She can be very funny and make you laugh so hard you pee! And then she switches on a dime and she can make you weep. She knocks me out. She is probably one of the best acting partners I've ever had.
What have you accomplished in your career that has given you the most joy?
I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve done, but playing Maria Callas in Master Class (at the Berkeley Repertory Theater) was extraordinary. Her character was written in a rich way and there were so many opportunities to really ham it up. That can be a trap of course. It’s easy to go too far. I prided myself on pulling back, having the control to do that. That role really made me grow as an actress.
And of course, West Side Story was the opportunity of a lifetime for me
What mistake do you think you learned the most from? And why?
After I won an Oscar for West Side Story, I thought I’d have my pick of parts, but everyone in Hollywood wanted to cast me as a dusky maiden or a Spanish spitfire. I refused those roles, thinking I’d show them! But they showed me — I didn’t do a film for seven years after West Side Story. It broke my heart.
If you were not working in media, what would you be doing instead?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I still love what I’m doing.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I admit it, I sometimes envy Jennifer Lopez. She doesn’t have to talk with an Hispanic accent, she doesn’t have to play the kind of roles I had to play. And really, good for her. Finally, the door of stereotyping is ajar in Hollywood. It’s not wide open, and it’s heavy, and you have to push hard, but it is ajar. Thank God for that.
What would you like to add that we didn’t ask you?
Since its very genesis, this country has been an incubator for hopeful immigrants, for dreamers. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a performer, to make it in show business. It took a long time, but I finally learned that the American dream could happen for people like me.
When Steven Spielberg announced his remake of the classic West Side Story, he wanted Moreno as part of the remake. She will be playing Valentina, a character based on corner store owner Doc from the original movie.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself revisiting this seminal work,” says Moreno. “And to be asked by Steven Spielberg to participate is simply thrilling! I am tingling!”
Filming for West Side Story is set to begin in the summer of 2019.