Best Side Story: an interview with Rita Moreno

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday June 15, 2021
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Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno

How fortunate are we to be alive at the same time as Rita Moreno? A groundbreaking actress, writer, activist, dancer, mother, singer, feminist, Latina and EGOT, the recipient of two Emmy Awards (for The Rockford Files and The Muppet Show), a Grammy Award (for The Electric Company cast album), an Oscar (West Side Story) and a Tony (The Ritz), Rita Moreno shows no signs of slowing down at 89.

In December 2021, Moreno will be playing Valentina, a role written especially for her, in Steven Spielberg's big-screen remake of West Side Story. If you can't wait to see her until then, you are in luck. The documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (Roadside Attractions), is being released in June 2021. Revelatory and celebratory, Just A Girl Who Decided to Go for It features Rita Moreno front and center, telling her story as only she can. Rita was gracious enough to answer a few questions in advance of the release of the documentary.

Rita Moreno's memoir  

Gregg Shapiro: Rita, in 2011, your book Rita Moreno: A Memoir was published and now, in 2021, the documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is being released. During the ten years in between, you have continued to be a hard-working actor — appearing in movies as well as sitcoms such as Jane The Virgin, Happily Divorced and, of course, Norman Lear's One Day At A Time. Would it be fair to say that the documentary is a kind of visual extension and update of the book?
Rita Moreno: Actually, it is a kind of visual extension, and definitely an update of the book. Except to say that there's a lot more detail in this. It's important to know, for the viewers, that I made a promise to myself, once I decided I was going to take part in the documentary, that I would be as truthful as I could possibly be. I did not want to pull any punches whatsoever and I paid the price because [laughs] I was asked very serious and difficult questions. But you can be sure that everything I said in this wonderful documentary — by the way, I think it's marvelous — is absolutely the truth.

In addition to being the director of the documentary, Mariem Riera is also the mother of Marcel Ruiz, one of your One Day At A Time co-stars. How did everyone involved know that she was the right person to helm the documentary project?
The reason Mariem was chosen as the director is really very simple. For one thing, on her behalf I'll say this, she had been studying me for months doing the series One Day at a Time, so she got to know me very well, simply from observation. Of course, being the mother of the young man who plays my grandson helped a great deal because I had a great relationship with him.

She decided one day when she heard that a documentary was going to be done about my life, she went to Brent Miller, one of our producers, and Norman Lear's (producing) partner and said, "I would like to be considered." They said, "Great. You know what to do." So she made a whole — I don't know what they call this in that business— but she made a whole kind of story line of what she wanted to do.

Rita Moreno in the 1961 film of 'West Side Story'  

I think one of the things that really charmed them, as it did me, was the little paper doll Rosita; me as a young girl. I just love that. I love that little Rosita and I love the conceit. I think they did, too. She also had some super ideas of how to make this very personal. That's where, in a way, it differs from the book because it becomes a living thing, a document. I think she did a marvelous job! I really do. It's gotten huge reviews and even Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100, and we know what that means to most people.

Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is the very definition of a journey; from Puerto Rico to New York to Hollywood. From actress to activist, from lover to wife and mother. What do you think it was in your constitution that helped you navigate the journey, through both good and bad times?
I had a remarkable mother. I'm sure everyone says that and, you know what, they're probably right. What was special about my mother is that despite the difficulties of being in a brand-new country where nobody seems to speak Spanish, that she somehow navigated that journey and helped me through that journey, is simply amazing.

My mom was a very brave woman. My mom was the kind of person who had several jobs at one time because she had left Puerto Rico, having divorced her husband, my father, and it was just her and me. She had a very strong constitution. I think I initially got that from her.

I don't know that it was something she so much taught me as something that I intuited, and I saw examples of. I've always been kind of strong in that sense; very sensitive kid, cried easily. I still get very hurt. I still cry. But I'm able to somehow make my way around that and understand that, more often than not, good will come from bad. It's something I know I got from my mom whether it's genes or observation almost doesn't matter.

Your identity as an activist is also featured prominently in the documentary. Do you have words of advice or wisdom for future generations of activists?
I think that the most important advice I can give to people who are activists, but activists seem to know this without being told, is to never ever give up. If they believe in something, they will hang on to those beliefs forever, because they're made of that kind of stuff. So, I would simply say, just hang on to that, because it's wise and it's necessary for you to teach future generations. That wasn't thrilling, but that's all I can think of [laughs].

Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno on 'The Electric Company'  

The documentary features an extraordinary cross-section of people singing your praises — from politician Jackie Speier to scholars and historians such as Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Julia Foulkes and Annette Insdorf, fellow performers Mitzi Gaynor, Justina Machado, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as your daughter Fernanda (Gordon Fisher). What was the experience of hearing these people singing your praises like for you?
I think the person that impressed me the most, with respect to saying complimentary things about me, was my daughter. It's not something you do with a mother, rarely. You rarely go around saying, "Oh mom, I love you, and I admire you and aren't you the strong one" [laughs]. That doesn't happen. When I hear my daughter say those things, I am touched to the very quick.

The other people are very important to me because some of them are people who deal with society, such as the professors. I think that the choice of using these two women to explain what was happening at the time, in social terms, was so important to understanding what this documentary was about.

Because it's really not just about a woman who somehow made her way into movies and sang and danced and was strong and suffered terribly. It's very important for the viewer to understand that these were really hard times. It's a question of setting an example when I never expected to be doing such a thing. That makes me very proud; proud for the documentary and proud for myself.

I also want to say how much I appreciate the people who spoke about me. Mitzi Gaynor, Justina Machado, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan. [Laughs] I never knew I would even know such people in my life! It never occurred to me that Gloria Estefan would consider me a friend and a talented actress. Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, for Pete's sake! I didn't know there was such a person as Lin-Manuel Miranda!

Rita Moreno  

So, I simply want to say how much I appreciated what they said about me, particularly knowing that they went through very similar difficulties. And color sometimes had nothing to do with it. Sometimes it was just a very tough business to be in.

In the film, you talk about how the late gay playwright Terrence McNally (who is interviewed in the doc), incorporated the Googie Gomez character you created into his play The Ritz, for which you won the Tony Award, a role you reprised in the movie version. It made me think about how, in the late 1970s, you were in two gay-themed movies The Ritz and Happy Birthday, Gemini, something you did before a lot of other actresses did. Can you please say something about your decision to be in those films, as well as your LGBTQ+ fanbase?
Being in two films that had gay themes was really not a difficult decision [laughs]. They were wonderful. They were delicious. They were funny. Being a part of that was just not a big deal. I've had gay friends forever.

In fact, let me tell you something. I had the most wonderful little girlfriend as a seven- year-old child. This girlfriend was around for at least seven years of my life and her name was Eddie Lopez. Because I just knew there was something different about him at the time. We had the best time. So I always thought of him as my little girlfriend.

I've had an LGBTQ fan base for a long time and it started way before The Ritz and the movies. It's just something that is so much a part of me. I love the humor. I think gay people are just hilarious and I think they're heartbreaking. I think they're brave and I think they are here forever. Anybody who's unhappy about that, tough titty [laughs]!

With your show-stopping Best Picture Oscar presentation in April, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It being released in June, and the forthcoming Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story remake arriving in December, 2021 is turning out to be an especially big year for you professionally. In Tony Kushner's revised script, you play shop owner Valentina, a gender-swap with the original Doc character. How does it feel to be able to be involved in this project?
I just don't think there are enough words to express my happiness at being in the new West Side Story. Being with Steven Spielberg is a dream come true. I've always loved his work. It has such breadth. He can do almost anything! He can do E.T., he can do Lincoln, and now he's doing something that, by the way, he's wanted to do from the day he saw our original movie.

Rita Moreno (center) with the cast of 'One Day at a Time'  

Let me just say that he is brilliant. Oh my God, he's so cinematic! Some of the shots in this movie are not to be believed. I literally followed him around like a child. He, in turn, behaved like a child so much, because he loved doing it. He'd say, "Rita, what do you think of this shot?" It was one of the greatest experiences of my life! The set design is incredible. That has everything to do with Steven. He chooses his people. The cinematography is unreal.

The young actors are spectacular, and here's what really means the most to me; that he and Tony Kushner had a great deal to do with the fact that the Sharks are Hispanic for real. They're not all Puerto Rican; that's not necessary. What's necessary is that they had to be Latinx and they are. That makes me so proud.

Steven and Tony went to the University of Puerto Rico and had a panel. They invited anyone who wanted to come and tell them how they feel about West Side Story. Some people didn't love it. Some people, like the mayor of San Juan at that time, said she was not crazy about it because she felt that the Hispanic kids were depicted in a negative way, being in gangs and all that. I don't think she quite understood, or maybe she did, that it was really Romeo and Juliet. That's what made it so different and so original and so brilliant.

But they went there, to the University of Puerto Rico, had a big panel meeting with people who literally just walked in to make demands. "So how are you going to do it?" It mattered so much to them that it be authentic and if you were going to play a Puerto Rican kid you had to at least be Hispanic. There's a lot that I admire about both of those fellas. I'll never forget being invited.

When I spoke to Steven on the phone and he said, "Would you be interested in doing this movie?" I practically dropped the phone. Certainly, my jaw dropped. I said, "Well, yeah. I think so yes." [Laughs] I was peeing my pants, really. Then I said, and good for me for remembering, "I wouldn't want do a cameo. Number one, I think it would be a terrible distraction just to sort of pop in and pop out." He said, "No, it's a real part. You will play Doc's widow. You have a real part in this. It's not a cameo." It was a great day in my life.

Finally, do you have something special planned for your 90th birthday in December?
It seems that, perhaps, I can actually have a birthday party again. I always had one and I don't think I'll have as many people as I used to have, but I think I'm definitely going to create something very special. It has to be with costumes of some kind. I don't know what that will be yet.

I realized that people love to wear costumes, they just love it. So I don't want to disappoint them. But more likely than not, I will be having a 90th birthday party. Ninety, I can't believe it!

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