Steven Spielberg Wanted the ‘West Side Story’ Cast to Enjoy the ‘Richness of the Diversity’ on Set

West Side Story tells the story of two rival New York City gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. The two gangs are very divided based on their race as the Jets are all white while the Sharks are Puerto Rican. While other productions of the musical kept the two gangs apart, Steven Spielberg wanted the cast to embrace the diversity on set. 

Steven Spielberg demanded Hispanic actors for the Sharks

Steven Spielberg speaks at the DGA Awards for West Side Story
Steven Spielberg | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

For the West Side Story remake, Spielberg wanted the Hispanic experience portrayed on-screen to be authentic. One unique choice he made was to omit subtitles during scenes where the characters spoke Spanish. 

Another thing Spielberg requested was that every member of the Sharks was portrayed by a Hispanic actor. While the 1961 West Side Story did win Best Picture, there are aspects of it that haven’t aged gracefully. One aspect is that many of the Hispanic characters were portrayed by white actors wearing makeup to make their skin darker. 

For example, Natalie Wood, who played Maria, was white. In Spielberg’s version, Maria is played by Rachel Zegler who is of Colombian and Polish descent. In an interview with IGN, Spielberg said he didn’t “entertain” any auditions that weren’t with actors descended from “Latinx countries.”

“That was a mandate that I put down to Cindy Tolan who cast the movie, that I wasn’t going to entertain any auditions that aren’t parents or grandparents or themselves from Latinx countries,” Spielberg explained. “Especially Puerto Rico, we looked a lot in Puerto Rico, we have 20 performers in our film from Puerto Rico or they’re Nuyorican.”

Spielberg wanted the ‘West Side Story’ cast to embrace the diversity on set

In a new behind-the-scenes video shared by 20th Century Home Entertainment, Spielberg explains that Jerome Robbins, the creator and director of the 1957 stage version of West Side Story, didn’t want the cast playing the Jets and the Sharks to co-mingle outside of the production. Spielberg opposed that by allowing these two sides to embrace the “richness of the diversity” during rehearsals. 

“When they did the play in 1957, Jerome Robbins didn’t want the sharks and the jets to co-mingle or to have any relationship outside of the written structure of the book,” Spielberg said. “I respect that very much, but I wanted these guys to enjoy each other and the richness of the diversity. It was happening by bringing these two sides together in rehearsal and on-set and they became best friends. 

The video is filled with footage of the cast just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, so it seems like Spielberg’s plan worked. While they do a great job of hating each other on-screen, they’re nothing but pals when the cameras are off. 

Spielberg is nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards

Critics and audiences responded positively towards Spielberg’s remake. The film has a 92% critic score and a 94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Academy responded well to West Side Story as well, nominating the film for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Director. 

This would be Spielberg’s third Best Director win, previously winning for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. So far, Jane Campion is the frontrunner for The Power of the Dog, so Spielberg does have some tough competition. 

West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+ and HBO Max. 

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