Rachel Zegler does stardom her way with “West Side Story”
When Rachel Zegler was 16, she was cast as Maria in a local production of West Side Story in Englewood, New Jersey.
It was four or five months before she auditioned for the same role in Steven Spielberg’s dazzling new adaptation (in theaters Friday), which reimagines the star-crossed love story between a white boy (Ansel Elgort) and Puerto Rican girl (Zegler) in 1950s Manhattan.
Back during her summer community theater production, “I guess we had no budget for sets, so the balcony scene took place on painter’s scaffolding, which is not safe at all, really,” Zegler recalls with a smile. “I had to stand on it while it was moving and try to maintain my balance in heels – it was a whole thing.”
Fast-forward to the set of the reported $100 million movie, and “I’m very grateful I am in the Steven Spielberg ‘West Side Story’ because I didn’t have to do anything dangerous like that!”
Now 20, Zegler is still in disbelief her screen debut is opening at all. The movie musical wrapped shooting in early fall 2019 and was scheduled for release last December before COVID-19 hit.
“It’s hard when you are placing all your bets on this one project to skyrocket you to a place where you can book the next thing,” Zegler says. “It was a reminder that at the end of the day, we are our own advocates.”
Rather than sit at home and wait for “West Side” to open, Zegler continued to network and audition. She filmed a mysterious new role in DC superhero sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (in theaters June 2, 2023), bonding with co-stars Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, with whom she still has a “very wholesome” group text. She also signed on to play Snow White in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake – a surreal dream for the girl who grew up singing along to Beauty and the Beast and Mulan.
“To look back at those years and say, ‘Now you’re going to be a Disney princess,’ it’s kind of crazy,” says Zegler, whose “West Side” performance earned her a best-actress award from the National Board of Review, topping A-list contenders including Nicole Kidman and Kristen Stewart. “It’s not lost on me how lucky I have been. I’m so fortunate, and I owe a lot of it to Steven.”
Spielberg selected Zegler from a pool of more than 30,000 applicants to play the iconic Maria, last portrayed onscreen in 1961 by Natalie Wood, a white actress doing a broad accent in the 10-time Oscar-winning original. Unlike Wood’s doe-eyed take on the character, Zegler’s Maria is hopeful yet headstrong, butting up against older brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) as she tries to carve out a life for herself in New York as a young Latina. She falls fast for Elgort’s Tony but isn’t totally naïve to the consequences their forbidden romance could have on rivaling gangs the Sharks and the Jets.