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Rita Moreno discusses her role in West Side Story ; part 2

BROADCAST: Jun. 13, 1962 | DURATION: 00:16:05


Rita Moreno talks about her own Puerto Rican ethnicity and how it relates to her role as Anita in West Side Story.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Song. Wh- what is your -- you've heard this before.

Rita Moreno Oh, I heard it so many times, not only in Puerto Rico, but of course in New York, or whenever we went to Latin functions. But you know, what that really brought back to mind, on Sundays in Puerto Rico at that time, we used to get dressed up and walk around the plaza. And just, walk around in circles and walk and walk and talk to each other, meet each other coming and going in circles. And then they would play this. Which is sort of like, it's not the national anthem of course, but it's the next closest thing to it.

Studs Terkel It's very -- they all know it, everybody knows the song--

Rita Moreno Oh you said it, you said it, yeah.

Studs Terkel Kids and everyone, so. And even, even the words--

Rita Moreno Gee it makes me very nostalgic and kind of sad and warm and--

Studs Terkel I suppose all the feelings are involved, I mean--

Rita Moreno Oh yeah.

Studs Terkel The goodness there, the poverty that's there at the same time.

Rita Moreno Every -- they've um this, really, Latins are such lovely people. They are so warm. They are just so rich.

Studs Terkel You feel this was all captured pretty well in in "West Side Story"?

Rita Moreno Well you know I'm very glad to say I didn't th- no, I was surprised when I saw the film, I couldn't help feeling by golly the Sharks came out on top. [laughter] It was terrible. But since then many people have said that to me. They say, gee the Sharks are so special and so warm, and yet it's the Jets who have really the major role in terms of the gang itself. But the -- most people come to me and say, oh the kids in your gang were marvelous. And I really feel that way. They're my gang. [laughter] These are my babies. [laughter]

Studs Terkel This is pride in gang.

Rita Moreno You said it.

Studs Terkel Well there again pride in gang and pride in country, I suppose there is a connection there too, because the gang to a kid is his whole kingdom.

Rita Moreno Well especially if that kid feels alone and mercilessly beaten by people, he's got to do something. What else is he going to do? To go home is just dismal. Because it -- the home is it's -- well, I I'll tell you what I -- the circumstances under which I lived. We had many -- we moved constantly. Which is also what happens when you have a very bad housing situation. And you ca- it's so hard to keep these places clean. These are tenements that I'm referring to. We ha- I'm, you know I, I was on intimate terms with cockroaches all my life. When I came to California nearly died of shock, because I didn't see any. And I really asked why not, where are they? And somebody said they all go to New York. [laughter] And they do.

Studs Terkel The cucarachas.

Rita Moreno Yes, las cucas.

Studs Terkel Las cucas.

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel You knew them pretty well.

Rita Moreno Oh yes. Knew them all by name.

Studs Terkel You know perhaps, as -- if you hear this documentary again this might bring back a memory, another thought to you. These are kids in the -- this is from the album "Nueva York."

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel And--

Rita Moreno That's a wonderful album.

Studs Terkel They're kids. It's a tape recording, kids in class in a school with teachers talking. We'll try to find this spot.

Rita Moreno Okay.

Studs Terkel That's the segment from [piano note] this documentary.

Rita Moreno I just don't know what to say. It's -- the idea of a child having coffee for breakfast, the idea of a child being cold because his brother's wearing the only jacket. The idea of having to go to school and learn when -- oh well it -- I I I'm either going to cry or get furious and it's really futile to to get either way. The thing is to do something.

Studs Terkel And so all this if I [this?] and come back to Rita Moreno now, and hearing this, and you're playing Anita. Not that all these thoughts were in your mind, because Anita was someone different, [throat clearing] and yet you the actress, Rita, w- w- were aware of all these matters, and so this probably lent Anita--

Rita Moreno Well anyway, you know when you do a role there isn't only one side to that role. There's the Anita who thinks that it's terribly important to be only American and white and terribly [except?], and then there's the Anita who says to herself, why should I subject myself to such indignities? I am me and I'm very proud to be me. And someone comes along and says, you're a spic and then she says I guess they're right and then I guess she says no, so what I am a spic, I'm happy to be one. There's so many sides to any character, certainly to a character like that. It isn't just one element.

Studs Terkel Well you were a natural, obviously. The producers, I mean, just one of those inspired choices, you're doing it. Was it -- how did you come to it? This is a question you've been asked many times, I know.

Rita Moreno Well, when I did "King and I" I worked with Jerry Robbins, who did the ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." And at the time, just after he was through with it, he s- asked me, he was going back to New York, asked me if I'd be interested in doing a play the following year. I said fine. And curiously enough I think at the time he had me in mind for the role of Maria, which Natalie Wood has since played in the film. And by th- well, by the next year, I got letters from him and several other people, and I just didn't have the guts to even try out. That's what happens in the movies, you see, that's what's very bad about movies.

Studs Terkel What's that?

Rita Moreno You, you are -- everything is so mechanized, and so well prepared for the actor, and so many little mistakes can be avoided by ever so many technical things, that you begin to think I'm not capable of anything. Because the lights will fix my face, the camera will move for me, the director will tell me what to do and if I don't correctly I can do it again according to the specific, the specificat- that's not the right word -- according to the instructions the direct--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno Well you really begin to feel after a while I really can't do anything. And that's that was my problem at the time.

Studs Terkel So you feel like an automaton.

Rita Moreno Well it's -- yeah. If especially if you've been raised in that medium which I more or less was--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno As an actress. So, of course the play was an enormous hit. That's all past history. I went to see it the first year it opened. And after I saw it I said that's that, if they ever do the film I've got to do it. And--

Studs Terkel You men- you mentioned Jerry Robbins name. And yet you said your mother taught you -- took you to dancing school, [paper rustling] you learned Latin dancing as a little girl. Did you study ballet too?

Rita Moreno Yes a little bit. Not much. Well that was one of my big struggles on the film. The one thing I had not danced, not even 1 dancing class for 8 years when "West Side" came up. And I thought if I get it for acting, I'm going to lose it because of my dancing. Really it's like never having danced at all, not to have danced in 8 years. And at the time it was time for testing. Is there any more sugar? I'd love some. At the time testing came around, he asked me about the dancing and of course I said, I lied I said I haven't danced in 2 years. [laughter] And really when you haven't danced in 8. [laughter]

Studs Terkel But it all came back.

Rita Moreno No it didn't--

Studs Terkel No.

Rita Moreno But I somehow the audition steps were -- oh I'll tell you what I did. I knew a girl who had played Anita in a play, I never told Jerry this I must one day, and she showed me the steps that I might possibly be asked to do for the audition. So when I came in [laughter] Jerry showed me some steps and luckily they were the ones--

Studs Terkel The same steps.

Rita Moreno The girl had taught me. [laughter] And he said, my heavens you learn fast. And I said do I? [laughter]

Studs Terkel Terrible thought though suppose they were different steps [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno I su- well I was taking a chance--

Studs Terkel A wild shot.

Rita Moreno It really was. So they just happened to be the right steps and I learned them rather quickly, so he was mightily impressed with that. And then I did the acting test and I knew I would do alright there, I just knew I would.

Studs Terkel In the acting test, now--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel The [matter? manner?] of acting.

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Was it always film acting? Did did you do other dramatic acting before?

Rita Moreno Well in films. But really never--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno Had the opportunity--

Studs Terkel Never really.

Rita Moreno To do anything with substance, ever really, not even in "King and I." I was just a benign ingenue who was an excuse for ballads.

Studs Terkel But your awareness, I'm talking now about Rita Moreno--

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Your apparent, your obvious awareness of many things. Yo- your y- your vitality. Must have lead you to a feeling of frustration, perhaps--

Rita Moreno In films.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno Oh it sure did. I started to take a secretarial course at one point. Things were not only so bad, but so when things were offered to me that was so awful, it really -- Hollywood's idea of types sometimes is kind of distressing, not to speak of abominable. And I went to secretarial school. And there was a time when I was going to get a job in a 5 and 10, that was 3 years ago. Anywhere.

Studs Terkel At least 3 years ago.

Rita Moreno Yes. And I called my agent to tell him and of course he thought I was out of my mind, and he said you'll never work again. And so I said, well I'm not working now. [laughter]

Studs Terkel You would've had it--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel And then came "West Side Story."

Rita Moreno And really that's when, I think the day I called my agent to tell him that, something came up, something rather nice. I think it was a "Playhouse 90" or something.

Studs Terkel What role, is there a role -- this may sound like a cliche question, is there a role or a kind of role that challenges you now, that you -- now Sa- at the moment it was Sally Bowles, it is--

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Sally Bowles--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel At the Summer Theater. Is there another role that is on--

Rita Moreno Well I'll tell you so--

Studs Terkel On your mind?

Rita Moreno Again we're going back to this -- what we've been talking about, but more than anything else in the world, I want to do a picture that deals with Puerto Rican New Yorkers. It hasn't really been done. Not yet. There was a film called "The Young Savages" with Burt Lancaster, but I don't think it really did it. And you know curiously enough, Studs, there have been very few books on this. I I went to the, I went to bookshops, oh about 6 months ago looking for books on the Puerto Rican situation in New York. I couldn't find any. There were 3 or 4.

Studs Terkel Yeah, there's all sorts of--

Rita Moreno The rest were statistical--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno And you know, I don't--

Studs Terkel All sorts of journalism and headlines--

Rita Moreno Yes.

Studs Terkel About about gangs [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno Oh sure.

Studs Terkel But no books on -- yet there is Dan Wakefield's book--

Rita Moreno Did you ever a book called -- Dan Wakefield's book is excellent, "Island in the City."

Studs Terkel "Island in the City."

Rita Moreno And then there's a marvelous book by a psychiatrist who has since died -- what is his name? It's called "Circle of Guilt." His name is Theodore -- oh gee, I can't rem- it was a marvelous book on a case history and his opinions. He's a lovely man because he's not -- he's a very practical -- he's not a theorist. He puts everything into action. You must get that book, it's wonderful.

Studs Terkel So there is then--

Rita Moreno So that's what I want to do--

Studs Terkel This is what you want to do--

Rita Moreno To get back to that, yeah.

Studs Terkel A a film that has the ring of whole truth to it.

Rita Moreno Absolutely, yeah.

Studs Terkel Well obviously there's a story there.

Rita Moreno You said it. There's 85,000 stories.

Studs Terkel You were mentioning another--

Rita Moreno And what's important you know too, you know, is it's very universal. It isn't just poverty and oppression in New York, it's everywhere. When you do a story of that kind -- that's why I love the books "Children of Sanchez," it's universal.

Studs Terkel You mentioned "Children of Sanchez," the--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel The tape-recorded work of this family.

Rita Moreno Yes.

Studs Terkel And would you be interested in the role of say Marta?

Rita Moreno Oh! [laughter] Don't ask.

Studs Terkel You'd be fantastic in that role.

Rita Moreno My mouth waters. And it's something that is socially very important to me, you know.

Studs Terkel Well it's a combination of 2 things. You say socially very important to you, yet you're saying there's an artistic need to be fulfilled. [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno Well of course I also think, you see, that that the -- any medium like this of mass communication has a responsibility, a very serious obligation to its public, and it's not only to entertain. I don't care how many people come and tell you that they want to be entertained. There are always those kind of pictures. But I think things like "Judgment at Nuremberg" are desperately important, and by God I'm glad to see they made that.

Studs Terkel Doesn't "West Side Story" have a--

Rita Moreno Yes.

Studs Terkel Very definite--

Rita Moreno It does.

Studs Terkel Theme to--

Rita Moreno Very definite. It also shows the tragedy and futility of race hatred. It isn't a sensational film in the sense that it's full of violence and so forth. So I want to do things that are important.

Studs Terkel Well you're busting out.

Rita Moreno I really am, it's terrible. [laughter]

Studs Terkel It's marvelous. We need more buster-outers it occurs to me among--

Rita Moreno I think so too--

Studs Terkel [Young?] people.

Rita Moreno A- and and in films too.

Studs Terkel And in films.

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Well, I I'm about to call you Anita, which is--

Rita Moreno That's okay

Studs Terkel Meant as a compliment, rather. [laughter] Rita Moreno there's a chance now for the -- anything else you'd like to talk about now that we haven't. We've been skirting different things, saying. Anything else?

Rita Moreno Well, let me think.

Studs Terkel Concerning yourself, your work, your feelings? We've touched, I think pretty much, through what you've said we have a pretty good portrait of you.

Rita Moreno Well I'll tell you 1 thing. This is really out of left field, but it's it's a real thorn in my foot, and it concerns the responsibility of actors to an audience. And almost every day I'm getting hit on the head by someone who says to me you should be grateful to your audience. And my answer is for what? For liking me? Nobody twisted their arm. It is a whole old-fashioned, retreaded, weary theory about being grateful to one's studio as though they had no money in mind when they bought you for a film. It's hilarious. I remember 1 time an actress lived next door to me, and she was discussing the business of Jim Garner leaving Warner's or something. You know there's a whole fuss about that. And she said he should be ashamed of himself. I said why? She said well, they made him a star. [laughter] I said, well hotsy totsy how nice of them.

Studs Terkel It was done for, it was done for altruistic reasons.

Rita Moreno Yes of course, always.

Studs Terkel That was their purpose.

Rita Moreno So I have a -- I'm sorry, I'm quite blasé about that. And I and I'm not big-headed but if someone chooses to like me, how nice. But I don't owe them anything. Not even a good performance, as Humphrey Bogart said. I owe myself a good performance--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno But nobody anything.

Studs Terkel Perhaps you've just said it. Somewhere we're looking -- I was looking for the core, and you just bit into it and that was it: your good performance for yourself. In other words you must satisfy yourself first as a--

Rita Moreno Of course.

Studs Terkel Everything else follows then--

Rita Moreno I agree. Well, I I want to be happy, I want to have a relatively peaceful life. I have enough problems, without wanting to please everyone in front of me. And of course you know that is one of the hazards of being in this business. You are occasionally made to feel that you must please everyone. And it takes an awfully long to find out that you really don't. You really don't. But when you first come to Hollywood, especially if you're a naive young girl as I was, you're made to believe that the only way to be a star is to wear bathing suits which I did, and I'm very sorry about. I don't regret it any longer it's past, it's done. But there are other ways, you know, to be a well-known and appreciated personality, other than the stand -- it's that old hackneyed phrase that drives me wild: that's the way it's done. Don't be different.

Studs Terkel Because your point is that's the way it's done need not be so.

Rita Moreno Absolutely not.

Studs Terkel Why must it be done?

Rita Moreno Quite

Studs Terkel the contrary. And this applies to just about everything you've said.

Rita Moreno Everything.

Studs Terkel That's the way it's done.

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel So, we can say now that see -- obviously an independent figure and an actress of vitality and great talent. Rita Moreno, two, two ways. [music in background] At "West Side Story," of course the film, at the Michael Todd Theater [laughter]. Isn't it there? Yeah it's still--

Rita Moreno Oh my film.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno I thought you were speaking of the play.

Studs Terkel No, the film. And the play, to see her right now--

Rita Moreno Edgewater Beach--

Studs Terkel In person, as Durante would say, at the Edgewater Beach Hotel until June 24th in a wholly different role. Sally Bowles in a very good play by the way, "I Am a Camera" by John Van Druten [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno Oh it's [unintelligible] and it's very funny too.

Studs Terkel Writings. And you're you -- there's a great deal of humor in the way you--

Rita Moreno Oh it's terribly funny, yes. She's really a nutty character.

Studs Terkel You know how we open this program with Anita and and company singing "America"? [You haven't until you already have it?] [laughter] Here then, we'll say to you, for now, good-bye, Rita Moreno--

Rita Moreno Thank you so much Studs.

Studs Terkel And this should be the beginning of a, I hope another session.

Rita Moreno Yes I hope so too.

Studs Terkel Thank you, really.