By Brian Scott Lipton
Many celebrities are inspirational in their own ways, but few match Rita Moreno, who remains one of the world’s busiest – and most uplifting – octogenarians. (She will turn 89 later this year). One of the world’s few EGOTs (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award winner), Moreno continues to show all of us how it’s done on stage and screens – big and small – as well as in life.
On Tuesday, March 24, Moreno will once more be seen as Lydia, the matriarch of a colorful Puerto Rican family, on the sitcom One Day at a Time (which has moved to the POP Network after three years on Netflix). And on December 18, she will appear as Valentina, a role created especially for her, in Steven Spielberg’s new film version of West Side Story. TheaterPizzazz recently chatted with Moreno about these two exciting projects.
Q: I honestly can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed getting to “know” Lydia these last few years. How do you feel about her?
RM: I like to say that she’s not my creation, but she is my creation. I even use my mother’s own accent for her! When I had my first phone call with the writers and Norman Lear, the show’s creator, one of the things I said immediately is that she had to be a sexual person if they wanted me to play her — and they listened. She is very theatrical, so it’s very easy to make her a caricature. But we are all very careful not to go one step too far and do that. We know Lydia can be so unreasonable about many things, like wearing her high heels. I love playing her vanity, even though I am not a vain person in real life. I think she’d be freaking out now if she found out the stores were out of mascara and lipstick!
Q: One of the things I love about the show is that while it’s very funny, it’s also taken on so many serious subjects, from depression to drug addiction to LGBTQ issues. Is this balance important to you?
RM: That’s something Norman encourages, as he has in his whole career. In some ways, I see our show as almost a 21st-century form of Chekhov. It takes a lot of skill, from both the cast and the writers, to handle these issues with such sensitivity. Remember the episode when Lydia had a stroke and her family thought she might die? It showed so much about these characters and who they really are!
Q: Is there a big social issue coming up this season?
RM: We only filmed three episodes before COVID19 forced us to take a break and I haven’t seen any other scripts. The one thing I will tell you is that Lydia will have some form of religious crisis this season, which is a big thing for my character.
Q: I have to say your onscreen family really feels like a family! Are you all just that good at acting?
RM: From the table read of the pilot, we all felt like we had known each other all of our lives. Everyone was astonished by this wonderful chemistry. Maybe it’s because we are mostly all of Latino/Latina heritage, I don’t know. I do want to single out Justina Machado, who plays my daughter Lupita. She is so terrific; I admire and respect her so much as a person and an actress. That said, we have the most fun when our characters have to fight each other. Suddenly, we get very Latina and over-the-top. In fact, we often crack ourselves up on set. I admit, I’m often my own best audience!
Q: Do the writers pay attention to your feelings about Lydia?
RM: I am very protective of Lydia, so sometimes I will say something like “she wouldn’t do that or say that.” I feel like I had to get this old to get this kind of attention paid to me. When I did The Ritz back on Broadway in the 1970s, I wanted to do a serious scene at the end when Googie Gomez realizes everyone was making fun of her. But, because the show was really a farce, Terrence McNally and everyone else didn’t go for it. They were probably right, but I wonder If I had said that now if they might have listened.
Q: Let’s talk a little about West Side Story, in which you play Valentina, the widow of the original drugstore owner Doc. How did this come about?
RM: Mark Harris, who is the husband of Tony Kushner – who wrote the new script — supposedly brought up to him that he never thought the original role of Doc was well developed, and then one day Mark said to Tony, “how about putting Doc’s widow into the script?” Tony loved the idea and suddenly, I was offered the part. Of course, I said yes! Having been in the 1961 movie (as Anita), filming this movie both felt a little surreal and very thrilling.
Q: Do you feel the new movie is a more accurate depiction of the Latinx community?
RM: Absolutely! Everyone on the film really twisted themselves to make sure all the characters were treated with dignity. I remember on the original film resenting having to wear that silly dark makeup. One day, I pointed out to one of the makeup artists that my natural skin was really the right color for Anita, and he actually accused me of being a racist!
Q: What can you tell me about Steven Spielberg (the film’s director)?
RM: He loves theater and movie lore more than anyone I’ve ever met. And while he knows almost everything about these mediums, I have some stories he didn’t know, like about how we shot “The Small House of Little Thomas” scene for the film version of The King & I. Sometimes, I think he is literally made of celluloid. Even though we stopped shooting a while ago, we still communicate all of the time! I adore him.
Q: Tell me about your relationship with Ariana DeBose, the Broadway actress who plays Anita in the film?
RM: I think Ariana was very nervous at first about me being on the set, so when we began to rehearse the film, I asked her to have lunch. I immediately found she is very kind. And once we began shooting, I found out she is really an incredible dancer — way better than I ever was. I always told people I was really an actress who could dance, not a dancer.
Q: So, is West Side Story going to be your last film?
RM: I hope not. Retirement is not a word in my vocabulary. Why would I quit when I am having such a good time?