BuzzFeed got to chat with the actor about everything from behind-the-scenes moments to her love for Oscar Isaac. Here's everything we learned:
1. You were chosen out of 30,000 actors for the role of Maria. What was that process like?
"The process was extremely long and very stressful. I auditioned for about two and a half weeks shy of a year, which is not very common in things like this. I went in for the team about five or six times before I actually got the part. But I was basically in auditions from January of 2018 to January of 2019."
2. What was your initial reaction when you found out that you got the role?
"I screamed a curse word. And then I told Steven that it had been the longest year of my life. He apologized to me and gave me a huge hug. We just spent that hour in person, briefing me on what to expect when the news went out and not to read the comments, giving me tons of advice. We also just talked about old movies. And he told me some really great Judy Garland stories. It was wonderful."
3. What was your family's reaction like?
"A lot of shock. I think [there was] probably a preference that I got into this a little bit later in life because so much was changing for me when I was only 17 years old. But they were really my grounding foundation. And they just kept me where I needed to be and made sure that I was always level-headed and never got too, too deep into it, because it can really hurt you rather than help you."
4. Can you describe your first day on set?
5. Is there a movie or TV show that made you want to become an actor?
"Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by the Coen brothers, starring Oscar Isaac."
6. You previously told Time Magazine that authenticity is really important when it comes to West Side Story. How does it feel to be part of this push for authentic Latinx representation in Latinx roles?
"Our movie is a step in the right direction. There's still so much work to be done when it comes to representation in Hollywood for all minorities. My experience as a Latina in Hollywood is just not having seen myself a lot growing up. And if I did see myself, I wasn't necessarily portrayed in a positive light. I think West Side Story does such a wonderful job at exploring the idea of Latin joy, which I don't think is always at the forefront of media that has our people in it. And so, I'm very blessed to be a part of something that does and also something that tells an authentic, true story about love and identity and what happens when we choose love over hate."
7. Have you ever fangirled over a celebrity?
8. Do you have a favorite behind-the-scenes memory from filming West Side Story?
"Something that's been on my mind is when Bruce Springsteen and Stephen Sondheim were both on set when I was doing 'I Feel Pretty,' and I couldn't bring myself to go over to either of them because I was so nervous. Because I'm from New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen is The Boss, my hero. And Stephen Sondheim is the reason I love musical theater. And so the fact that he was watching me that day, singing his lyrics, it was just too much for me to handle, and I couldn't go up to either of them."
9. In which ways did you connect with Maria's character?
"Maria and I are very similar. We were both 18 at the time. She's only been in New York for four or five months. I was living in New York for the first time; I had my mom with me, the same way that she had Bernardo with her. And she's just navigating her friendships and relationships, and how she feels about becoming an adult and coming of age. And she also has a lot of agency. And at that point, I was really coming to know myself in that way, where I was advocating for myself in these situations I never thought I would find myself in, from a business standpoint, in my personal life. And it's so amazing that I got to capture that part of my life on film, that is going to be preserved forever."
10. Were people always singing on set?
"I don't think there was a moment of actual quiet, especially on days that we were doing musical numbers and not just straight-up scenes. But even the days we were doing scenes, Steven and I loved to sing on set, and it was so much fun. We just sang standards all the time, and Broadway musical hits, and everything in between."
11. Were people in the cast emotional at the end of filming?
12. If you could invite three people — living or dead — to a dinner party, who would they be?
"Katharine Hepburn, for sure. I adore her. Probably Audrey Hepburn as well. And George Cukor, the director of this movie called The Women, which is one of my favorite movies of all time."
13. I believe you started auditioning for Maria when you were 16. And now you're 20! Aside from the obvious, in which ways has your life changed?
"I've grown up so much and learned way more about what I can do for myself. Because at the end of the day, you are your own number one fan and your own advocate. I've learned the power of no. I've learned the power of finding solutions for yourself. And also just the power of self-preservation. What does self-care mean? I'm so proud of how far I've come from being a very insecure 16-year-old to now a less insecure 20-year-old. And also just not holding myself to a certain standard, that I don't have to have it all figured out."
14. If you could go back in time and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
"Don't read the comments."
15. What would you want to do if you weren't an actor?
"I would want to be a writer. Or I would want to do social work."
16. Were you a fan of Rita Moreno prior to meeting her?
17. What was your most challenging scene to film?
"There's a lot of challenging scenes in West Side Story. There's a lot of emotion. Maria goes through a lot within the span of two and a half hours in the film. I think, vocally, 'A Boy Like That' and 'I Have A Love' with the incredible Ariana DeBose, that was two days of live singing. And that's some of the most difficult music in the score. So, that was really hard. But I'd say emotionally, probably the final scene of the film, which I don't want to spoil if people haven't seen Romeo and Juliet or the original West Side Story. But it's a very emotional scene, and I had to point a gun at my best friend, and that's just never fun. And Steven gave me a wonderful compliment after, and he said, 'You just ran an emotional marathon, and you won.' That was all I needed to get through it."
18. Do you have a secret talent?
"I can play the alto saxophone. A lot of people don't know that."
19. Are there any Easter eggs that fans of the original movie can look out for?
"Yes, we have a couple of original cast members. Obviously, Rita Moreno is back. The original actors who were part of the Jets, I got to work with one named Bert, who plays a security guard at Gimbels, which is where Maria works at night. I believe he played Snowboy. We also had the original Tiger come to set, and they all talked to their younger counterparts, gave advice, and shared anecdotes from the set. And even though these people weren't in the film, Russ Tamblyn came and visited the set, and Richard Beymer, who played Tony. Chita Rivera, who played Anita on Broadway and is an icon and one of my heroes, came to set. [I got] to talk to those people about what it was like to film the original and what it was like to be in the room with Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Lawrence. And in Chita's case, [it was] one of the most inspiring conversations I've ever had."
20. What's the greatest lesson you learned from working with Steven Spielberg?
21. You starred in your high school's productions of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. And now you've been cast as an official Disney princess! What do you hope to bring to the role of Snow White?
"There's not much I can say about it besides the fact that Snow White has constantly been criticized — even though she's the original Disney princess and we love her so much — but criticized for existing solely for a prince, existing solely to be rescued. And I think that our director, Marc Webb, and everyone who's working on this film has really taken her narrative and turned it into something that's a lot stronger. And I'm very, very excited to be able to bring that to life."
22. Who’s an actor you would love to work with?
BuzzFeed: "Oscar Isaac?"
"Oscar is my answer for everything! This is so embarrassing, oh my god."
23. What's something on your bucket list?
"I want to travel more. I know it's not like a bucket list item, but I do want to travel more, and I would love to take an in-depth tour of Spain."
24. I absolutely loved your song, "Let Me Try." What was the creative process for that like?
"Thank you so much, that is very sweet! No one ever brings that up. I did it all by myself. I told my friend, 'I'm gonna write this, and it's gonna be ready by the time you get off your flight to LA.' I did it in five hours. It was me on guitar and all of these vocals. I think there were like 125 vocal tracks at the end, all of the layering that I did. And I produced it myself; I distributed it myself. That's how I want my music to be: very personal. Writing and sharing music, it's a very vulnerable thing. Especially when you're in the public eye, people like to have ideas of what it might be about, or who, or what. I just kind of want to share my music with the world in a very intimate way. And I think that's one of the most intimate things I've ever shared about myself, even though nobody knows what or who it's about. I think it's still such an intimate song."
25. What's your favorite movie of all time?
"I have three: Inside Llewyn Davis, Singin' in the Rain, and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln."
26. What's your favorite pizza topping?
"I'm a classic gal, like, I'm just a cheese pizza."
BuzzFeed: "Same. No need to ruin it."
"Right? I'm from New Jersey. We don't really do crazy shit in Jersey on our pizzas, I don't think."
27. Finally, describe your perfect day.
"I sleep in. I hang out with my best friends, and we watch movies and make silly commentary. Also, we make silly music."