When Steven Spielberg announced his plans to mount a new film adaptation of West Side Story, one thing everyone knew he would need is an amazing cast.
A Romeo and Juliet story told in 1950s New York City, the beloved musical explores a rivalry between two street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, and the turmoil that ensues when a forbidden romance between a former Jet and the sister of a Shark sparks new conflict between the warring factions.
The 1961 adaptation of West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and featuring the legendary music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the most revered movie musicals of all time. It was the highest-grossing film of the year upon its release and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 10 -- including Best Picture and supporting acting recognition for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.
Spielberg first announced his plans for an updated adaptation in 2014 and spent years developing the project, with a script by Tony Kushner. In 2018, he issued an open casting call for the film's four leading roles, María, Tony, Anita and Bernardo, finding his performers in established Hollywood stars and up-and-coming new faces.
In ET's exclusive new series, the director details how he assembled his cast, explaining why each of the leads was the perfect talent to take on an already-iconic role:
Ariana Debose as Anita
Ariana DeBose came on the scene as a competitor on So You Think You Can Dance, before earning acclaim for her work on Broadway in shows like Hamilton, A Bronx Tale and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Spielberg admits, "The first thing I noticed about her was her dancing... She came in to audition, and she was a great dancer."
Cast in West Side Story before her recent breakout roles onscreen in The Prom and Schmigadoon!, DeBose was put through her paces in the audition process by her director, who noted early on that she was "magnetic" in the room, but wanted to see if her acting and singing could measure up to her dance skills in the film's pivotal supporting role -- which earned Rita Moreno an Oscar in the 1961 adaptation.
According to Spielberg, the actress more than measured up.
"I saw somebody who had tremendous personal charisma. It was alive and vivid in the room, and I kept thinking, 'Once I get her on video, during these rehearsals, I bet she doubles down on that,'" he remembers. "And that's exactly what happened. She quadrupled down, in fact."
"It just blossomed on the screen, and eventually, I said, 'She's Anita,'" Spielberg recalls of the performance.
Rachel Zegler as Maria
Spielberg also had nothing but praise for newcomer Rachel Zegler, who makes her film debut in the upcoming adaptation as Maria, the young Puerto Rican protagonist who begins a forbidden romance with Tony, a former member of the Jets.
"The high bar was set by Rachel Zegler on the first day of casting," Spielberg recalls. "I just kept looking and looking and looking and she was the bar that no one reached... How could I get so lucky on the first day of casting?"
Zegler, a New Jersey native whose mother is of Colombian descent, was a 17-year-old high school senior when she sent in videos of herself singing "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty" to the open call. She had acclaimed musical theater experience and a popular YouTube channel, which featured videos of her singing, but no previous film experience, yet she wowed Spielberg enough that he ultimately made her his Maria.
"When she began singing ['Tonight'] live, it was just, tears," the director remembers. "Not just me. Everybody around me, tears. It's extraordinary to watch her do that."
"Everything that Rachel sings, comes from in here," he adds, motioning to his gut. "This is just a gateway, it really begins inside."
Check back throughout the week to see more from ET's exclusive casting series. West Side Story is in theaters on Dec. 10.