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Ariana DeBose didn’t feel ‘good enough’ to represent Latinas in ‘West Side Story’

Because she wasn't a Spanish speaker, the Oscar-nominated Afro Latina actor "thought for the longest time that that made me less of what I was."
Image: West Side Story
Ariana DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story."Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

Ariana DeBose exudes confidence while performing, but the 31-year-old actor is opening up about her insecurities as a Latina. In a conversation with good friend and former colleague Lin-Manuel Miranda, the “West Side Story” star explained that she didn’t feel like she could represent Latinas because she’s not a fluent Spanish speaker.

“You met me when I first got to New York and I was just trying to be an actor,” DeBose, who worked with Miranda on “Hamilton” seven years ago, said in a Vanity Fair video. “I remember I was like, ‘I’m Puerto Rican,’ and you were like, ‘Ah, soy Puertorriqueña!’” she recalled, making an awkward face. “Because I do not speak Spanish. I’m not fluent.”

“And I thought for the longest time that that made me less of what I was. And maybe I shouldn’t talk about my background because perhaps I didn’t represent the community well enough,” she added, noting that when the “West Side Story” opportunity came around she didn’t feel like she could take on the role. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m really what you’re looking for.’”

“’I have the skillset, but maybe my background isn’t good enough,’” she continued.

However, she was “pleasantly surprised” that the Latinx community accepted her and told her, “No, you are very much enough. We love you. We will hold your hand. You are our Anita.”

DeBose previously told the Los Angeles Times that, as an Afro-Latina, she didn’t see herself playing Anita after Rita Moreno’s remarkable Oscar-winning portrayal in the 1961 film.

“I was hesitant to go in for many reasons. Latinas in the industry don’t really look like me — or hadn’t — and roles like this had not really been manifested in Black Latinas — not for nothing. I also was hesitant because I was like, ‘Do we need to tell this story again?’” she said. “And then ultimately the answer for me was, well, if I was going to do it, I would want to give it a new perspective, and my being gives it a new perspective.”

“My Afro Latinidad, my heritage, my lived experience as a Black woman can give this something new, maybe something we’ve yet to see. But I also questioned whether there was space for that,” she candidly stated, adding that she questioned if there was space for her.

Charles Finch x CHANEL - The Night Before BAFTA Dinner - Arrivals
Ariana DeBose at an event before the BAFTAS in London on March 12. Jeff Spicer / Getty Images

The actor also told Sunday TODAY’s Willie Geist that she first said “no” to auditioning for the Steven Spielberg musical four times. At the time, she was starring in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and also didn’t feel prepared to audition for the role.

“Our incredible casting director called and was like, ‘Just come in, just come in’ (to audition),” DeBose recalled. “I’ve since learned that I apparently turned down this audition four times ... But, you know, I was also in a Broadway show. I had a show to keep alive, you guys.”

She did the singing and dancing portion of the audition, but politely declined to complete the acting portion and read a scene.

“He asked me if I would read, and I just said, ‘Nope. No, sir,’” DeBose remembered with a laugh. “He looked at me like I had five heads. ... He said ‘You’re not gonna read?’ And Cindy Tolan, our casting director, came in and was like, ‘We spoke about Ariana, she’s starring in a show, she just needs a little more time to be truly prepared.’ And he said, ‘So you’re not going to read?’ And I said, ‘No,’ again. And he’s like ‘But will you come back?’ And I said ‘I’d be honored.’”

DeBose would go on to deliver a critically-acclaimed performance, already winning her first Golden Globe, SAG Award and BAFTA Award for the role. She’s also nominated for best supporting actress at this year’s Oscars.

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