One tweet is all it took. “Thank me when you’re famous,” wrote Rachel Zegler’s friend Makena Reynolds, who sent the then-highschooler a tweet in 2019 announcing an open casting call for “West Side Story.”
One “I-don’t-know-how-I-booked-it” self-tape and several months of callbacks later, Zegler got the part. She was going to be Maria in Steven Spielberg’s newest musical adaptation.
“It’s kind of crazy to look back on that girl who was singing show tunes in her bathroom, and I wonder what she would think of me now,” the 20-year-old tells Variety.
The young actress says hers was the second self-tape Spielberg saw during casting calls for Maria. “I sent him my first take in January, and I started going in steadily to meet with Cindy Tolan up until March,” she says.
Later that month, Zegler received a phone call saying that Spielberg wanted to meet with her in person to work on some scenes and choreography — but the audition process was far from over.
“He explained to me, ‘If this is my first day of watching takes and this is how good the talent is, imagine how good the talent’s gonna be on day 84.’ And then it became day 312,” laughs Zegler, whose contagious energy was unsurprisingly undeterred by the drawn-out waiting game. “I left every single audition being like, ‘If that was it and I never see him again, I’m very grateful.'”
By 2020, Zegler was finally confirmed for the part, though the film’s release was eventually delayed a whole year due to the pandemic. Since then, she has patiently awaited the film’s debut from her home in New Jersey.
As a lover of musical theater, Zegler has always had a passion for performing on stage — it was just a few years ago that she played the role of Maria in a school production of “West Side Story” at the Bergen Performing Arts Center. And as the release of the film neared, the impact of being the lead in Spielberg’s “West Side Story” only became more clear.
“I didn’t have an agent until way after we finished wrapping ‘West Side Story,’” shares Zegler. “It was Steven that helped me find representation that would take care of me.”
And take care of her they did. Shortly after the release of “West Side Story,” production begins for an upcoming Disney live-action remake in which Zegler will be portraying the iconic Snow White — a recent costume fitting for the part had Zegler feeling “giddy.” As a Colombian-American, Zegler understands the significance of being a Latina actress portraying both the previously white-washed Maria (portrayed in 1961 by an artificially-tanned Natalie Wood) as well as a princess of a historically white-dominated franchise, saying she does not take these roles “lightly.”
Spielberg’s take on the classic musical aims to better honor Puerto Rican heritage than the original, and reflect more historically accurate depictions of the characters at the time. Zegler worked extensively with dialect coaches Tom Jones, Victor Cruz and Julio Monge to capture the complexities of her accent seen in the film. “That was really important to us to capture as authentically as possible,” she adds.
In terms of plans for the future, the performer remains open to (and grateful for) any and all opportunities that come her way, sharing that perhaps her dream role has yet to be written.
“Maybe it’s something I write myself,” she says. “Or maybe my dream role would be to get behind the camera. The world is my oyster.”
Though she aspires to one day take to a Broadway stage (she dreams of playing Johanna in “Sweeney Todd” or Eponine in “Les Miserables”), for now, a Spielberg Broadway adaptation will have to do.
“West Side Story” premieres on Dec. 10.