When “West Side Story” star David Alvarez was serving in the U.S. army, he held tight onto a secret. He didn’t tell any of his fellow soldiers that he was a ballet dancer who won a Tony when he was just 14 years old for his work in “Billy Elliott the Musical.”
“I never shared with anyone anything about my past,” Alvarez, now 27 years old, tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “No one knew I was a dancer or an actor or a singer. I felt like I wanted to be like everyone else in my platoon. I wanted to just be a soldier and I didn’t want to be treated any differently or thought of any differently. I just wanted to be one of the group.”
After the army, he did a couple more stage gigs but then he quietly left the business to go to college to become a philosophy professor. His plans changed three years ago when he received a DM on Instagram from casting director Cindy Tolan while backpacking through Mexico. “She said, ‘Hey, I’ve been trying to look for you. Where have you been?’ Because I kind of disappeared from the art world for a little bit,” Alvarez recalls. “The message said, ‘Hey, Steven Spielberg’s making ‘West Side Story.’ We would love to see a self-tape from you for the role of Bernardo.’”
Not only did he get the part, but his work is earning well-deserved awards buzz.
“I’m getting so many messages from old friends from the army who are saying, ‘What is going on? What are you doing? Why are you on this poster? Why are you in this movie?’” Alvarez says. “And now I spilled the beans a little bit. I’m like, ‘You know what? I haven’t told you this before, but I was a ballet dancer before the army.’”
This time, Alvarez says, he’s staying in the business and hoping to return to Broadway. “I can’t wait to be back on stage. I miss it. Every night, I go to bed and I think about how incredible it was to do ‘Billy Elliott’ and to be on that stage and feel that energy and control that auditorium. There’s no other feeling like it,” he says. “I’m waiting for the right role. I’m waiting for the right time. And I promise you I’ll be back on Broadway.”
Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita is played by Ariana DeBose. “She is the most amazing dancer I have ever seen in my life and has so much power, so much strength,” Alvarez gushes about his co-star. “She taught me so much. And the beautiful thing is that the first time I met her, it was at the callback in New York. There was an instant connection. And I think it had to do with the fact that we both understood each other in such a way that we wanted to lift each other up.”
Unlike the original “West Side Story,” all the characters of color are played by brown and Black actors. “Steven Spielberg is a leader, and he’s leading by example with what he’s just done,” Alvarez says. “And it’s going to open the doors throughout the whole film industry for people of color, for the Latin community. And he’s done that, because everyone’s going to see, ‘Oh, Steven is doing this. Then maybe it’s time for the rest of the world to do it as well.’ It’s a revolutionary thing what’s happening with this movie, and I’m so proud and grateful to be a part of this.”
The release of “West Side Story” is somewhat bittersweet after the death of Stephen Sondheim on Nov. 26 at age 91. Alvarez recalls meeting the music legend while filming the movie. “We got to sit down and talk a little bit, and he was sharing his stories and what he thought ‘West Side Story’ meant to him,” he says. “He’s always constantly thinking, ‘Oh, I could have done this better, or I could have done that better.’ He’s never satisfied. He always thinks he can do it better and bring something even more elaborate to the table. He’s just one of those artists who really checks you and reminds you to be honest, to be grounded and to do it for the love and the passion.”
You can hear the full interview with Alvarez above. You can also find “Just for Variety” at Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.