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Ariana DeBose Turned Down ‘West Side Story’ Audition Four Times, Says Casting Director Cindy Tolan

West Side Story
Courtesy of Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

As Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” steamrolls through awards season, gaining traction for leading ladies Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose, casting director Cindy Tolan talked about how DeBose almost missed out on playing Anita.

It was just over four years ago when casting director Cindy Tolan received a call from producer Kristie Macosko Krieger who said, “Cindy Tolan, I have four sentences for you; Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, ‘West Side Story,’ what do you think?’”

A week later Tolan met with Spielberg, who told her he had no intention of remaking the 1961 film, but instead would base his movie on the 1957 stage production. With that, she was on board to cast the film which stars Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist and Ansel Elgort.

While DeBose might be familiar to theater audiences from “Hamilton” or even Apple TV Plus’ series “Schmigadoon,” Tolan knew her from her Broadway career. “I asked her to come in and she said no. She refused four times and I had to talk her into coming in,” Tolan says of casting DeBose as Anita. While Tolan always believed DeBose was the perfect fit for the role, Tolan says DeBose didn’t see herself in the role.

Shortly after, Tolan went to see DeBose who was starring as Disco Donna in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” on Broadway with some associates who confirmed Tolan’s conviction – that DeBose could indeed take on the part.

In casting Zegler, who makes her feature film debut, Tolan explains Zegler came on early in the casting process. “We started four years ago in January, and by the second or third week, her self-tape had come in,” Tolan says. Zegler’s tape was one that Tolan showed Spielberg in her very first meeting as they discussed possible actresses to play the role of Maria. Says Tolan, “The feeling is joy, excitement and you are flooded with relief.”

Tolan compares seeing Zegler on screen for the first time to working in old Hollywood. “I imagine it’s what it was like back in the glory days where the studios did create those stars. Here is this 16-year-old girl who has all of the talent, and someone like Steven Spielberg can see it and he introduces her to the world.”

Tolan needed cast members who weren’t just triple threats, but quadruple threats. That meant people who could sing, dance and act, and also, the camera needed to love them. She adds, “With Arianna, it was just so clear that she had the triple. But we got her in the room with Steven who does his camera work, and it became this no-brainer.”

Tolan calls the chemistry between DeBose’s Anita and Zegler’s Maria extraordinary.

Zegler wasn’t the only performer making her feature film debut. Tolan points to the ensemble which had over 50 people of Latin descent also appearing on screen for the first time. “They were so happy to be there. They were so excited, young and new. You would have Steven Spielberg being pushed around on an office chair [during the audition] as if it’s a dolly on his handheld camera during the dance call, and you couldn’t even wipe away their smiles, they were so huge.”