West Side Story’s casting director reveals intense audition process

Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno in West Side Story

The cast blew audiences away (Image: 20th Century/Metro.co.uk)

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story could have been a complete disaster – after all, re-imagining classics can be a very risky business.

Instead, it received widespread rave reviews and was nominated for numerous Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture award, while Steven himself is nominated for Best Director.

The incredible cast, including Ariana DeBose (Anita) and David Alvarez (Bernardo), certainly played no small part in the film’s success, with Rachel Zegler (Maria) previously alluding to the extensive and intense process that went into her securing the role.

chat with Metro.co.ukCasting director and recent Bafta winner Cindy Tolan revealed what the extensive process actually looked like.

“We cast the film for about a year and a half. We started out looking for the leads – Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Tony – hoping we’d get Riff and Chino out of that quest,” recalls Cindy.

“It was a different experience for everyone we cast. Rachel auditioned over the course of a year, but her audition tape got to us very early in the process, maybe in the first two or three weeks.

“We’ve had eight open talks face-to-face, three of them in Puerto Rico. We did a huge social media search that went viral and we auditioned and we saw 30,000 people. We hired five local casting directors – in Puerto Rico, Latin America, Florida, Chicago and Canada just to make sure we could cast it as appropriately and authentically as possible.”

Cindy Tolan

Cindy recently won a Bafta for her work on West Side Story (Image: WireImage)

Cast of West Side Story

Cindy Tolan got the cast from 30,000 auditions (Image: Getty Images for 20th Century Studios)

Authenticity and diversity were absolutely necessary for the re-adaptation.

“Why else do the film? I think it was number one [priority]. If we can’t do this right, why should we? And hopefully we got it right,” Cindy explained.

“What I’m really proud and happy about is that in this film we’re giving 50 actors their first feature film debuts. And 20 of them are from the Latinx community, and I think that’s an incredible achievement.”

Westside Story

The stars had to be ‘quadruple threats’ (Image: AP)

Westside Story

Rachel auditioned for over a year (Image: Niko Tavernise)

It definitely took time to get through the 30,000 auditions, but Cindy explained that there was one way to find out which actors were up to the task — they had to be a “quadruple threat.”

“You have to be able to act, sing and dance, and the camera has to like you,” Cindy insisted.

“For someone like Rachel, who is so young, you’re looking for a young actor who can sing opera and that’s not an easy task. With someone like Ariana and David Alvarez, you need people who can really, really, really dance. Really dance and really act, and they can do that — and they can sing.”

As for Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original 1961 film and returned 50 years later to play Valentina, Cindy explained that the “brilliant” decision came straight from director Steven and writer Tony Kushner.

“What’s also amazing is that Rita Moreno is in this film, but she’s also available as an executive producer,” she marveled. “Not only does she act in it, she’s also the producer of the film, which I think is extraordinary. She’s just a force of nature.”

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https://metro.co.uk/2022/03/19/west-side-story-casting-director-reveals-intense-audition-process-16302316/ West Side Story's casting director reveals intense audition process

Ryan Sederquist

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