“Thank me when you’re famous”: the tweet that started all, when Rachel Zegler’s friend Makena Reynolds sent the then-highschooler a tweet in 2019 an announcement about an opening casting call for West Side Story.
One self-tape and several months of callbacks later, Zegler got the part. She was now Maria in Steven Spielberg’s newest musical adaptation.
She tells Variety, “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.”
Hers was the second self-tape Spielberg saw during casting calls for Maria. Later that month, Zegler received a phone call that he wanted to meet with her in person to work on some scenes and choreography. However, 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. “I left every single audition being like, ‘If that was it and I never see him again, I’m very grateful.’”
Zegler was finally confirmed for the part in 2020, though the film’s release was delayed by a whole year due to the pandemic.
The young actress has always harbored a love for musical theater and performing on stage. It was just a few years back when she played Maria in a school production of West Side Story at the Bergen Performing Arts Center. She did not have an agent until production was completed for Spielberg’s film, but he was able to help her find the right representation to look after her.
And as a result, production began shortly after West Side Story’s release for an upcoming Disney live-action remake in which Zegler will be playing the iconic Snow White. As a Colombian-American, she knows the importance of representation as a Latina actress portraying the previously white-washed Maria (in 1961, an artificially-tanned Natalie Wood held the role) and a princess of a historically white franchise.
Zegler says she does not take these roles lightly. She worked extensively with her dialect coaches (Tom Jones, Victor Cruz, and Julio Monge) to capture the complexities of Maria’s Puerto Rican accent in the film. Spielber’s own take on the classic musical seeks to accurately portray and honor the cultural heritage than the original and reflect more historically accurate depictions of the characters at the time.
For her future, Zegler remains open to any and all opportunities that come her way, sharing that her dream role has yet to be written: “Maybe it’s something I write myself. Or maybe my dream role would be to get behind the camera. The world is my oyster.”
She aspires to one day take the Broadway stage, dreaming to play the role of Johanna in Sweeney Todd or Eponine in Les Miserables.
West Side Story premieres on December 10, so be sure to check out Zegler’s immense talent and work in a Spielberg Broadway adaptation.