"I was having a full-fledged panic attack."
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Ariana DeBose needed time to pull herself together before meeting EGOT winner Rita Moreno, her West Side Story costar, for the first time.

DeBose, who plays Anita in Steven Spielberg's 2021 adaptation of the musical, hid from Moreno on the first day of rehearsals due to some jitters, she said in a new joint interview with Moreno and fellow costar Rachel Zegler for The Hollywood Reporter.

Moreno starred as Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story and won a historic Academy Award for the role before joining Spielberg's iteration as new character Valentina, the widow of Doc, the drugstore owner played by Ned Glass in the original big-screen version.

Naturally, Moreno wanted to meet her successor — but she was MIA.

"I was having a full-fledged panic attack," DeBose explained. "I hid underneath the bleachers for like 20 minutes until I could get myself together."

Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno
Costars Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno at the premiere of 2021's 'West Side Story'
| Credit: Charley Gallay/Getty Images

After DeBose collected herself, Moreno invited her to lunch.

"She calmed me down and gave me the space to feel my feelings. She was like, 'It's OK. It's a lot,'" DeBose said, noting a classic piece of Ritaism that Moreno offered: "'You passed the audition. You got the part. There's a reason for that.'"

Zegler and Moreno also had a surreal introduction. The Hollywood legend told Zegler her "voice is so lovely, I shit a brick!" before meeting Zegler's mother, who just so happened to learn English by watching Moreno on the 1970s educational children's series The Electric Company.

Her mom burst into tears when Moreno recited her signature catchphrase from the series, "Heyyy, you guyyys!" Said Zegler, "It was the craziest compliment I've ever gotten, and then my mom's crying, and then I look and Ariana's hiding in the corner."

DeBose also admitted in the interview that she was reluctant to audition for the role of Anita as an Afro-Latina actress.

West Side Story
Ariana DeBose as Anita in 2021's 'West Side Story'
| Credit: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

"When I thought of Anita, I thought of Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera," DeBose said. "Debbie Allen and Valarie Pettiford have played the role, but the most famous incarnations of this character just do not look like me, and they're beloved portrayals."

She continued, "I was like, 'I don't know if there's space for [my] interpretation, because I would have to play her as a Black woman.' Because otherwise, I didn't think there was anything to be added [to the role]. It had been done, and beautifully so."

Spielberg, for his part, praised DeBose, who recently won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film.

"Ariana needed to bring her entire existence into this character," the director told The Hollywood Reporter. "The biggest challenge for her was to own her Anita, and from her audition all the way through production there was an empowerment about her that was just so palpable."

He added, "I'm not sure anyone can watch Ariana's performance and not feel how tightly she had her arms around her own Anita and created her own special light."

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West Side Story (2021 movie)
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  • Steven Spielberg

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