For every Anita in West Side Story, there's one scene that will always loom above the rest — the harrowing sequence where she goes to Doc's drugstore to pass along news to Tony (Ansel Elgort) from Maria (Rachel Zegler), and the Jets attempt to gang-rape her.

In the new West Side Story from director Steven Spielberg, that scene is potent as ever (if not more so, with the Jets' girlfriends locked out of the drugstore and pleading with them not to hurt Anita in Tony Kushner's new script). But it was also a bit of an out-of-body experience for Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, and Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film and returns here as an original character, Valentina, Doc's widow.

As things look dire for Anita, Valentina comes up from the basement and stops the Jets just in time. Moreno tells EW she could never quite land that scene the way she wanted to because of her sense of deja vu (and her own experiences with sexual assault in Hollywood; Moreno says in the documentary Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It that she was raped by her Hollywood agent as a teenager).

"The only thing that was not at all natural was trying to save Anita's life," she reflects. "In that scene, I suddenly become Doc. I never could really get inside of the scene. I was never able to really nail it because every time I looked it wasn't me [on the ground]. It was a difficult experience for me, doing it again in a very different role."

DeBose says she had a similar experience from her perspective, playing Anita but looking up to see the prior Anita coming to her rescue. "It was very meta," she explains. "It's like, 'Oh my God, that's me; that's not me."

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

"I tried to keep a sensible amount of like separation of church and state," DeBose adds. "Because it's a hard job when you are stepping into something that has been portrayed so brilliantly, and they're right there. I just played the truth. That's all you really can do in those moments and react to what is there in the space."

Still, Moreno's own sexual assault loomed large for both women throughout filming the scene. "I was very aware of Rita's experience that she's shared with the world," DeBose says. "Now, having played the part, you never forget what it feels like. You never forget what it feels like to have that many bodies on top of you. It's something that I think every Anita can connect over, but I don't wish it on anyone."

Adds Moreno: "These are wounds that never quite healed. I thought I was fine, and then suddenly, out of the blue, I burst into this hysterical crying."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to You can also text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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