The newly minted Oscar nominee — who plays Anita in Steven Spielberg's reimagining of the celebrated musical — sits down with EW's The Awardist podcast, where she also discusses her recent SNL hosting gig.

Ariana DeBose doesn't know what she was expecting when she said "yes" to working with Steven Spielberg on West Side Story, but one thing she knows for sure: "Steven has such great love for this film. I swear, when we were making this movie, he had the energy of a 12-year-old and I was the one limping around. He's running with joy and glee. I'm just like, ow."

Understandable considering the amount of dancing the actor —who's appeared on Broadway in Hamilton and is a Tony nominee for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and costarred in last year's movie-musical The Prom — does in this production as the mesmerizingly effervescent and steadfast Anita, a role originated by Rita Moreno in the 1961 classic...and one DeBose says she "didn't even think I was going to get."

"I was like, I have no idea what is happening anymore. I'm just going to get on the ride," DeBose, who received her first Oscar nomination last week, recalls after landing the role. Part of that ride meant watching the 2017 documentary Spielberg, where behind-the-scenes footage of him directing everything from Jaws to Schindler's List gave her better insight into how he operates, as well as his own anxieties. But she admits to not being prepared to have as much freedom as he gave her. "I was like, okay, so I'm just going to go in and be prepared for him to tell me exactly what he wants me to do and how he wants me to do it. I'm just going to deliver, because that is what is required for this director. And he blew my mind because he was just like, 'Well, what do you want to do?' And he let me run wild…. He was like, 'I hired you because you are my Anita, I trust you with her.' I think it's the greatest gift that he gave me was to empower me to trust myself."

And it has certainly worked out: In addition to that Oscar nomination, DeBose has received dozens of honors from film critics' circles, landed Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA nominations, and won a Golden Globe — not to mention that Saturday Night Live hosting gig. ("It is a beast," she says of the Jan. 15 episode. "And I actually genuinely, crazily, stupidly would love to do it again.") While she says the past couple months have been "a whirlwind," it's all been worth it because of what playing Anita represents. "It is the honor of my career. And I feel this way about The Prom as well with Alyssa Greene, but specifically with Anita, I got to put a character on the screen that would have been someone I needed growing up," she explains. "From a young age, the media you consume, it matters. So that is why it's important to me that young women, young Afro Latinos in general, can see themselves in this work. I'm very proud of that. If it all ended tomorrow, at least I did that."

Awardist Ariana DeBose (West Side Story)
Ariana DeBose on reimagining the celebrated musical 'West Side Story'
| Credit: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

West Side Story is currently playing in theaters and will be available to stream on Disney+ starting March 2. Meanwhile, you can listen to our full interview with DeBose on EW's The Awardist podcast below or available wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe for new episodes every Monday. 

Check out more from EW's The Awardistfeaturing exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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West Side Story (2021 movie)
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