“Ariana needed to bring her entire existence into this character,” Spielberg, 75, told The Hollywood Reporter in January. “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. 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.”
While the Schmigadoon! alum was initially wary about stepping into the 90-year-old Oscar-winning actress’ shoes for the film, she powered through her hesitation.
“I was really tired one evening after [performing on Broadway in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical], and Cindy Tolan, the casting director, called and goes, ‘Hey, can you come to Brooklyn tomorrow at 10 a.m.?’ I was like, ‘But it’s 11:30 p.m. right now. Great, so can I just dance and sing?’” DeBose recalled of her audition process during a January appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “She said, ‘Sure, sure, sure. I got you.’ So I get there the next day, and I walk into the room and there’s Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. … So, I danced for him and he really liked my dancing.”
She gushed about the script at the time, adding, “These scenes — these are Tony Kushner-expanded scenes. They can be wordy. They’re important. You gotta nail it. Quite frankly, I’m not in the business of going in a room as a Black woman and not getting it right. You’ve got to come in prepared.”
DeBose has stolen scenes on the big screen in both West Side Story and The Prom, but she initially got her professional start as a dancer. In 2009, she competed on season 6 of So You Think You Can Dance.
“That show was the craziest whirlwind for an 18-year-old. I had known quite a few people that had done it,” the Seaside actress gushed to Simu Liu during an “Actors on Actors” interview for Variety in February. “I grew up dancing with Travis Wall and Martha Nichols. And so, it felt very tangible to me. That is a crazy thing that I just said, but it felt really tangible. And so going into it, it’s what everybody thinks it’s going to be. It’s a little dog-eat-dog. Dancers, we love each other, but we want our spot, you know?”
She added: “I think the greatest thing I learned is that it is a television show. You think it’s just about dance, right? No, it’s still TV programming. So it is casting and creating story lines and relationships and all this stuff. You definitely don’t know that at such a young age, or at least I didn’t.”
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