Ready for her close-up! Rachel Zegler was just 16 when she scored the role of a lifetime as Maria in Steven Spielberg‘s upcoming adaptation of West Side Story — and her performance is already generating plenty of buzz.
The New Jersey native was one of the thousands of hopeful applicants to respond to an open casting call via Twitter in January 2018. Having previously portrayed the musical’s starring role in a local production, Zegler was familiar with the ins and outs of the soundtrack and was ultimately chosen to carry on the late Natalie Wood’s legacy six decades after the original movie premiered. Though she’s new to the industry, the importance of this moment isn’t lost on Zegler.
“[This movie is] a beautiful display of Latin joy and the way that young Latin girls deserve to see themselves — dancing around in pretty dresses and singing about loving themselves,” she told Vogue in November 2020. “It’s something that’s mattered so much to me, being Latina, singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ and meaning it. I hope that young people everywhere will know that their features are gorgeous and their culture is beautiful. I think that’s what it’s meant to my family.”
Zegler joins Hollywood heartthrob Ansel Elgort (Tony, originated by Richard Beymer), Ariana DeBose (Anita, originated by Rita Moreno) and David Alvarez (Bernardo, originated by George Chakiris) in the 2021 adaptation. Representation was crucial for Spielberg who told Vanity Fair in March 2020 that more than half of the film’s Puerto Rican characters are portrayed by Latinx actors.
“They brought an authenticity,” he told the outlet. “They brought themselves, and everything they believe and everything about them—they brought that to the work. And there was so much interaction between the cast wanting to be able to commit to the Puerto Rican experience. They all represent, I think, a diversity, both within the Puerto Rican, Nuyorican community as well as the broader Latinx community. And they took that seriously.”
The film’s release was significantly delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but fans are still eager to see Zegler step into the starring role. The first teaser aired during the 93rd annual Academy Awards in April 2021 — and even the budding Hollywood star couldn’t contain her excitement.
“Is it bizarre to think that today — Saturday, April 24 — is my last day feeling like a normal human being?” she joked in a vlog documenting the anticipation to the trailer’s debut. “I’m trying to call as many castmates as possible because I feel like I’m gonna be a mess [when it drops].”
Keep scrolling to learn more about the breakout star of West Side Story, in theaters December 2021: