Take It From a Background Actor, ‘West Side Story’ Should be the Model

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

We get off the bus after a 30-minute ride from New York City and walk in a straight line into a mall somewhere in Paterson, New Jersey. It’s 5:30 am. We wait in line to enter Holding, the large empty storefront with its large windows covered with white paper. When I get to the front of the line, I’m immediately transported to the 1950s. On my first day on the job, I’m in awe of the galaxy I just entered. Men with pants up to their waists and slicked back hair, women with retro dresses puffed up with petticoats, some with rolos on their heads running around to either get makeup or hair done, eat breakfast or go to the bathroom. The energy of a cast almost full of Latinx background actors was palpable, and we were all excited to represent ourselves on the big screen. Yes, I was cast as a background actor in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to work three days on set for the 2021 film.

The scene we filmed was the confrontation between the Puerto Ricans (the Sharks) and Italian, Irish, and Polish-Americans (the Jets) in what was then San Juan Hill, today Lincoln Center. While the depiction on screen has raised concerns, having worked on plenty of film sets since, like Jennifer Lopez’s Marry Me, not only was the treatment of the background actors behind the scenes incredible, but the intentionality behind the casting, wardrobe, and staging was mindful.

Background actors wait to get their hear finished
Waiting in line to see a hair stylist

In Holding, (the name the industry gives to the place where background actors check in for work), we all get dressed first and then wait in separate lines to get our hair styled or makeup done. Each hairstyle, for both men and women, was particularly fashioned for the era. 

A month prior to the actual shoot dates, everyone had to go to Steiner Studios for hair “approval” and a wardrobe fitting. Some women, like myself, and men had to get our hair cut by one of the film’s hairstylists to go with the decade we were playing. On the same day, we were fitted by the Wardrobe Team, each of us styled meticulously with delicate, authentic vintage clothes, shoes, and accessories to match our body type and what we would have probably looked like in the 1950s. I was approved to be in a striped dress down to my knees that had different shades of orange with red shoes, a black purse, and pearl earrings. 

After about three hours of preparing, we were all ready to go on set. In different groups, we followed one of the many production assistants to Satellite Holding, the second and final place we went before going to set. Here we got snacks and lunch, and everyone hangs out until the director calls us to film. On our way, we pass by the set where the Jets and Sharks fight and the police arrive. It was the facade of a torn-down building surrounded by dirt. It felt otherworldly to see this giant, artificially constructed set towering over me, depicting the abandoned buildings in 1950s New York City. Soon after we get to Satellite Holding, we are called to set. 

The set is the entire 10-12 block circular radius surrounding Paterson’s City Hall. The film team paid each business to close for three days and then covered the buildings with 1950s storefronts to portray the San Juan Hill Puerto Rican neighborhood. Every part of the set was carefully staged by the production team to represent this community and their everyday surroundings, from the grocery stores to slum clearance signs by the Federal Housing Administration.

Production assistants placed each of the background actors in a specific location and gave us an action. I was first placed under the Telas storefront (see the above picture) as a Puerto Rican woman from the neighborhood who was coming out of the store and walking around the corner. 

Screenshot from 'West Side Story' featuring Telas storefront. Courtesy of OTV
You can see the Telas store front in this screengrab from West Side Story

As I wait under the store for everyone to get to their spots, I could see the entirety of the set. There were about 300-400 background actors, the majority from the Latinx community – older and younger and of all shades and sizes. I’ve never seen so many Latinx people in one place before. I instantly thought that the industry really didn’t have an excuse for saying there are no Latinx actors.

Being on set for 12-14 hours each day, background actors talk – a lot – to each other. I spoke to many, many Latinx actresses and actors who were passionate about acting, put in the hard work, and were very talented, but still struggled to get cast in films and television shows. One of the things we talked a lot about was that Steven Spielberg did an open call for the role of Maria. He wanted to bring in a new face, instead of relying on already-established Latina actresses or even established non-Latina actresses. In my opinion, this is golden, because it not only opens up opportunities for newer actors, but also expands the roster of Latinxs who can play roles in Hollywood movies.

Usually, when I’m on film or television sets, production assistants consistently tell us that we (background actors) are important because without us they couldn’t create the society we live in. I would say film directors and Hollywood should put this encouragement into action by casting a more accurate and wider net of Latinx actors who can portray our genuine diversity in society. Latinx people and people of color in general deserve to be depicted in a varying array of principal and supporting roles, not just in the background. Whether many know it or not, West Side Story proved this type of representation is possible, potent, and beautiful. I am proud to have been a part of a film that was crafted with the intention of matching the actors to the storyline, from the background actors to the principal roles!

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