Rita Moreno’s Third Act

At 87 Years Old, She Returns to West Side Story and Has a TV Hit

WORDS Leila Cobo
Abril / Mayo 2019

Photos by Amanda Friedman

The cover of the March 5, 1954 issue of Life magazine was a dark haired, dark eyed beauty, looking mischievously at the camera over her bare shoulder. It was Rita Moreno, a little-known 22-year-old Puerto Rican actress. 

Sixty-five years later, Rita Moreno still looks fabulous. Her short hair is peppered with gray, but her body is still slender, her voice firm and strong, her opinions clear, her bearing majestic, her energy unstoppable. 

“I need bigger earrings,” she muses, after looking at herself in the mirror during a photo session at a Los Angeles hotel. “And a scarf,” she adds, placing her hands on her neck. “Ok. Now I’m happy,” she finally states. “Can I see a couple?” she asks when she’s finished.  “Oh, these are wonderful. The last one is fabulous. Ooh I love it. It’s very flirtatious,” she adds, punctuating the remark with that trademark smile. 

At 87 years old, Moreno is one of only 15 EGOTs in the world –winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards—but her artistic career is far from over. 

In 2013, she published her autobiography, Rita Moreno, where she describes a charmed childhood in Puerto Rico, her arrival to the U.S. at 5 years old, her romances with Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando and her eternal battle to break the ethnic stereotypes where she was cast for decades. 

Now, as an octogenarian who looks much younger than her years, Moreno is living an extraordinary third act. She plays irreverent grandma Lydia in the new version of One Day at A Time, the Netflix series created by Norman Lear that wrapped up its second season (after this interview went to print, Netflix announced it wasn’t renewing the series for a third season). And in June she begins filming the new version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, who created the new character of Valentina specifically for Moreno. 

A Conversation

NEXOS:A new version of West Side Story! That’s exciting. What were the challenges? 

RITA MORENO:How about that? I’m astonished! I am absolutely- I don’t even know how to describe it. Steven Spielberg who is one of my favorite directors of all time, and Tony Kushner who is a great, great playwright –he wrote Angels in America—are really making a huge effort.  

[Although the music is the same] they are trying to get rid of some of the things that were very cliché and some of the things that, in fact, offended Latinos. All of the Sharks are Puerto Rican, for example. 


N:What bothered you about the original? 

RM:The original verse to “America” was, “Puerto Rico, you ugly island / island of tropic diseases.” So, here’s what happens: I do the auditions, I get the part, and I’m thrilled and then I think of those words and I say to myself, “I can’t do this, I can’t sing this. It’s irresponsible.” And thank God Stephen Sondheim changed the lyrics. So, instead of “island of tropic diseases,” she’s singing: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion / let it sink back in the ocean.” And that’s ok because that’s Anita personal opinion. A lot of people misunderstand that. But that’s how Anita feels, and you have to allow that, as either a Puerto Rican or as an actor. Anita doesn’t want to go back to Puerto Rico because she loves America. 

N:Sensibilities have changed a lot. In The Ritz, you play Googie Gomez, a very over-the-top cabaret singer. You won the Tony for the theatrical version, but I wonder if you would be criticized for that role today? 

RM:You know what is interesting? I did the play on Broadway for a year, and only one person was offended. I was doing something that I had seen on television many times. Googie Gomez was based on many of the Puerto Rican and Cuban performers that I had seen as a kid and they were all terrible self-dramatized. What was delicious about that, was my mom would be watching TV with me and she’d say [adds Spanish accent]: “Isn’t she wonderful?” I mean that’s what made me laugh. When the role of Googie Gomez came along I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is all these women that I thought were hilarious.” That’s how that happened. 


N:One Day At A Time is such an amusing show…

RM:Isn’t it marvelous? And that’s my mommy you know? That’s her accent. My mom was very unsophisticated. My mom had no education. She was a remarkable woman in the sense that, after she divorced my father, she left me In Puerto Rico –I was then about four years old-- 

And she left me with my father and my grandparents. She took a boat to New York City knowing no English but having one ability: sewing. She stayed with my aunt Titi in the Bronx and she found a job in sweatshop factory. She came to American with the intention of bringing her child back when she had enough money.


N:Did she learn English?

RM:She learned English.  Probably, you know, not the best English in the world, but she learned it. And she went back to Puerto Rico and brought me back to the States. She worked very hard to pay for my dance lessons: flamenco with Paco Cancino. He was Rita Hayworth’s uncle. He was about this tall [she gestures a diminutive height] and he was fierce. But he thought I was very talented. He would teach me one dance –a sevillana, a jota, a samba-- in like three or four lessons to save us money. I made my debut in Greenwich Village in a little Spanish nightclub with him as my partner. I was like 5 or 6 years old. I played the castanets. To this day I play the castanets. 


N:You’ve said before that your condition to play Lydia in One Day At A Time was that she be a “sexual” character. What did you mean? 

RM:I wanted her to be a sexual woman. I said to Norman, “Just because she’s in her 70s doesn’t mean she’s not sexual.”  And they loved it! It’s something they hadn’t thought of, but I I definitely wanted her to flirt; that kind of thing. Of course, they took that to a very great degree, which is very funny too. I love playing her. I love her because there are so many things wrong with her. She’s vain. She thinks she’s God’s gift to man. She thinks she’s the smartest person in the world. Hardly! And she’s opinionated! It’s fun to play someone who has no sense of humor.


N:It’s a different way of viewing older people. Jane Fonda, for example, talks about her “third act” on her TED Talk. 

RM:That’s what I call it. I call this my third act.  And I have also learned how to say “no” too, because in my era women did not say no to almost anything because that wasn’t nice. That wasn’t lady like. It has changed so much in that respect.


N:What’s the most amazing you’ve done in your third act? 

RM:Well I certainly never thought I would do West Side Story again. It’s insane. I didn’t think I would live to be 80. I’m 87 now! 


N:And you celebrated with a big party at your house, right? 

RM:  Always. And it’s always a costume party and there is always a theme and dancing. This time it was Cuba, so we had Cuban food and stuff. Last year it was Spain.


N:  And you get up and dance too?

RM:  Well they always ask me to at the end.  But I don’t really dance anymore; I call it moving. 

N:Would you say that the fact that you are still constantly working contribute to your mental and physical health? 

RM:  Oh yes. Working as I do, it makes your mind work. I was very nervous at first when I started to do One Day at A Time. I thought, “man that’s a half hour script every time.” I was just beginning to forget words and nouns. Nouns and I became deep enemies. But you just do it. It took a while, but yes it does come back. And, even though you’re in front of an audience,you’re not filming live, so if you goof, you know you can do it again. And, it’s not just me. Everybody in the show does that because the scripts are rewritten all the time. 


N:Do they ask for your opinion? Because you definitely have an opinion…

RM:Oh sure! It’s not just that I’m opinionated, but I’m experienced. I mean I’m not 87 for nothing. I have done all this work and I have thoughts and ideas. And also, I have to be extremely careful with the character of Lydia because she’s really big, and I don’t want to run into clichés.  It’s happened a few times where I’ll say, “I don’t think Lydia would say that.” 


N:Latinos are very much in style right now, but the truth is, we were invisible in the United States for many years, wouldn’t you say? 


RM: Yes, we were. I still think we are underrepresented, in films particularly. I come from a time where I was playing “Conchita” “Lolita” parts. I thought someday someone is going to see that I really do have talent, and I won’t have to wear low cut things and be these “Lolita” “Conchita” kind of parts. It was very depressing, and demeaning, and it made me very sad. What would happen very often, especially when I was really young is, I would finish one job, and then I wouldn’t do anything for months. Those roles were all that I was offered. That was depressing. And that’s what finally sent me into psychotherapy. What happens is you, too, begin to believe: that it’s me. Maybe I don’t have value. 


N:How did you break out of that? 

RM:It took me a long time.  it took me eight years of psychotherapy. Eight years. 

And then I won the Oscar and I won the Golden Globe, and you know what?  I didn’t do a movie for almost seven years, because the very few things I was offered, were the same thing over and over again. It broke my heart. Nothing breaks my spirit but boy that got close. I really am grateful for psychotherapy. It helped me a lot. 


N:You speak English without a Latin accent. And you also have a very universal look; you could play any kind of role…

RM:  Not in Hollywood I couldn’t. So far I have only been offered Latino rolls. It’s not a question of accent, it’s the name. It’s entirely possible that if my name had been Mary Simons it would have been different. It was very hard. 


N:Do you see a change now? 

RM:I see a change but I would say it’s sluggish. As a community, we need to learn some things from the African American community. They did it. We still have yet to make some movies that are meaningful. It may also be because we are from different countries. Every American thinks that if you are Hispanic, you are Hispanic, but that is not so. You’re Mexican, or you’re Puerto Riqueño, or you’re a Spaniard. That’s the difference.


N:There’s a new and brilliant new generation of Latina actors. Do you like any in particular? 

RM:I think Gina Rodriguez is going to be very important. I love her. I also love her persona. [Among the men] I love Benicio del Toro. He’s beautiful and he’s sexy and he’s gorgeous and handsome and he has killer eyes but I love him.


N:How would you describe your fashion style? 

RM:I love separates, which started because I couldn’t afford fancy dresses. I realized that one jacket can cover a lot of events. To this day I still shop in my closet when I do events. I have never borrowed a designer dress.


N:In fact, the dress you wore to the Oscars in 2018 is the same one you wore when you won your Oscar in 1962, right? 

RM:  That’s a 56 year old dress.  I did the carpet with Fernanda, my daughter, because she’s my date all the time. 


N:How did your career and your life change when you had Fernanda? 

RM:It remains one of the happiest times of my life, she’s my- es mi alma(my sould). 

And my nenes, my little grandboys. They’re not little anymore; they’re teenagers. They’re my rays of light.


N:You’re doing television, West Side Story, lectures, concerts, your cabaret show, commencement speeches. Did you ever think you would be doing so much at this point in your life? 

RM:Well, my life it’s incredible. I really wish my husband were alive to see all this good stuff.

I always think, “Oh my God if Lenny could only see this. Like when I got the Kennedy Center Award, he would have just popped every button on his shirt, you know? 

I wake up singing in the morning, I wake up humming. I am so happy. I am a very, very happy person.


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