Ariana DeBose on her first Oscar nomination: 'This role embodies every facet of me'

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Ariana DeBose on her first Oscar nomination: 'This role embodies every facet of me'
The actor Ariana DeBose, in Los Angeles, Dec. 8, 2021. The 31-year-old actress was nominated for her turn as Anita in “West Side Story” — a part she fought to ensure reflected her Afro-Latina identity. Erik Carter/The New York Times.

by Sarah Bahr

NEW YORK, NY.- Ariana DeBose wasn’t quite dancing in the streets Tuesday morning, but if you happened to be strolling along a certain New York City river around 9 a.m., you might have thought she was just another crazy New Yorker.

“I’m pretty sure I scared every runner on the path with my shrieking and jumping up and down,” she said Tuesday morning, recalling the moment she learned she had been nominated for her first Oscar, for best supporting actress for her performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.”

With the nomination, DeBose and Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for the same role in the 1961 film and stars in the new adaptation in a different role, made history: They became the first actors of color and the first women to be nominated for the same character.

And, should DeBose win, they would become only the third pair to accomplish the feat. The other two are Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone (“The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II”) and Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker (in “The Dark Knight” and “Joker”).

But first, DeBose will face some formidable competition in the category: Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”), Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”), Judi Dench (“Belfast”) and Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”).

In an interview Tuesday morning from her home in New York, DeBose discussed the significance of being nominated for a role that reflects her identity, the best advice Moreno gave her and what’s next. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Congratulations! Are you normally awake right now?

A: Normally I’m up and going — it’s been a very busy season. But last night I had a bit of anxiety-ridden insomnia. I didn’t sleep at all. I was very anxious about this morning. For everyone, not just on a personal note, but for our film.

Q: You and Moreno have the chance to make history as only the third pair of actors — and the first women and people of color — to win for playing the same role, in this case, 60 years apart. What does it mean to you to be able to follow in her footsteps?

A: The nomination validates the fact that many interpretations are valid and good. It is absolutely possible to create a character based on the same initial text and have it stand on its own next to an already celebrated and iconic portrayal of that character. Anita is a wonderful character, and one that I’m so proud of. It’s just great because we are Latinas, we are here and it’s a really beautiful thing to be seen.

Q: Have you thought about what you’re going to say if you win? I assume you’ll be a little more prepared than Rita. (Moreno famously delivered one of the shortest acceptance speeches in Oscars history when she won in 1962: “I can’t believe it! Good Lord. I leave you with that.”)

A: Honestly, I have not. Because I was like, “Look at that category!” I’m just genuinely happy to be in it. I haven’t got past that part yet. I hope that if I need to say something, I would be sensibly eloquent about it. But, if not, Rita’s fail-safe is always a good place to divert to. (In Moreno voice) “Oh my gosh! Thank you!” What an iconic acceptance speech.

Q: It was kind of perfect.

A: Never more joy and true gratitude. And I mean that sincerely — it’s written all over her face. It’s a great thing to watch.

Q: Even though you were initially star-struck, you developed a close bond with Moreno. What’s one piece of advice she gave you that’s stuck with you?

A: She has always led with, “Ariana, lean into everything that makes you unique.” And that’s what I did with the character, and it’s what I do in the midst of this crazy journey. I lean into things that make me unique both as an artist and as a human, and I try to share and celebrate those things. It’s imperative that young people realize they have possibility, and if they can see that in my work, then I’m doing something right.

Q: You come from a dance background, so I’m sure Anita’s crazy dancing skills weren’t too hard to master. But is there anything you had to learn for the film that was especially challenging?

A: I’m not fluent in Spanish. So I was very focused on the language and not only ingraining myself in it, but finding her accent, understanding what was required of that in terms of how long she’d been in New York City.

Q: You’ve said you were nervous about your performance at the first screenings. What was the moment you knew you’d succeeded?

A: I still don’t know if I got it right. I’m thrilled that people love the interpretation. As an artist, I see a million things that I’m like, “Gosh, I wish I’d have done that better.” But what makes me feel secure in it is that I’ve heard from a lot of young people, specifically young Latinas, who say they see themselves in the work.

Q: You’ve said your Afro-Latina identity was something you fought to have be an integral part of your character, from your first meeting with Spielberg. How does it feel to be nominated for a character who is a strong woman who can own her identity without any compromises like darkened skin, as Moreno’s was in the original film?

A: This role embodies every facet of me, both as an artist and a human. It’s rare that you come across a part like this that celebrates the fullness of your skill set and honors your lived experience and your identity. So it is very special. And we’re just starting to get into the space where we can have those conversations, where we can get into the nitty-gritty of where Afro-Latinas fall within not only Hispanic culture but Black culture, because we belong to both. It’s important that we reflect that in our scripts and the projects we greenlight. And I say that specifically to AfroLatinidad, but representation across the board is imperative.

Q: Your roles in the past few years have run the gamut, from your Tony nomination for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” to your breakout role as a progressive schoolmarm in the musical Apple TV+ series “Schmigadoon!” What’s next for you?

A: I don’t know. (Laughs) I don’t believe in limiting myself. I don’t like labels and I don’t like boxes, which is kind of ironic since we talk about a lot of things that I identify as. I’m in a moment with regard to my career where I’ve never had the types of opportunities that are coming my way. It’s a blessing to have choice.

Q: You broke out your tap skills in “Schmigadoon!” last year. Any other secret talents you want to showcase?

A: Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll fly trapeze for a project. Maybe I’ll do more action stuff.

Q: I’m sure there are plenty of Marvel movies waiting for you.

A: Oh, gosh. That’s quite the universe. We’ll see.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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