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Rita Moreno Reflects on Her Groundbreaking Career in a New Documentary

The biographical film debuts June 18.

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A photo of Rita Moreno BTS of West Side Story seen in the film Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (photo courtesy of MGM Media Licensing)

How fortunate we are to be alive at the same time as Rita Moreno. The groundbreaking Latina actress, writer, activist, dancer, mother, singer, and feminist is an “EGOT” winner—two Emmy Awards (for The Rockford Files and The Muppet Show), a Grammy Award (for The Electric Company cast album), an Oscar (West Side Story) and a Tony (The Ritz)—and at 89 shows no signs of slowing down. In December, Moreno will be playing Valentina, a role written specifically for her, in Steven Spielberg’s big-screen remake of West Side Story

If you can’t wait until December to see her, you are in luck. The documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (Roadside Attractions), is being released this month on June 18. Revelatory and celebratory, Just A Girl features Moreno front and center, telling her story as only she can. 

Moreno was gracious enough to chat with OutSmart in advance of the documentary’s release.

Gregg Shapiro: Rita, in 2011, your book Rita Moreno: A Memoir was published, and now in 2021, this documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is being released. During the 10 years in between, you have continued to be a hard-working actor, appearing in movies as well as sitcoms such as Jane The Virgin, Happily Divorced and, of course, Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time. Would it be fair to say that the documentary is a kind of visual extension and update of the book?
Rita Moreno: Actually, it is a kind of visual extension, and definitely an update of the book. Except to say that there’s a lot more detail in this. It’s important for the viewers to know that I made a promise to myself, once I decided I was going to take part in the documentary, that I would be as truthful as I could possibly be. I did not want to pull any punches whatsoever, and I paid the price because I was asked very serious and difficult questions. [Laughs] But you can be sure that everything I said in this wonderful documentary is absolutely the truth.

In addition to being the director of the documentary, Mariem Pérez Riera is also the mother of Marcel Ruiz, one of your One Day at a Time co-stars. How did everyone involved know that she was the right person to helm the documentary project?
The reason Mariem was chosen as the director is really very simple. For one thing, on her behalf I’ll say this: she had been studying me for months while doing the series One Day at a Time, so she got to know me very well simply from observation. Of course, being the mother of the young man who plays my grandson helped a great deal, because I had a great relationship with him. When she heard that a documentary was going to be done about my life, she went to Brent Miller, one of our producers and Norman Lear’s [production] partner, and said, “I would like to be considered.” They said, “Great. You know what to do.” So she made a whole storyline of what she wanted to do. I think one of the things that really charmed them, as it did me, was the little paper doll Rosita—me as a young girl. I just love that. I love that little Rosita, and I love the conceit. I think they did, too. She also had some super ideas about how to make this very personal. That’s where, in a way, it differs from the book [and] becomes a living thing—a document. I think she did a marvelous job! I really do. It’s gotten huge reviews, and even Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100, and we know what that means to most people.

Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is the very definition of a journey—from Puerto Rico to New York to Hollywood, from actress to activist, from lover to wife and mother. What do you think it was in your constitution that helped you navigate the journey through both good and bad times?
I had a remarkable mother. I’m sure everyone says that, and you know what? They’re probably right. What was special and amazing about my mother is that despite the difficulties of being in a brand-new country where nobody seems to speak Spanish, she somehow navigated that journey and helped me through that journey. My mom was a very brave woman. My mom was the kind of person who had several jobs at one time because she had left Puerto Rico after divorcing her husband (my father), and it was just her and me. She had a very strong constitution. I think I initially got that from her. I don’t know that it was so much something she taught me as something that I intuited, and I saw examples of. I’ve always been kind of strong in that sense. [Even though I was a] very sensitive kid who cried easily—and I still get very hurt and cry—I’m able to somehow make my way around that. I understand that, more often than not, good will come from bad. It’s something I know I got from my mom. [Wondering] whether it’s genes or it’s observation almost doesn’t matter.

Your identity as an activist is also featured prominently in the documentary. Do you have some words of advice, or any wisdom for future generations of activists?
I think that the most important advice I can give to people who are activists (even though activists seem to know this without being told) is to never, ever give up. If they believe in something, they will hang on to those beliefs forever, because they’re made of that kind of stuff. So, I would simply say just hang on to that, because it’s wise and it’s necessary for you to teach future generations. (That wasn’t thrilling, but that’s all I can think of!) [Laughs]

The documentary features an extraordinary cross-section of people singing your praises—from politician Jackie Speier to scholars and historians such as Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Julia Foulkes, and Annette Insdorf; fellow performers Mitzi Gaynor, Justina Machado, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as your daughter Fernanda Luisa Gordon. What was the experience like when you heard these people singing your praises?
I think the person that impressed me the most, with respect to saying complimentary things about me, was my daughter. Daughters rarely go around saying, “Oh, Mom, I love you and I admire you and aren’t you the strong one.” [Laughs] That doesn’t happen. So when I hear my daughter say those things, I am touched to the very quick. The other people are also very important to me because some of them explain what was happening at the time, in social terms. Because it’s really not just about a woman who somehow made her way into movies and sang and danced and was strong and suffered terribly. It’s very important for the viewer to understand that these were really hard times. It’s a question of setting an example, when I never expected to be doing such a thing. That makes me very proud. Proud for the documentary, and proud for myself. I also want to say how much I appreciate the people who spoke about me. Mitzi Gaynor, Justina Machado, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan. [Laughs] I never thought I would even know such people in my life! It never occurred to me that Gloria Estefan would consider me a friend and a talented actress. Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg—for Pete’s sake! And I didn’t know there was such a person as Lin-Manuel Miranda! So I simply want to say how much I appreciated what they said about me, particularly knowing that they went through very similar difficulties. And skin color sometimes had nothing to do with it. Sometimes it was just a very tough business to be in.

Rita Moreno (photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

In Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, you talk about how the late gay playwright Terrence McNally (who is interviewed in the doc) incorporated the Googie Gomez character that you created into his play The Ritz, for which you won the Tony Award. Then you reprised the Gomez role in the movie version. It made me think about how, in the late 1970s, you were in two gay-themed movies The Ritz and Happy Birthday, Gemini. You did that before a lot of other actresses would agree to appear in anything with a gay theme. Can you please say something about your decision to be in those films, as well as your LGBTQ fan base?
Being in two films that had gay themes was really not a difficult decision. [Laughs] They were wonderful. They were delicious. They were funny. Being a part of that was just not a big deal. I’ve had gay friends forever. In fact, let me tell you something: I had the most wonderful little girlfriend as a seven-year-old child. This girlfriend was around for at least seven years of my life, and her name was Eddie Lopez. I just knew there was something different about him at the time. We had the best time, and I always thought of him as my little girlfriend. I’ve had an LGBTQ fan base for a long time, and it started way before The Ritz and the movies. It’s just something that is so much a part of me. I love the humor. I think gay people are both hilarious and heartbreaking. I think they’re brave, and I think they are here forever. Anybody who’s unhappy about that, tough titty! [Laughs]

With your show-stopping Best Picture Oscar presentation in April, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It being released now, and the forthcoming Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story remake arriving in December, this is turning out to be an especially big year for you, professionally. In Tony Kushner’s revised West Side Story script, you play shop owner Valentina, a gender-swap with the original Doc character. How does it feel to be involved in this project?
I just don’t think there are enough words to express my happiness at being in the new West Side Story. Being with Steven Spielberg is a dream come true. I’ve always loved his work. It has such breadth. He can do almost anything! He can do E.T., he can do Lincoln, and now he’s doing something that, by the way, he’s wanted to do from the day he saw our original movie. Let me just say that he is brilliant. Oh my God, he’s so cinematic! Some of the shots in this movie are not to be believed. I literally followed him around like a child. He, in turn, behaved like a child so much, because he loved doing it. He’d say, “Rita, what do you think of this shot?” It was one of the greatest experiences of my life! The set design is incredible. That has everything to do with Steven. He chooses his people. The cinematography is unreal. The young actors are spectacular. And here’s what really means the most to me: Steven and Tony Kushner had a great deal to do with the fact that the Sharks are Hispanic, for real. They’re not all Puerto Rican; that’s not necessary. What’s necessary is that they had to be Latinx, and they are. That makes me so proud. Steven and Tony went to the University of Puerto Rico and had a panel discussion. They invited anyone who wanted to come and tell them how they feel about West Side Story. Some people didn’t love it. Some people, like the mayor of San Juan at that time, said she was not crazy about it because she felt that the Hispanic kids were depicted in a negative way, being in gangs and all that. I don’t think she quite understood (or maybe she did) that it was really Romeo and Juliet. That’s what made it so different and so original and so brilliant. But they went there to the University of Puerto Rico and had a big panel meeting with people who literally just walked in to make demands: “So how are you going to do it?” It mattered so much to them that it was authentic, and that if you were going to cast a Puerto Rican kid, he had to at least be Hispanic. There’s a lot that I admire about both of those fellas. I’ll never forget being invited. When I spoke to Steven on the phone and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing this movie, I practically dropped the phone. Certainly, my jaw dropped. I said, “Well, yeah, I think so. Yes.” [Laughs] I was peeing my pants, really! Then I said (and good for me for remembering), “I wouldn’t want to do just a cameo. Number one, I think it would be a terrible distraction just to sort of pop in and pop out.” He said, “No, it’s a real part. You will play Doc’s widow. You have a real part in this. It’s not a cameo.” It was a great day in my life.

Finally, do you have something special planned for your 90th birthday in December?
It seems that, perhaps, I can actually have a birthday party again. I’ve always had one, but I don’t think I’ll have as many people as I used to have. I think I’m definitely going to create something very special. It has to be with costumes of some kind. I don’t know what that will be yet. I realized that people love to wear costumes. They just love it, so I don’t want to disappoint them. So more likely than not, I will be having a 90th birthday party. Ninety—I can’t believe it!

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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