PHOTOGRAPHED BY EMILY ASSIRAN
Ariana DeBose has leaped from Broadway to the silver screen—most recently taking on the role of host at Saturday Night Live. The Golden Globe winner discusses her star turn in West Side Story, identifying as Afro-Latina and the importance of representation.
As a dancer, singer and actress, Ariana DeBose is a bona fide triple threat. But for the multihyphenate, who was born in Wilmington, N.C., and raised by her single mother and grandmother, it all started with dance. "When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, 1 started taking [dance] really seriously, and by the time I was 11, I knew that's what I wanted to do," she says. "I wanted to dance professionally." As a child, she would drive up and down the East Coast with her mother to dance conventions and competitions. "It was my therapy, my fun, my passion," she explains. "It was everything to me."
That is, until high school, when DeBose's mother pushed her to try theater. High school is where she got the theater bug, and switched her focus to dance and theater at the same time. At age 18, she auditioned for a role on So You Think You Can Dance. "It was my first very public foray into the entertainment industry. And while it was short lived, it was really cool," she says. "It taught me how to professionally audition, and if you can do that... [and] make it on the show, then I think you can probably audition for just about anything." At 19, DeBose moved to New York, got an agent and started booking jobs.
"When I look back on my journey, it's because I've been working consistently for over a decade, and that's something I'm really proud of," she explains. "It's not like it didn't come with its hardships, you know? I did the thing like everybody else does."
By following her passions and working hard, DeBose reached Broadway heights; she's a Tony Award-nominated actress for her role as Disco Donna in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and has worked with some of theater's greats, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original Hamilton cast. She admits, however, that Disco Donna remains one of her favorite characters she's played on Broadway. "It was the first time that I felt like I got to create a character based off of a real person," she says. "We created that character around my strengths. I got to sing, dance, act and be a storyteller all at the same time."
As for playing a character based on a real person, DeBose took it one step further in her Golden Globe-winning role as Anita in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story—her first major studio film. While the role of Anita wasn't based on an actual person, its legacy and the impact on the role by Rita Moreno, the actress who played the character 60 years ago, was not lost on DeBose. Moreno's Anita in the 1961 original version of the film broke barriers as she became the first and only Latina to ever win an acting Oscar.
"I don't think anyone walking into this project, let alone this role, wasn't aware of the 60-year legacy that came with it," says DeBose. "I'm the only cast member who had this particular experience of working alongside their predecessor, and it does come with its own pressures and anxieties. I wanted and still want and still hope so fervently that I did a good job, that I made Rita proud, but also Chita Rivera—the OG on Broadway."
Drawing from her Afro-Latina roots (DeBose's mother is white and her father is from Puerto Rico), she's proud of her unique version of Anita. "I do think the fact that I'm Afro-Latina [makes me] a different type of Anita, which allows both performances to stand on their own two feet in many different ways," says DeBose, comparing her Anita to Moreno's version. "They represent different facets of Latinos."
As for inclusion, DeBose notes that Afro-Latinos in the entertainment industry are hugely underrepresented and that her inclusion in the casting is a big step in the right direction. "We make up an incredibly large portion of the population, and yet what is reflected in the media that we consume is problematic," she says of the lack of representation.
"I am an openly queer artist—that's another part of who I am, and that has implications of its own," she says. "Growing up, I didn't even know that you could be Black and Latina because most of the Latinos that I saw on screen did not look like me and they didn't sound like me either." Outspoken about how she self-identifies, DeBose says it's because she knows there are young people out there who struggle with identification—"the very thing that I struggled with because I didn't even know [that Afro- Latina] was a thing," she explains.
"When I look back on my journey, it's because I've been working consistently for over a decade, and that's something I'm really proud of."
Styled by Zadrian Sarah Hair by Takisha Sturdivant-Drew Makeup by Rebecca Restrepo Prop styling by Adri Suarez PHOTOGRAPHED BY EMILY ASSIRAN
DeBose is happy that her role is getting attention, particularly because of the importance of representation. "Right there is the reason you remake classics," she says. Furthermore, what's important to the star is her cultural identity.
Raised by her white mother and her mother's side of the family, she grew up as a Black woman who didn't have access to her father's side. "I didn't have access to this part of my culture in the way that West Side Story gave me this opportunity," she says.
Spielberg cast Hispanic actors for the Hispanic roles that in the original film were typically played by non-Hispanic actors. "[The set] was full of Hispanic people, beautiful Latinos just being Latino and getting to celebrate that—it was really a beautiful immersive experience," she says. The cast would get together pre-pandemic for spontaneous samba dancing, while eating homemade Hispanic foods, such as tostones, mofongo and "buckets" of arroz con polio made by co-star Rachel Zegler's (who plays Maria) mother.
As for her standout performance, DeBose deliberately used body language to convey Anita's emotions. "I'm really proud of what you see on the screen because I think it does navigate that emotional arc in a way that allows the audience to understand what she's going through and feeling, and you don't actually see Anita speak through a lot of that. That is a testament to my love of body language," she says. "I really wanted this to be a character that you could understand how she felt without her saying anything. Especially because, in 1957, women were kind of silenced and didn't get to speak their minds. ... Anita was a very outspoken woman for her time."
Continuing in the same steps as the outspoken Anita, DeBose took on the hosting duties of NBC's Saturday Night Live's first show of the year in January. "It's unlike anything you'll do," she says. "I think my background or my Broadway experience was very helpful because it allowed me to rely on my quick-change skills and being good in the moment to redirect or rephrase. It's one of the hardest things I think any [entertainer] will do because you have no control—there's no control on Saturday Night Live."
DeBose, however, will continue to keep dancing. She calls dance her superpower and is grateful to "have had the opportunity of a lifetime to play [the role of Anita]." Her hope is that people will appreciate musicals in a new way and "we will start to use dance in a new way as well."
It doesn't look like the dance is slowing down for DeBose anytime soon. Up next, she will appear in Matthew Vaughn's action spy film Argylle from Apple and Gabriela Cowperthwaite's sci-fi space thriller I.S.S.