The first thing I ask someone I'm interviewing is how the tour is going. I typically call a performer while they're on the road somewhere, asking how it's going so far, as it's usually a good way to gauge how long the interview will be. If they talk about how tired they are, that means to keep it short, but if they're filled with excitement and verbosity, I won't try to wrap things up too quickly.
When I asked living legend Rita Moreno how her tour was going so far, she laughed and said, "Oh, it's so wonderful! I am one tired Puerto Rican!" We only talked for 15 minutes, but I could have talked to her for hours. At 84, Moreno is a born storyteller and she's so effortlessly charming that it's almost disarming.
Moreno was born in 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico, to a seamstress and a farmer. Her mother moved to NYC in 1936, bringing Rita along for the adventure. Soon after she started taking dancing lessons from the uncle of Rita Hayworth. By the time she was 13, she had already been cast in her first Broadway role in "Skydrift."
In the 1950s, she had small roles in "The Toast of New Orleans" and "Singin' in the Rain" and by 1954 was on the cover of Life magazine. Her largest role came in 1956 when she played Tuptim in "The King and I." Aside from that role, Moreno was disappointed with the roles she was being offered as she felt they were all very stereotypical Latina characters.
She exploded into the mainstream when she played Anita in 1961's "West Side Story." She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and instead of capitalizing on her newfound success, she didn't make another movie for years. Once again, everything she was offered were stereotypical Latina characters, except now they were gang members.
"I was absolutely heartbroken," says Moreno. "In fact, I made a choice not to do 'West Side Story Redux.' It was being done on a much lesser scale without the music and without the dancing. Boy, I guess I showed them. I didn't do another film for seven years after I won those awards. My heart was broken. I couldn't believe the business was so locked into stereotypes."
She does feel like Hollywood might be getting a bit better as the years have worn on. "It's changed," says Moreno. "You certainly see a lot more Hispanics on television... way more than you used to. And that's wonderful. But I think the next step is going to have to be something new and I think it's going to take a lot of time. It's going to be harder. Now it's time to start writing very important roles...the kinds of roles (Viola Davis said it so perfectly), roles that will earn you a nomination. That's not happened yet."
Moreno has an idea for what the first step in making Hispanic diversity in film and television a reality, and it's a good one. "We need to get more serious with the Latino actors and actresses," says Moreno. "They need to be given something more to do than just be in a series simply because they're Latino."
Her show in Bend is a cabaret performance in which she tells stories and sings. Moreno also just wrapped 13 episodes of a reboot of "One Day at a Time," written by the also-legendary Norman ("All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons") Lear.
Even in her golden years, Moreno isn't slowing down in the slightest and should be an inspiration to anyone looking to go into show business. Her advice is simple and sobering: "Aside from getting very lucky, it has a great deal to do with perseverance. I always say that's my middle name, Rita Perseverance Moreno. I think it's what's taken me throughout this life. I have to say something else, particularly for the young people, that's really important. It's called education, education, education. There is no guarantee that you'll be a working actor or actress so you'd better find a skill while you're still in school that will help pay the rent and help pay for your acting lessons and for your food and your clothing. You cannot, unfortunately, get along on just talent or being lucky. A lot of very young people still believe in that kind of magic and it works less and less each year."
An Evening with Rita Moreno
Tuesday, Oct. 18, 7:30pm
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend