Rita Moreno Discusses The Racism She Faced On The Original West Side Story Set - Exclusive

Rita Moreno's career has spanned more than seven decades (via IMDb), and she's acquired a whole host of accolades, including two Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. More recently, Moreno appeared in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" remake, which was an important moment for the star who won an Academy Award for her role in the original 1961 movie.

Moreno is currently starring in Lifetime's "Santa Bootcamp," a festive comedy directed by Melissa Joan Hart. In the delightful rom-com, Moreno plays Belle, a woman in charge of training new Santa Claus performers in a special bootcamp. However, when a party planner called Emily (played by Emily Kinney) arrives in search of the perfect Santa, Belle decides to have some fun. Moreno and Kinney have wonderful chemistry in the film, which is filled with physical comedy, biting sarcasm, and magical moments. While promoting "Santa Bootcamp," Rita Moreno opened up during an exclusive interview with The List about the racism she faced on the set of 1961's "West Side Story."

Honoring her Puerto Rican heritage

Rita Moreno was excited to join the cast of Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" remake, especially as the director promised to ensure that representation was front and center in the new film. As Moreno noted, Spielberg's film paid "respect to not only the original [movie], but how I felt about the business of Puerto Ricans and white skin and dark skin and all that." 

Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931 (per Biography), Moreno has always wanted to highlight the importance of accurate representation. As the actor explains, 1961's "West Side Story" reflects "a different time" for the film industry. "We had to suffer with that in the original movie," Moreno tells The List. "All of us had one color makeup."

Discussing an interaction she had on the set, Moreno says, "None of us loved those very dark makeups. It kept streaking on me because it was so dark, and I was so light compared to it." She continues, "I said [to the makeup artist], 'I hate this makeup. It's too dark. I don't know why I have to be this shade.' He actually said, 'What are you racist?' That made me speechless because he didn't understand that Puerto Ricans come in so many different colors. We are all many different colors."

Following her experiences making the original movie, Moreno "was thrilled to pieces" to be part of Spielberg's vision. "When he made me executive director, I couldn't believe my good luck," she says. "It was so amazing."

Watch "Santa Bootcamp" on Lifetime.