“This is a huge transition,” says Zegler down the phone to me from New York as we discuss how it feels to go from high school graduate to West Side Story’s lead role, María. It’s currently 9.30 AM, and the actor is talking to me from a taxi navigating its way through the Manhattan traffic, on the way to her Wonderland cover shoot. “It’s bigger than anything I could have possibly imagined,” she continues. “I never really considered myself as someone who could [act] for a living.” However, as soon as you watch Spielberg’s first-ever musical adaption, in which Ansel Elgort plays Zegler’s co-star Tony, you’ll understand the confoundment of this statement. It’s clear Zegler is exactly where she’s always meant to have been.
At the age of 14, when YouTube was in its prime and TikTok was just the sound a clock made, Zegler began sharing videos of herself singing online. “My sister was always the singer of the two of us, so I kind of shied away from it. I was interested in other things, like fashion, but when I started performing, people started paying attention. I sang with a cast member, Chris McCarrel, from Les Miserables on Broadway [who played the male protagonist Marius], we sang together for charity. I put it up on YouTube because I thought it was good, and for some reason, people began to subscribe and I gained a huge following.” She pauses. “It made me think that I might have something special to share with the world.”
Small steps quickly became giant leaps, high school shows became community performances and watching shows on Broadway, venturing into the city from her home in New Jersey. Then, Zegler’s attention was brought to a Tweet – tipped off by a friend – for an open casting call for the world-renowned director, Steven Spielberg, and his upcoming musical film about the iconic story between two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. In other words, West Side Story.
(LEFT) Multicoloured clipped jacquard maxi dress by DIOR
(RIGHT) Full look by DIOR
Multicoloured clipped jacquard maxi dress by DIOR
Full look by DIOR
So that evening, Zegler uploaded her performance of “Me Siento Bonita”, translated as “I Feel Pretty”, María’s titular solo onto YouTube. “It was two weeks shy of a year [ago],” Zegler nostalgically notes. “I sent my first tape on January 25th.” She voices this with such clarity that I half-expect her to follow up with the time. She laughs at her own precision. “It’s the story that started it all for me, it’s so important. I went in for Steven about five or six times across those 300 odd days in between auditioning and getting the role.” She refers to the director by his first name throughout, with an evident sense of deep admiration. “I was a junior going into my senior year of high school trying to figure out what my next steps were and I got the part out of 30,000 applicants.”
As Zegler retells the story with undeniable composure, it’s easy to forget she was, in fact, greeting one of the world’s greatest directors for the first time. “I always say that the most intimidating thing about Steven is the idea of him. We all build him up in our mind, like, ‘Oh my god, that guy made E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, he made Jaws, that’s insane.’ When I met him, he was just so human.” She interrupts her own train of thought to correct herself, “Actually I met his dog before I met him. Steven shook my hand, he said, ‘You must be Rachel,’ I said, ‘That’s me, sir. It’s such an honour,’ and we actually hit it off right away. He’s my master-apprentice, my creative sponsor, and he continues to be that to this day. I’m so grateful to have him in my life.”
What sets Spielberg’s iteration of West Side Story apart from previous adaptations is the precedence of being as ethnically accurate as possible to the plotline; a multiracial neighbourhood in New York, one gang Puerto Rican, one white American. Portraying a faithful narrative was integral to Zegler, documenting a female character with her own sense of agency and representing her Colombian-American heritage. “María has the ability to say no to things that her brother tells her to do. She wants to think for herself which is huge for someone who is so young, but also huge in such a big piece of film history that so many people are going to consume. They’re going to see a Latina turn to someone who she views as an authority figure and say, ‘I think you’re wrong. And I’m going to do this my way.’”
(LEFT AND RIGHT) Full look by DIOR
(LEFT AND RIGHT) Full look by DIOR
“It’s so important for young people to see themselves represented,” she continues. “On screen, we consume so much content, especially nowadays, and we don’t even realise how affected we are by the content that we are consuming. When you think about it in a very real way, kids seeing themselves on screen in West Side Story, just being able to look up and say, ‘She kind of looks like me. She kind of talks like me and acts like me’ – that is going to be so huge for the next generation of filmmakers, the next generation of artists and creators in any medium of art. They’ll know that their dreams are not far-fetched, that there is a place for them in this industry, and that we are working very hard to make that space, to open those doors because the only way we can do it is if people in a higher place of privilege are able to open those doors for us. And then we can just keep that train going.”
She takes a moment to reflect on her own experiences and what she saw on screen growing up. “I can’t say I remember too much about ever feeling like I was being accurately represented, and that’s why this is very important to me, especially because I want to be the person that I needed when I was younger.”
“I want to be the Disney princess that looks like a bunch of little girls all over the world, I want that so badly. And the fact that I’ve been given that opportunity is something that I don’t take lightly.” Zegler is referring to her next starring role, one she impressively landed before her debut performance is out, as Snow White in the live-action remake Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs alongside Gal Gadot – rumoured for release in 2023. But despite the film’s early stages, its intentions are already certain. “In the same way that María has a say in the ongoing events in her life, Snow White is very similar. Marc Webb, our director, has really hammered this home for me. This Disney Princess isn’t just waiting for her Prince to come. We’re going to do right by the original tale, after all, Snow White is still the first-ever Disney Princess on screen – but it’s time for a bit of a revamp.”
Having played the role of María in her formative years during school, Zegler’s second attempt at capturing the character for Spielberg became her very own personal revamp – a transition from stage to acting behind a camera. “It’s all about subtle body language, you don’t have to move your face so much,” she says, noting the difficulties in the process. “I was being led by the greatest people in the business though, they were constantly assuring me, but also telling me the ways that I could do better.” Zegler is quick to credit those around her, and she constantly reminds her friends to watch a film’s credit roll until the end. “Movies are made by so many incredible people, so many tireless crew members. You have to see all of those incredible people who work much longer than the actors do, who were there two hours before and two hours after. It’s very important to remember that.”
(LEFT AND RIGHT) Full look by DIOR
(LEFT AND RIGHT) Full look by DIOR
Throughout our conversation, it never feels as though Zegler’s meteoric journey up until now, and the incoming flux of fame, is a bedazzling mirage of otherworldliness that she can’t keep up with, nor does she understate its magnitude. Instead, Zegler sits compassionately in the middle, setting her own pace, but embracing her surroundings. Despite the fact this is a woman who has never walked a red carpet before, making her debut at the Met Gala this year. “Yeah, the lights are pretty intense,” she laughs, recalling the experience, before efficiently moving back to what we’re here to talk about. “I’ve also seen the film three times now,” she reflects. “The first time, I was just in pure shock because it had been two years since we made it. Seeing it all felt like a whirlwind of confusion from ‘I can’t remember filming’ to ‘I can’t believe that’s what I look like.’” She flickers from disbelief back to determination again, “but it gets very distracting watching yourself back. I get very in my head and I don’t feel like I can do my job properly if I do that.”
After discussing how West Side Story is more “a celebration of Latin joy – a rare piece of joy” than a “tragedy”, we get onto what the future holds for the actor. “I’m looking forward to sharing more stories on screen, maybe on stage if the timing works out,” she shares. “But I’m also looking forward to being on the other side of the table, hopefully in the future, and being able to usher in a new generation of talent.”
As Zegler graciously exchanges her thanks for the interview as it comes to a close, there was one last thing I wanted to ask her about: her Twitter bio, scribed with the words: ‘Caught in the wave of history.’
“What does this mean?” I ask.
Before she replies, I swear I can almost hear her smiling through the phone.
“It’s a lyric from one of my favourite musicals called Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. The line reads: ‘None of us are great men. We’re just caught in the wave of history, nothing matters. Everything matters. It’s all the same.’ she tells me. “And it’s one of the things that I say to myself when I can’t control what’s going on. We have to change with the times and adapt because we will become history – that’s something that I keep reminding myself of. I see the film as the credits start to roll on and remember that some people are going to watch this for years and years to come. It’s immortalised on film. It’s a daunting thing to realise that you’re going to be perceived by so many people for so long. But it’s also an incredible thing. What are we doing with our time here on Earth that may be immortalised for the rest of history? Shout out to Dave Malloy, who wrote that lyric. It’s a source of comfort for me and a reminder of how important our job is. Not only to provide entertainment and make small steps but to make leaps for mankind every single day, waking from the cocoon of homogeneity and marginalisation and giving voices to everyone.”