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West Side Story's Rachel Zegler Dishes On The Intense Audition Process To Play Maria

2021 saw the release of Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story," an updated adaptation of the 1957 play of the same name. Following the best picture-winning 1961 version, this latest recreation tells the story of a pair of youths who fall in love. The only problem with their romance is that the two are from feuding New York street gangs. While the film didn't excel at the box office, only making $76 million on a $100 million budget (via CNBC), it managed to impress critics, with some even claiming that the film surpasses the quality of the original film adaptation (via Rotten Tomatoes). 

Similarly, it dominated the awards season, racking up seven hearty Oscar nominations, including best picture. Among the seven nominations, only one ultimately brought home the gold; Ariana DeBose's bombastic supporting performance as Anita earned her the same award won by Rita Moreno, the actress who played the same character in the 1961 film (via IMDb).

But while most discussing the film have deservedly showered praise on DeBose, it's difficult to forget the effort put in by the other amazing cast members too, one of them being Rachel Zegler, who plays the lead role of Maria. This was not only the first time an actual Latina person played the role (via Vanity Fair), but it was also Zegler's first ever film role — so you know, no pressure. Equally impressive as her performance on screen is what it took for Zegler to get the coveted part.

Zegler's audition process went on longer than expected

In an interview with BuzzFeed, Rachel Zegler was asked about the process of getting the role of Maria in a sea of 30,000 actresses. The young performer quickly provided a boldly honest answer about her experience. "The process was extremely long and very stressful," she replied. "I auditioned for about two and a half weeks shy of a year, which is not very common in things like this. I went in for the team about five or six times before I actually got the part. But I was basically in auditions from January of 2018 to January of 2019."

In another interview on The Graham Norton Show, the actress, who was only 16 when a friend sent her news of the audition, explained that she endured numerous screen and chemistry tests during this lengthy period. In fact, Zegler didn't even meet director Steven Spielberg until six months into the audition process. After learning that she had secured the part, Zegler was understandably excited, but also admitted one concern –- that she wouldn't be able to perform as Princess Fiona in her high school's senior year performance of "Shrek: The Musical."

Thankfully, Spielberg was willing to allow it, and the wait was more than worth it as Zegler proved herself a formidable singing, dancing, and acting talent. Luckily, after all of her hard work, the seasoned director remains proud to have had her on board. "She got to step into our family," Spielberg said in an interview with Collider. "She was greeted and was a part of it and will always be a part of it."