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Legend of stage and screen Rita Moreno discusses mental health, representation

| Friday, February 22, 2019

Legendary actress and political activist Rita Moreno gave a talk at Leighton Concert Hall on Thursday, discussing the obstacles faced and joys experienced in her more than 70 years in the entertainment industry.

Moreno said when her career first began at the age of 17, she was plagued by stereotypes and was often typecast into a range of narrow, repetitive and degrading roles.

“I was playing a lot of roles in films that I didn’t especially like,” Moreno said. “We were constantly playing oversexed girls who were ignorant, who couldn’t read.”

Moreno quickly grew frustrated by the lack of diversity in show business at the time and that the fact that she was a Puerto Rican drastically limited the number and kind of roles that were available to her.

“It was very depressing to be constantly playing those parts,” Moreno said. “If you were a Latina, there was just no place for you anywhere.”

Growing up in New York City as the daughter of a Puerto Rican immigrant, Moreno faced a great deal of discrimination during her childhood. This, compounded by the lack of representation and bias in the the film industry, she said, led to mental health problems in her personal life.

“I didn’t have role models then. There were none then — none,” Moreno said. “I grew up thinking that I had no value, that I had no worth.”

These problems eventually led Moreno to start going to therapy, a choice she regards as “the best thing” she ever did for herself. Moreno said the stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the black and Latino communities, is still prevalent today.

“Latinos and the black community also think you have to be crazy to be in therapy, and of course that’s not so, what you want to do is get rid of your craziness,” Moreno said.

Though she faced many trials and tribulations, things started to change for Moreno with her iconic role of Anita in the classic 1961 film “West Side Story,” she said. Moreno spoke at length about the film and the profound influence it had on her. In the character of Anita, Moreno found someone to admire.

“She became my role model,” Moreno said. “She respected herself, she had great feelings about herself and I began to see that I felt that way about myself as well.”

Moreno has had a long and storied career in film and television. She is one of the few people ever to be awarded an “EGOT,” or an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony — four of the entertainment industry’s highest accolades. In addition to “West Side Story,” her career has included hits like a role in the 1970s children’s program “The Electric Company” and the Netflix series “One Day at a Time,” but Moreno said entertainment has never been her only interest. For a long time, she has also been passionate about politics, news, civil rights and other activism.

“What really, really empowered me was when I became a political activist,” Moreno said. “It’s a community service when you’re helping people. It takes you away from all the things that matter to you when you’re an actor or actress, when you’re so self-absorbed. It’s served me very well.”

Another major topic in Moreno’s talk was the upcoming remake of “West Side Story.” The remake is being directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, and Tony Kushner — the playwright who created “Angels in America” — is writing the script. Moreno is set to be an executive producer for the film and will also be playing the role of Valentina, Doc’s widow, in the remake.

“I am so excited that I can barely stand it. I mean, talk about going full circle,” Moreno said.

The remake will not be a modern retelling of the story, however. Still set in 1957, it will feature the original’s classic numbers and original style, but this time, Moreno said, special attention was paid to make sure everyone in the film who is supposed to be Hispanic is played by a Hispanic performance, and that young, talented actors and actresses were selected for those roles.

“[Spielberg and Kushner] decided that they were going to kill themselves finding Hispanic, young actors and actresses to make the movie,” she said. “All of the Sharks are Hispanic, all of them. Young and Hispanic. Maria is 17 and Ansel Elgort is doing Tony, which is kind of pretty fabulous.”

Moreno’s talk ended with a discussion about the state of Hollywood and the film industry today. Moreno said the industry still has a long way to go.

“You still see scripts with a breakdown in the script and it will often say ‘prefer a latino for this’ or ‘prefers a black for this’ or ‘prefer a Chinese person for this,’” she said at a press conference Thursday. “When that stops happening, then you know that you have a really fair kind of system going on.”

Moreno also said during her lecture that she was hopeful about change, saying representation for minorities has improved from when she first started out in the industry. She cited the recent increase of film representation in the black community as an example of how things have changed.

“If nothing else but because the black community has got some great actors and great stars and great movies — I’m so thrilled to death about that, it’s so important,” Moreno said. “Now, we have to get better representation for Latinos, which we don’t have in Hollywood and especially in films. I think we are under-represented.”

In the closing minutes of her talk, Moreno focused on the need to keep pursuing better representation for Latinos and other minorities in the entertainment industry.

“The door is somewhat open, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.

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