Zoe Saldana In Center Stage inspired Ariana DeBose as a child

As a young dancer growing up in North Carolina, “West Side Story” star Ariana DeBose didn’t have a plethora of pop culture role models she could look up to. “There are plenty of examples of white lived experiences. There just weren’t many with my specific lived experience,” said DeBose, who identifies as Afro-Latina. “There weren’t a ton of examples I could turn to to see myself reflected in the work.”

One film that had an impact on her was “Center Stage,” the beloved 2000 cult classic about twenty dancers competing in a ruthless New York ballet school. Making her big-screen debut, Zoe Saldaña played one such dancer, a rebellious girl from Boston destined for prima ballerina stardom. “Seeing a beautiful, melancholic queen doing ballet and doing it beautifully, doing it well — that had a big influence on my childhood,” DeBose, 31, told TheWrap. “The journey (of Saldaña) is something that I could only have worked and hoped for (as a child). She has charted a path that many of us only hope for and dream of – until where I am right now.

“That Moment” is, of course, the Oscar nomination for “West Side Story” that capped a whirlwind awards season for DeBose that seemingly began shortly after Steven Spielberg called out “Cut!” on the final blow. Early buzz for DeBose’s electrifying turn as Anita — the role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar in the 1961 original — gave way to near-universal critical praise, dozens of awards and finally , a nod to the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. After a decade of acclaimed work on the New York stage (and before that, competing on “So You Think You Can Dance”), the Tony-nominated triple threat is entering a new phase of her Hollywood career.

“Doing ‘West Side Story’ was so different from working on Broadway, so it was nice to have the opportunity to discuss it and celebrate all the great work (that has) come out this year,” DeBose said, adding with a laugh, “Honestly, it’s been great for my social calendar.”

Here’s what else she had to say about her “West Side Story” experience and what’s next for her.

On what she herself, 18, who was among the 20 finalists of “So you think you can dancewould make his Oscar nomination
“I think she’d be thrilled and she’d also be like, ‘What happened? You were going to be a backup dancer!’ [Laughs] But I think she would be happy to have learned to sing, because at the time she was not a great singer. And I think, honestly, if she knew she would end up where she is sitting right now, she would breathe a little easier.

Learning from Rita Moreno, who plays a new character in “West Side Story,” Valentina
If you’re sharing the space with Rita Moreno and your eyes are wide open and your ears are perfectly tuned, it’s impossible not to learn from this person. She is 90 years old, she has lived such a life. And as she talks about some of her experiences as a purely Puerto Rican woman, sometimes she just thinks to herself, “No, I’m a woman.” I am a woman in this industry. I am continually inspired by his generosity and his chutzpah. She says what she thinks. If she has nothing to say, she doesn’t say it. She has something to say, of course. And I really like that because there’s a simplicity to it. And you also always know where you stand with her. She lets you know one way or another.

On mentoring co-star Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria
“She was 18 when we were making this film. I was 28 and it was, for me, about making space for her to have her process and also being a source of support if she needed it. It’s a role that I’ve never really had the opportunity to play. Most of the time, especially in my experiences on Broadway, I feel like I’ve been the framed person. Charlotte d’Amboise did it for me. Adrian Warren did it for me. LaChanze did it for me. Whereas it was an opportunity for me to potentially do this for Rachel.

“I always protect her. She joins the ranks of talents like Drew Barrymore. Any young actor who enters this industry in this way, in this iconic way, introduced by an epic director of the caliber of Spielberg, you are thrust into the limelight. It changes your life and sometimes we don’t always have the grace to allow young people to make mistakes in this time we live in, the age of social media and instant gratification and cancel culture.

On the difference between stage and film work
“Working on Broadway, let’s say you have a nine-month contract and you’re going to have that many months of rehearsals, and then you’re going to get into tech and previews. And then you open the show, then you run the show and you do eight shows a week, and sometimes the hours are grueling. And then once you’re running the show, you have to maintain your body. It’s a different kind of endurance, making a movie. It’s the same tools in an actor’s toolbox, but you use them in a different way. I like to compare filmmaking to interval training. You go, like, what? A level two? And then you reach a level seven, then you come back to level two.While working on Broadway, it’s a marathon.

On his next films, the sci-fi drama “ISS” and the spy thriller “Argylle”. (She was also just cast in the Spider-Man spin-off “Kraven the Hunter”)
“’ISS’ is directed by Gabriella Cowperthwaite. She brought you ‘Blackfish’ and ‘Our Friend’. She’s a great director and I had a wonderful time working with her. And I play a part in “Argylle” by Matthew Vaughn. It’s an incredible cast, led by Bryce Dallas Howard and [dramatically] Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. I did a scene with Catherine O’Hara and I pinched myself. Both of these activities were great opportunities for me to stretch, challenge myself, and do something different. I don’t sing or dance in any of these movies. We shot these before “West Side Story” was released to the masses and I said, “Well, let me take these opportunities while I have them!” [Laughs]