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Why Ariana DeBose said 'no' to Steven Spielberg when auditioning for ‘West Side Story'

The Oscar-nominee was already juggling a lead role in a Broadway show when she was asked to audition for Anita in the new "West Side Story."

Stage and screen star Ariana DeBose is racking up accolades for her performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg's new "West Side Story" — but in an interview with Sunday TODAY's Willie Geist, the veteran actor revealed that she said "no" to auditioning at first.

DeBose joined Geist for a Sunday Sitdown at Bond 45 — a restaurant in New York City — where she talked about the unlikely conversation she had with Spielberg. DeBose, who has performed in six Broadway shows — including "Hamilton" — was starring in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" when she was first approached about the role.

"Our incredible casting director called and was like, 'Just come in, just come in' (to audition)," DeBose recalled. "I've since learned that I apparently turned down this audition four times ... But, you know, I was also in a Broadway show. I had a show to keep alive, you guys."

Ariana DeBose with Willie Geist
Ariana DeBose with Willie GeistNathan Congleton / NBC

DeBose said that she did agree to come, even though it meant nearly an hour of commuting for an early-morning audition after a late night leading "Summer." Because of the tight schedule, DeBose was worried she wouldn't be properly prepared. She offered to come in the next morning for a brief audition, but asked for more time to properly prepare, since she would need to show off her singing, dancing and acting skills.

"I (understand) that as a woman of color, when you walk into a room like that, you better be prepared," DeBose, who is Afro-Latina, explained. "And if you're not, that's a missed opportunity ... because we get so few opportunities, you can't afford to not present well or represent yourself well. It's just not something you can do."

Related: Why an Oscar win for ‘West Side Story’ star Ariana DeBose could be an exceptionally big deal

The casting director accepted those conditions, DeBose said, and invited her to come anyway. While she knew the audition was for "West Side Story," she had no idea that the film's acclaimed director would be in the room.

"She was like, 'Don't worry about it, I got your back,' and then I got there and discovered that (Spielberg) was actually on the premises and very much a part of the audition," DeBose said.

"Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals & Curtain Call
Ariana DeBose starred in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" on Broadway in 2018.Jim Spellman / WireImage

DeBose got through the singing and dancing part of her audition easily, but when she was asked to read a scene, she told Spielberg to his face she wouldn't be completing that part of the audition.

"He asked me if I would read, and I just said, 'Nope. No, sir,'" DeBose recalled, laughing. "He looked at me like I had five heads. ... He said 'You're not gonna read?' And Cindy Tolan, our casting director, came in and was like, 'We spoke about Ariana, she’s starring in a show, she just needs a little more time to be truly prepared.' And he said, 'So you’re not going to read?' And I said, 'No,' again. And he's like 'But will you come back?' And I said 'I'd be honored.'"

DeBose said that the moment took courage, but it felt important to her to get the audition right — and when she finally did audition, she landed the part. At first, she wasn't intimidated by the idea of taking on such a classic and beloved musical theater role, but as filming began, she received plenty of comparisons to star Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for playing Anita in the original 1961 film.

DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story."Niko Tavernise

"When we were making the movie, we would have some set visitors who would be like 'You're amazing, and also, Rita Moreno is always going to be my favorite Anita,'" DeBose laughed. "... You take it in stride. That's the thing, when you're reimagining an iconic character, you have to acknowledge that there is an entire generation of people (for) whom my predecessor, the great, iconic Rita Moreno, will always be their Anita."

While DeBose said she got used to grappling with fan expectations, she did find herself star-struck when she first shared the set with Moreno, who played a new role in the 2021 film.

"I had a full-blown panic attack and I hid under the bleachers," DeBose said. "It was fine. We laugh about it now. On the day, though, I was so horribly embarrassed and couldn't believe that was my reaction."

Through it all, though, DeBose said Moreno, 90, served as a mentor and companion who effortlessly passed the torch on to a new generation.

"I'm very grateful to have someone like Rita on my side," DeBose said. "She's been as supportive as she possibly could have been ... I've said it many times, I think sometimes generational relationships, especially between women, can be challenging, and she really came to the table and was supportive."

West Side Story Los Angeles Premiere
DeBose with Rita Moreno at the Los Angeles premiere of "West Side Story" in Dec. 2021.Charley Gallay / Getty Images for 20th Century St

Since the movie was released in December 2021, praise has been lavished on DeBose and her performance. She has been nominated for a BAFTA, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Academy Award, and recently took home the Golden Globe for best supporting actress. In addition to the awards, she hosted "Saturday Night Live" in January 2022.

DeBose said that the widespread acclaim has been "wild."

"It's something I threw energy at for such a long time," DeBose said. "I rooted for all of these folks, many of whom I've now had the opportunity to work with, and that's even crazier to me, but it's thrilling. I don't quite know what to do with it. But whatever happens, whatever I do with (success), I just hope it's good."