Ariana DeBose on Hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Queer Readings of ‘West Side Story’

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After a decade of working hard on Broadway, Ariana DeBose is enjoying her time in the limelight. Tonight, she hosts “Saturday Night Live,” a major accomplishment for a newly famous actor.

For playing Anita in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story,” the 30-year-old took home the Golden Globe for supporting actress on Sunday. She is also nominated for a Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award, and looks to have a good shot at this year’s Oscars.

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“It’s wild! Because I have been working [for a long time]. This experience makes me feel as if I’ve been hiding away on Broadway,” DeBose told Variety after receiving her SAG nomination on Wednesday. “But I haven’t been hiding! I was just working, doing my thing.”

“Doing her thing” has included her 2011 Broadway debut as Nautica in “Bring it On: The Musical” and performing as the Bullet in the original ensemble of “Hamilton,” among several other stage roles. Her turn as Disco Donna, the teen and 20-something version of Donna Summer in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” earned her a Tony nomination for featured actress in 2018.

Along with a short-lived run on “So You Think You Can Dance,” DeBose’s screen credits include playing Alyssa Greene in Ryan Murphy’s musical “The Prom” and Emma Tate on the Apple TV Plus comedy “Schmigadoon!” And up next, she’ll appear in Matthew Vaughn’s spy film “Argyle” and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s sci-fi thriller “I.S.S.” But “West Side Story” is undoubtedly her breakout role.

“To have the opportunity to create work like this, to play this iconic role, to work with Steven Spielberg and our incredible creative team, and then to have the work received in this way, it’s more than I ever thought I would actually achieve,” she said. “It is wildly overwhelming and wonderful.”

“West Side Story” gave DeBose big shoes to fill, given that Anita in the original 1961 film was played by the beloved EGOT winner Rita Moreno. Moreno also appears in Spielberg’s film — this time as Valentina, a reimagined version of the original character Doc — but so far hasn’t received much awards love.

“I think Rita’s work in our film is some of the best work she’s ever done. It’s one of those performances that fits right next to her Anita for me. So while I’m disappointed that she’s not next to me side-by-side, I just hope that I can represent her, as well as myself, in a beautiful way,” DeBose said of the snub. “And our film. I’m really, really honored to have the chance to represent our film in this way. And I just love her to bits.”

On the bright side, DeBose is celebrating her nomination by running monologues and sketches at 30 Rock. “Honestly, I am entrenched in ‘Saturday Night Live’ prep. That is my version of celebrating. Which is a boatload of hard work, but a lot of fun,” she said. “And ultimately, I’m doing what I love, which is being absolutely, ridiculously stupid.”

She’s also continued to find fun ways into “West Side Story,” even after its premiere.

“I mean, I’m a fan fiction kind of gal. I’m sure there are alternate universes where Tony and Riff were a thing,” she said about queer readings of the film that have circulated the internet. “I’ve even heard some folks that are like, ‘Anita and Riff!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s hilarious.’ But I think that in the ways of re-imagination, go for it. In our particular telling of the story, these characters are a little more of what we just naturally see. There’s the bromance, and then there’s the hetero couple. But I’m all for imagination. I’ll put it that way. And who knows, maybe if the story had ended differently, they would have come into their identities at a later time.”

When asked what she wishes she had more chances to speak about, DeBose said, “Most people don’t ask me about the dancing, which I find so interesting. I speak dance better than I speak English. I’m someone who has fought very hard to be taken seriously as an actor. But I also believe, in the same breath, that dance is one of the things in my toolkit as an actor. I think that’s part of my mission, to bring dance to film in a different way so we can have different conversations about how dance can actually be a really beautiful method of storytelling, and you can get to know a person through their movement.”

She added that her favorite dance numbers weren’t even ones she was part of — she admired Justin Peck’s choreography for the Jets, and especially the song “Cool,” which she calls “some of the best cinematic storytelling through dance [she’s] ever seen.”

“One of these days, maybe I’ll get into [choreographing my own work], too. Who knows?” she added. “Also, nobody asked me where I was when I found out I won a Golden Globe. And I was at home, wearing sweaty gym clothes.”

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