'West Side Story' star Rachel Zegler on how she's making role of Maria her own

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During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy, and pride. We are highlighting Latino and Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos, and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.

During a recent trip to Walt Disney World, Rachel Zegler noticed kids of all backgrounds dressed up in Snow White dresses and eager to take a photo with their favorite princess at the park.

Zegler, who will play "Snow White" in Disney's live action remake of the classic animated film, said the opportunity to step into an iconic role is one she "doesn't take lightly." As a Colombian-American, she's also aware of the opportunity she has to make an impact.

"It's supposed to be that little girls, little boys, little folks are able to look at a screen and see someone that represents them in any way possible," Zegler told TODAY. "I'm so excited to take on that part and start working on it so that I can be the person that I wanted (to see) when I was young."

If the name Rachel Zegler doesn't sound familiar yet, that's likely to change when Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" hits theaters in a few months and you see the 20-year-old from New Jersey as María.

WEST SIDE STORY (Niko Tavernise / Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)
WEST SIDE STORY (Niko Tavernise / Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Zegler was a musical theater obsessed high school student when she saw a notice about a casting call and sent in an audition tape, reportedly beating out 30,000 other contenders.

"It's a new take on something that we know so well. I was invited to steer clear of the original performance and to make it my own," Zegler said.

Related: This new version of 'West Side Story' features Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort as Maria and Tony.

The movie was filmed two years ago and was supposed to be released last year until it was pushed back a year with the hope that it could debut in theaters.

Beyond the love story in the film, Zegler said she hopes people can walk away with the core message that there's a place for everyone in this world.

"I really hope that the younger generation takes that with them wherever they go in the future, because we have a lot of cleaning up to do," she said.

While Zegler and her fans have had to wait patiently for her big screen debut, she's attracted an audience on social media, sharing updates about her life, but also speaking out to blast racism and misconceptions about the Latinx community.

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"I think the only way that we can start to dismantle this idea that a lot of people have about people who aren't from this country or people who are descendants from people who aren't from this country is by sharing our own personal experiences," Zegler said. "I love to take the time to tell people things that I have experienced in my own life."

Zegler also said she recognizes her privilege.

"I am very fortunate to have been born here and have that card to play in those situations to say, 'Hey man, I was actually born in Hackensack, New Jersey.' There's a lot of people that don't have that, that card in their back pocket. And that's a privilege that I have, but it's really, really important to me that we get to dispel the ideas people have about immigrants and those who come from immigrants."

Related: “Interestingly, the character of Anita became my role model after all those years," said the Puerto-Rican actress and Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony recipient.

As Zegler gets ready for her Hollywood debut, she said she's optimistic that Hollywood is heading in the right direction when it comes to diversity, but added there's still work to do. One way she hopes that will happen is by "getting more Hispanic and Latino writers in the room."

"I think it really starts in the writer's room. It starts with producers taking the reins and making space for people like us," she said.

Growing up as a Colombian-American girl in New Jersey who loved musical theater, Zegler said she looked up to Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera as role models. But Shakira, who is from Barranquilla, Colombia, the same place as Zegler's family, also held a special place in her heart.

"I was obsessed with her growing up. I'm still obsessed with her now," Zegler said. "It's my dream to one day sing with Shakira!"


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