The CultureMap Interview
Go ahead: Try to sum up your life in 45 minutes or less. Possible?
If so, pretend you've had affairs with mega celebs, that you've single handedly altered Hollywood and that you've garnered almost every show business industry award possible. Add that you're in your 80s and you are still going strong.
Rita Moreno doesn't have to pretend. Those tidbits frame a life that has fascinated the world.
Moreno is the featured guest at a Houston Arts Alliance benefit, set for 6:30 p.m Thursday at Hotel ZaZa. Prior to arriving in the Bayou City, CultureMap chatted with the trailblazer on the phone to learn more about what makes this extraordinary gal tick.
CultureMap: What do you consider to be your big break in show biz?
Rita Moreno: That would have to be my first film. It was called, and I love the title, So Young, So Bad. Soon after that, I was 16, a talent scout saw me perform at a dance school recital in New York City. That's how it happened. But there was a secret kind of racism during that time.
CM: You weren't satisfied with keeping the status quo.
RM: A lot of people in the Latino community called me la pionera — the pioneer. I wasn't willing to accept a part that was one of those stereotypical Conchita Lolitas. But that cost me.
I won an Oscar and I won a Golden Globe for my work in West Side Story and then I didn't get to do anything for seven years. It broke my heart, absolutely broke my heart. That was a horrible time for me.
CM: Have things changed for minority actors?
RM: I am in no position to tell you that. You would have to ask others.
"I wasn't willing to accept a part that was one of those stereotypical Conchita Lolitas. But that cost me."
I made a decision once I won those two wonderful awards that I would not talk with an accent — unless it made perfect sense — or do any of those maiden roles. Ha! I showed them. Of course I'm being sarcastic. I didn't do a movie for seven years. It was a slap in the face from the industry.
CM: You overcame that obstacle.
RM: Yes. One of the reasons is that I do it all. I sing, I dance, I act, I do comedy, I do drama. There aren't many people who do all that, especially nowadays. In my time, there were more people who were well versed in all those skills.
CM: Which of your roles or engagements do you enjoy watching?
RM: I love The Muppets. "Fever" with Animal? I still watch it. I love that skit. I laugh and laugh.
CM: Do any of your roles more closely resembles the real Rita Moreno?
RM: Not necessarily, but that's what being an actor is. An actor is a person who takes on another personality — and that's pretty terrific.
However, the role I'm doing right now for a pilot is part me, part someone else. This is a woman who's a songwriter from the old days of Broadway. The cast is all older actors except for the young woman lead, Natasha Lyonne, who's in Orange Is the New Black. The character I play is close to me in the sense that she's in show business, but she has this notion that she can still dance. But she can't.
She just never gets anything. And has a big mouth. She's gruff. She's always getting into trouble.
CM: About Marlon Brando, you've said in past interviews that your relationship with him drove you to the point of madness. If you could, is there a moment of your relationship you'd want to relive?
RM: Just meeting him and becoming my lover became an extraordinary experience. He was very charismatic. After that our relationship turned horribly tumultuous, maddening, frustrating and heartbreaking. But one of the most electric moments was connecting with him for the first time.
CM: Your upcoming appearance in Houston: What do you have planned?
"You have to do what's important to you. Being in a job that one hates, that must be so tough."
RM: The title of my show is A Life in Words and Music. It's really a biographical kind of piece, but it's not a real autobiography. That would take days. I wanted to do a piece — and I've never done this before — where I could do some songs that followed along what I was talking about in my life. With the help of my manager, we put that together. It's fun, quite funny, it's sad. It's got all kinds of pieces of my life. Maybe I should call it that. Pieces of my life.
It's not chronological. That would take, well, days. This is 45 minutes.
CM: How will you summarize your life in 45 minutes? Is that even possible?
RM: Precisely, you don't. I am going to amuse. I am going to entertain. I am going to help people to come into a life that has been quite interesting. Here I am at 82, and I feel like the Energizer Bunny.
CM: Will you ever retire?
RM: I don't know what the word means. What are you crazy? I do what I love to do. Why on earth would I want to give that up?
I know there are a lot of things that can happen physically when you get into your 80s, but keeping active is a wonderful kind of medication. When you get the brain going, everything else falls into place. You have to do what's important to you. Being in a job that one hates, that must be so tough.
CM: Last time in Houston?
RM: On my god, it must have been 15 years ago. And by the way I love your city. I love the (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) — it's gorgeous.
I was in Houston right around the time I started to do talks. An organization flew me in for a luncheon. They also showed me around the city, which I found to be remarkable.
CM: Fondest memory of your visit?
RM: I remember thinking: What on earth is a Holocaust museum doing in Houston? It made perfect sense when I was told that there was an influx of Jewish people who had survived the Holocaust that lived in Houston. The day I visited the Holocaust Museum, a docent was showing us around, about a group of five.
There was a series of photos of concentration camp prisoners wearing those horrific black and white uniforms. They were pounding stones, building a structure where they would eventually be gassed.
The docent was telling us that the prisoners had to go to the bottom of the quarry, break stones and climb a long way. He was about to tell us how many steps there were when a man in the group told us just how many. We all looked at him as he said, "That's me in the picture."
All of us froze.
Houston Arts Alliance hosts "An Intimate Evening with Rita Moreno" on Thursday, 6:30 p.m., at the Hotel ZaZa. Individual tickets start at $500.