NEW YORK — Rita Moreno emigrated with her mother from Puerto Rico at age five. By six, she was dancing at Greenwich Village nightclubs. By 16, she was working full time. By 20, she was in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
In the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” Norman Lear says: “I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met in the business who lived the American dream more than Rita Moreno.”
In the decades that followed, Moreno won a Tony, a Grammy, an Emmy and an Oscar, for “West Side Story.” (Her entire acceptance speech: “I can’t believe it.” ) With seemingly infinite spiritedness, she has epitomized the best of show business while also being a victim to its cruelties. That has made Moreno, who co-stars in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story” remake, a heroic figure to Latinos, and to others. “I have never given up,” she said in a recent interview by Zoom from her home in Berkeley, California.
The reason for the conversation was Mariem Pérez Riera’s intimate and invigorating documentary, which opens in theaters Friday after playing virtually at the Sundance Film Festival and in an outdoor premiere at the Tribeca Festival.
Moreno was forthright in an interview with The Associated Press while occasionally reaching for a tissue for springtime allergies. “All that cocaine,” the 89-year-old joked.
AP: What struck me most watching the film is that despite going through what would defeat or embitter most, you seem to have emerged with such joy and appreciation for life.
MORENO: I have a very strong constitution. Maybe you inherit it. Maybe it’s due to learning how to cope with my tumultuous life through psychotherapy. I really credit that for helping me through some really, really bad times. I have a feeling that a lot of people who are outliers have strong constitutions because it’s either sink or swim, right? And I think you learn early on in life that swimming is preferable to sinking.
AP: How early did you learn that?
MORENO: The first test, I think, was learning English in kindergarten when I didn’t know a word, not a word. I think the reason I ending up having such a hard time in life is that I ran into a racial bias very early on. When you’re young — I mean 5, 6, 7 — and people call you bad names, you believe these things. You believe that you’re not worthy. You don’t know why, but you know that there’s something wrong with you.
AP: Your life seems to be this long process of unlearning the wrong things you were told about yourself.
MORENO: What a wonderful way to put it. You’re absolutely on the money. I had to learn that I was a person of value like all other people.
AP: I don’t imagine you do, but do you have any regrets?
MORENO: I’ve done pretty well, considering. And I think I’ve left an important legacy in a very, very meaningful sense and that is: That I have never gave up. I have never given up. I just cling and hang on to what is important to me. A great deal of that has to do with self-respect and earning respect.