Rita Moreno On 'West Side Story' And Becoming The Role Model She Needed
Moreno moved to New York from Puerto Rico as a child. She says her West Side Story role is "the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Rita Moreno is the subject of a new documentary called "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It." It will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18 and will be broadcast on the PBS "American Masters" series in October. The documentary traces her life from her birth in Puerto Rico in 1931 through her 87th birthday, when she was costarring in the reboot of the Norman Lear sitcom "One Day At A Time." She moved to New York City with her mother in 1936. Rita Moreno is famous for roles as diverse as Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of "West Side Story," an original cast member of the kids' program "The Electric Company" and a tough nun who's a prison psychologist in the brutal HBO prison series "Oz."
After becoming the first Latina to win an Oscar for "West Side Story," she became the first Latinx person to be an EGOT, a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. But for many years earlier in her career, she was pigeonholed in stereotype roles as a Latin spitfire or exotic dancer. She had to speak in an accent, which Moreno does not have, and sometimes had to darken her skin. Casting directors put her in other ethnic roles, too. In "Pagan Love Song," she was Tahitian. In "The Yellow Tomahawk," she was a Native American. In "The King And I," she was one of the Siamese king's young wives.
After her success in "West Side Story," she turned down the roles she thought were offensive or too insignificant, which is why she didn't make another movie for seven years. I'm looking forward to seeing her in the forthcoming Steven Spielberg adaptation of "West Side Story," in which she also serves as an executive producer of the film.
Rita Moreno, it is just a pleasure to have you back on the show. It's funny, the first time we spoke was the 40th anniversary of "West Side Story." And this year is the 50th anniversary of the film.
RITA MORENO: I'm delighted. I'm so happy you want to talk to me (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, thank you. Let's get started. Let's start with a scene from "West Side Story" in which you talk about in the documentary. And I want to play an excerpt of the song "America." But before we do, I want to talk about it. So this is a song in which the Puerto Rican men and women are singing about what they think of Puerto Rico. And the women are kind of saying, hey, America is better. And the men are saying, America really mistreats us. So you asked Stephen Sondheim to change a lyric, a line or two, that was in the Broadway show.
MORENO: OK. That's incorrect. I never asked Stephen Sondheim to change lyric.
GROSS: Oh, I thought you say in the film that you did.
MORENO: Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. I would never have dreamed of doing that at the time. May I relay it to you? Or do you want to start again or what?
GROSS: Yes. No. No, no, no. So tell me what happened. Thank you for correcting me. And tell me what happened.
MORENO: What happened was that I auditioned many times for the role of Anita with my heart in my throat because I hadn't danced in a hundred years, it seemed. And I never really, really thought I would get the part. But I got the part. I was jubilant and thrilled because it's a wonderful part, as you know. And then, just before I signed my contract, I suddenly remembered, to my horror, that the verse to "America" goes like this, (singing) Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases. And it suddenly occurred to me - oh, my God. I can't sing that. I can't sing that like that in that form. I can't do this. I can't do this to my people.
And I want to tell you, I really, really, desperately wanted that part. And I had it. It was in my hands. But then there was this verse. And I was this close to turning it down with breaking heart. And just about that time, I got the new lyrics for the verse of "America," which had been rewritten by Stephen Sondheim at someone's behest. I'm just guessing it was probably Robert Wise or maybe one of our producers who said - you know what? - that's kind of like poison that line. Can't we change it? And apparently, Stephen Sondheim acquiesced, and probably not happily, but I'm not - I can't speak for him. And he changed it to (singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion - let it sink back in the ocean. And that's how Stephen Sondheim saved me from turning down this magnificent role.
GROSS: Wow. So why don't we hear it. And then we'll talk about how that reverberated. So here is my guest, Rita Moreno, kicking off "America."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")
MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion - let it sink back in the ocean.
MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing and the money owing and the sunlight screaming.
GROSS: So that was the beginning of "America" from "West Side Story." And my guest is Rita Moreno, who you heard singing in that and who played Anita. So how did that song resonate among your Puerto Rican friends and family, if you had any family then in the U.S.?
MORENO: Actually, it resonated beautifully. The fact that there was a person playing a Puertorriquena in a huge, successful musical was enough for a lot of Hispanics, not just Puerto Ricans, in this country to be thrilled to pieces. The fact that there were mistakes made and colors confused, nationalities, was almost beyond the point because we were just so glad to be paid attention to for a change. This was, you know, an extraordinary, extraordinary experience in every possible way. And it helped to inform a lot of people who were not Hispanic about what we were about. And that was important and absolutely fabulous. There were people, particularly in Puerto Rico, who were not thrilled because they felt that depicting Puerto Ricans as gang members was offensive and insulting. I think they missed the part about Romeo and Juliet, which I thought...
MORENO: ...I thought was the genius of this. And here we are, you know, many, many, many years later with another addition - edition of this film about to be released in December, by the way, when I will literally, the day before we open, be 90 years old. Woohoo.
GROSS: Oh, wow. What a birthday treat (laughter). So talk about what your feelings were about Puerto Rico at the time you made "West Side Story."
MORENO: I thought that we had been given very short shrift, not just as Puerto Ricans because I - honestly, I don't tend to think that way - but as Latinos, as Hispanics. And what was important about Anita to me - still is - is that Anita, believe it or not, was the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way. I've never had a role model because there was no such thing then, not - certainly not for little Puerto Rican girls like me. So when people asked, you know, did you have a mentor and all of that, I was like, mentor? Me? Moi? Really? No, no, no, no. So it represented a lot of breakthroughs for young actors of Hispanic origin.
GROSS: So your mother and you moved to New York when you were 5, so this would have been 1936. But she didn't take your younger brother, and I don't know what the situation was with your father, but he didn't come either. Why was it just you and your mother?
MORENO: My mom divorced my father, which was kind of a verboten thing in Puerto Rico at the time, a Catholic island. You didn't divorce. You just, you know, grinned and bore it. And she actually divorced him. She had divorce papers. He was a womanizer and not exactly an ideal father or, for that matter, husband. So when that happened, when they divorced, she decided that life in America could be a whole lot better than it was in Puerto Rico.
And she did something extraordinarily brave. She literally at some point - I was then about, I guess, 5, 4 or 5 - she took a ship coming to America and stayed with an aunt in the Bronx, or, as we used to call it, the Bron (ph), and got a job as a seamstress, which was easy to do at that time in New York City, and made enough money to take the ship back to Puerto Rico and pick me up and bring me to America, the idea being, from what I gathered of what she told me, that she would send for the little boy, my brother Francisco, later, which, if you've read the book and all that, you know never happened.
GROSS: And why not?
MORENO: I don't know. I've never understood that. And so I never really asked. I knew that it was something horribly, horribly wrong, and I never asked her. And by the time I was ready to ask her, I felt so sorry for her and that kind of dilemma that I didn't want to be the person who made her miserably unhappy. So it remains a mystery. And I don't know why, but I just - I couldn't confront her with it. I was afraid that I'd open this enormous Pandora's box and that I would never be able to somehow survive it. So I didn't.
GROSS: My guest is Rita Moreno. The new documentary about her will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18 and will be shown on the PBS American Masters series in October. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rita Moreno. She's the subject of the new documentary "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It." It will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18. So when you are still pretty young, you started taking dance lessons in New York. And I think that kind of changed your life. Did you feel like dance was the thing for you, that you had really found what you should be doing?
MORENO: I really did, which is kind of an odd thing to be realizing when you're only 6 (laughter). Yes. But what happened was that a friend of my mom's, Irene Lopez, who was a Spanish dancer, saw me bopping around the apartment in Manhattan. And she said, you know, I think Rosita has a - I think she has a gift for dance. Would you mind if I took her to my dancing teacher and see what he says? And my mom said, no, of course not. I learned very quickly because I loved it. And it was only Spanish dancing. After that, I graduated to tap and ballet and liked that.
GROSS: I think you were 17 when you were dancing and spotted by an MGM talent scout who set up a meeting with Louis B. Mayer from MGM studios. And your mother designed clothes for you 'cause she was a seamstress, and she knew how to make clothes. She designed clothes for you to look like Elizabeth Taylor, who was a young star at the time. What else did you do to look like a young Liz Taylor? And why did you want to present that look for your meeting with Louis B. Mayer?
MORENO: I had loved Elizabeth Taylor before all of this happened, before Louis B. Mayer. It turned out that she was an MGM starlet. I chose her as my role model because she was close to my age. She was beautiful, and she was successful. It was a perfect role model, I thought. And when it came time to meet Mr. Mayer at the Waldorf Astoria - a place I'd never even heard of, neither of us had heard of it - hotel, my mom and I got busy. She made a beautiful little outfit for me with a tiny waist because I got a waist cincher. I don't know if you remember, but Elizabeth Taylor had a wasp waist. And we got that, and we enhanced the top part of me, which was always kind of sad. And we went to meet Louis B. Mayer because of this talent scout.
GROSS: So you go kind of dressed as a Liz Taylor type. He recognizes that and says, oh, she's, like, a Latina Liz Taylor. But you did not get Liz Taylor kind of roles.
MORENO: Hell no. No, no. I got Native girls. I got Pacific Island parts. I got Egyptian girl parts - anything but just acting roles. They were all very specific. They all called for an accent or two that I wasn't even familiar with, so I made up my own accents thinking that that would enhance the parts. They all sounded Puerto Rican, actually.
GROSS: (Laughter) So even as an Egyptian or Native American?
MORENO: Listen; if I was a Pacific Island girl, I would sound like this. I always sounded like this because it's the only accent I understood. And nobody ever said, what are you doing? You know, what the hell is that? Because I would have answered, well, I'm trying to provide, you know, a foundation for this girl, this part. But nobody asked. Nobody cared. It's so odd when I look back.
GROSS: And how often did you have to darken your skin?
MORENO: Oh, constantly. I rarely, rarely ever saw my own color when I did movies. When I first went to MGM, they - I played a Cajun girl from New Orleans. So they actually used my own skin color. But as I got older and had more of a career, I kept getting darker and darker and darker.
GROSS: You know, you are Puerto Rican, and you look the way you look, but that wasn't good enough. When you were playing a Puerto Rican, you had to actually darken your skin to look darker?
MORENO: For "West Side Story," absolutely, sure.
GROSS: Even for "West Side Story," you had to be darker?
MORENO: Oh, that was worse. That was worse. That was like mud. I remember some shots of George Chakiris - who, by the way, is still my dear friend - where he looked like somebody had taken him by the ankles and dipped him in a bucket of mud. It was so thick, and it was so dark that we would - our faces would streak and show our real color underneath. And I remember saying to a makeup man once, I don't know why I have to be this color. You know, I said, this is not my color. And he actually said to me, as he was making me up, What are you racist?
MORENO: Well, talk about nonplussed. I didn't even know what to say to him.
GROSS: So you expected "West Side Story" to change your life. You won an Oscar, but you didn't get another movie role for seven years. How do you explain that?
MORENO: Being Latina. It was the heartbreak of my life because when I won - I won two awards. I won the Oscar and - best featured actress. And I won the Golden Globe, which at the time had a better reputation than it does now. And...
MORENO: God knows. And I thought, well, OK, finally, my career is made. And again, I was disappointed. I really constantly believed everything was going to be good until it wasn't. And it broke my heart. I didn't do a movie for seven years. I was offered a couple of things, like lesser gang movies and some movies portraying the Puerto Rican housewife - you know, the coffee-pourer. But I said, no, no, no, no, now that I have these wonderful awards, I am not going to accept that kind of stuff. And I showed them. I didn't do a movie for seven years.
GROSS: But you did do other things. You did TV. You did theater.
MORENO: I did television, and I did theater, and I did "Summer Stock." And I was busy, yes.
GROSS: My guest is Rita Moreno. The new documentary about her, "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It," will be in theaters nationwide on June 18 and will be broadcast on the PBS American Masters Series October 5. Before we take a short break, here she is singing "Preciosa," which is about how beautiful Puerto Rico is. Moreno says it's like Puerto Rico's national anthem. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOSA")
MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Rita Moreno. She was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York with her mother in 1936 when she was 5. She was signed to MGM when she was still a teenager. But for many years, most of the roles she got were stereotyped ethnic roles - the Latin spitfire, the lovely island girl, the exotic dancer. Her breakthrough was in the 1961 film adaptation of "West Side Story," in which she played Anita. She's an EGOT, the winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. The Emmys were for "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files," the Grammy for Best Recording for Children for her work on "The Electric Company" album, the Oscar for her performance in "West Side Story" and the Tony for her performance in the Terrence McNally play The Ritz. The new documentary about her called "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It" will be in theaters nationwide on June 18 and will be shown on the PBS "American Masters" series October 5. It will be streaming after that.
So you know, you've talked about having to deal with sexual harassment in Hollywood. And you were dealing with this in your early years in Hollywood at a time when people did not talk about it in public or maybe even to each other. I wouldn't know. But just like a couple of examples - you were at - this was, like, one party. You were introduced to Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios. And he made a crude, sexual remark about what he'd like to do with you. And then the wealthy host of the party asked to dance with you and started turning the dance into something far more sexual than a dance. And that's just, like, one night at a party. Your agent raped you. And you stayed with your agent because you thought he was the only person who was trying to help you. Were you able to talk about this with anybody?
MORENO: No. No. Never. Never. Never. I never - in fact, the very first time I spoke about it was when I did the documentary.
MORENO: Yeah. I did mention - I mentioned it in my book also, my biography. But it's heartbreaking. But, yes, I - by the way, I ran into this man, this agent, about five years ago in Palm Springs because it turned out he had booked me in a concert that I was going to do there. And I saw his face. And I thought, oh, my God. It's him. And you know what he told me without being asked?
MORENO: He said, I'm sorry I didn't make you pregnant because that was the whole idea.
GROSS: What? I was thinking you were going to say he apologized.
GROSS: Oh, wow.
MORENO: What does that tell you? He said, my idea was to make you pregnant. And then you would be beholden to me forever.
GROSS: Wow. What did you say to him?
MORENO: Nothing because I was speechless. I was absolutely speechless. I just said, excuse me. And I left the room. I couldn't - I was dumbstruck. What do you say? You cur. You bastard. You know, you son of a b****. What do you say?
GROSS: Fool, you idiot. Yeah.
MORENO: How dare you?
MORENO: Yeah. No. I didn't. You know what? I'm glad I didn't because that would have probably opened a lot of - too many doors.
GROSS: So you didn't say anything about it publicly until your memoir, and then in this new documentary.
GROSS: Was the #MeToo movement liberating for you - to hear other women talking about the kind of thing you experienced but you could never talk about?
MORENO: You know, that's a wonderful question because here's where I was when Bella Abzug, for instance - remember Bella Abzug?
GROSS: Yes, I do.
MORENO: And Gloria Steinem were very - you know, were just starting to make some serious names for themselves. And I remember, because of my upbringing, being so embarrassed by their behavior.
MORENO: Can you - yes. I thought Bella was - I thought, oh, my God. She's giving women a bad name. This is terrible. I was not political at all at the time. And, obviously, I never felt that women had the right to speak up like that. I didn't understand it. And I thought, she is so aggressive. Well, she was. And she was difficult to take in some ways. But she was speaking her mind. It absolutely escaped me for the longest time that these women had a very good reason for speaking up. So the #MeToo movement now, you know, more recently is the most wonderful thing that's ever happened as far as I'm concerned.
GROSS: Is that part of why you felt comfortable speaking out yourself?
MORENO: I'm trying to make it clear that it's the way I was raised. It's the way I was brought up. Ladies don't behave that way. My mom brought me up think - understanding that men were the top thing in the whole world. You had to listen to them. You had to respect them. And you had to do what they wanted you to do.
GROSS: Wait a minute. But she left her husband (laughter). She divorced him and left the country.
MORENO: Oh, you wanted me to make sense? I was a neurotic person.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
MORENO: That's what led me into psychotherapy - thank God because that's the best thing I ever did for myself ever, ever, ever. And you know who sent me into psychotherapy...
GROSS: Marlon Brando.
MORENO: ...The other loony. Yes, one loony telling the other that they need help.
GROSS: Well, you know, this fits into right what we're talking about because you describe him as being, like, you know, very controlling. And you say something so funny about him. You say, you know the feeling when you love somebody, like, so much that you can hardly breathe?
GROSS: That's how Marlon felt about himself.
MORENO: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: So where's the room for you in that equation? If he's so in love with himself, how much love did he have for anyone else?
MORENO: I didn't see him that way at all. I saw him as a person who was very strong. I had a very warped and twisted notion of what a real man was like. To me, that was Marlon. He was it. He was the king of movies and the king of everything. And we had - on top of that, we had an extraordinary sexual relationship. So that kind of helped.
GROSS: It's interesting to hear that because you always wonder when somebody is as sexual on screen as they are - like, what are they like in real life? So I guess he measured up to (laughter) his screen image. Would you say Elvis did not, by the way, because you dated him briefly?
MORENO: No. Well, I dated Elvis to make Marlon jealous. So for a short while there, I had the two kings of different things - royalty, show business royalty. And it was to make Marlon jealous, really. And he was a sweet fellow. He was very simple, and he was boring, Elvis.
GROSS: My guest is Rita Moreno. The new documentary about her will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18 and will be shown on the PBS "American Masters" series in October. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rita Moreno. She's the subject of the new documentary "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It." It will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18.
Did your relationship with Brando discourage you from standing up for yourself, or did you learn to stand up for yourself seeing - because you needed to in a relationship with somebody so strong?
MORENO: My relationship with Marlon depended on what was happening at my therapist's, my psychotherapist's. He would be very helpful, and then I would succumb to Marlon's charms and go back to him for the, you know, 20th time. And it was a very - the only thing that really stopped it, and that was my intention at the time, was my attempted suicide. I couldn't take being humiliated anymore, and I found that I was my own worst enemy. So it was my intention - the objective of this attempted suicide was to get rid of this relationship.
GROSS: So when you were revived and treated, what was your reaction when you found that you were alive?
MORENO: I knew I would never try that again. I absolutely knew I would never, ever try such a thing again. It's so against my nature. And the - my doctor said to me - my therapist - he said, you can never, ever, ever see Marlon again because the next time you may not be as lucky.
GROSS: You know what I'm wondering? Brando had a social consciousness - right? - which was...
MORENO: He did.
GROSS: ...He was public about. But did he have a social consciousness about women?
MORENO: Not at all. Not at all. Women were vaginas...
GROSS: To be blunt (laughter).
MORENO: ...And breasts. But really, Rita, how do you feel?
GROSS: Yeah. Tell us what you really think (laughter). So when you were in a relationship with him, it was - was it the 1960s or...
MORENO: Oh, yes. Yes, yes. Because we were at the march on Washington together along with the other people.
GROSS: So it might have been before the real revival of the women's movement caught on.
MORENO: For sure. It was way - yes, it was way before that, way before that.
GROSS: I'm thinking, like, you maybe didn't really have the language to talk to yourself or to him.
MORENO: I didn't have the language, and I didn't understand. I really not only didn't have the language, I had such a poor image of myself. I really was one of the most self-loathing people I have ever met. I didn't - never thought I was pretty. I never thought I was good at anything. When you're a child and you are told often enough that you have no value, that you're not worthy, because you're a child and tender-hearted, you believe it. You don't understand why you're like that, why you're such an unworthy person, but you accept it.
GROSS: Who was telling you that?
MORENO: Oh, the neighborhood, the kids calling me spic, all of that stuff happened early, early in my life. And I didn't share it with my mom, but that's how I grew up. So what happens is that from childhood, I had this twisted notion of who and what I was, and it was not something I could discuss with my mother. Don't ask me why, but I couldn't because I guess instinctively I felt that it wasn't anything she could do about it. But when you grow up believing those things about yourself, it takes an enormously long time to get rid of those feelings permanently.
GROSS: Do you feel that Hollywood gave you that message, too, of insignificance, like...
MORENO: Oh, they reinforced it over and over and over and over. Absolutely.
GROSS: You know, one of the things we were really popular on was "The Electric Company." You were an original cast member. You had characters that you did that became very popular. Did you find that children who grew up with that just grew up loving you and carry that over into adulthood, that that really made a powerful impression on them?
MORENO: Absolutely. To this day when I walk sometimes - just recently I walked into a restaurant where you had to pass the bar first. And one guy said, hey, you guys.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's one of your catchphrases. Yeah.
MORENO: And I think, yes. And I thought, oh, that is so sweet. I love that. I just love that. I have lots of fans from that time in my life, loads of them. And, you know, I always saw "The Electric Company" as a community service on my part. I really did. I thought, I can do some good. I'm going to do some good. And I was rarely in a position where I could do some good, or so I thought, so that doing "The Electric Company" gave me enormous satisfaction. And I really, really work very, very hard. But it was absolutely worth it. It was such a wonderful, wonderful experiment.
GROSS: My guest is Rita Moreno. The new documentary about her will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18 and will be shown on the PBS "American Masters" series in October. It's called "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "WEST SIDE STORY OVERTURE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rita Moreno. She's the subject of the new documentary "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It," which will premiere in theaters nationwide on June 18.
So we've talked a little bit about your relationship with Marlon Brando. You met your late husband, Lenny, who - I think you met him at a party. And he was a doctor. And people in the documentary, in the American Masters documentary, talk about you both as having been, like, a great couple and how wonderful you were together. And then it cuts to you saying that you looked good together, you acted good together, but that you were just playing the role. And you say he was sincere; I wasn't. He's a person who just took over until the day that I wanted to grow up in our relationship, and it wasn't working. Did the marriage feel like a performance to you?
MORENO: What a good question. Wow. No, because I loved him. I really did love him. But what happened was - here's what happens when you - sometimes people make contracts with each other that are never verbalized or spoken. In my case, it was - I'll be a wonderful little girl and amuse you and make you happy if you will be my daddy and my protector and take care of me. That's what our contract really was. And the day that I decided I wanted to start growing up is when the marriage got into trouble. And I was unhappy for a very, very, very long time.
GROSS: What changed in you that made you want to be an adult in the relationship and not have him be daddy?
MORENO: I wanted him to stop controlling me. And it got to the point, really, where I thought, I have to leave this marriage, but didn't know how. And I begged him so many times, please let us both go to see a counselor, a marriage counselor. And he wouldn't do it.
GROSS: You've said that after your husband died, you gave yourself - you gave the needy person inside you permission to leave. Can you talk a little bit more about what that meant?
MORENO: When it all ended, I came back here to LA, and I literally sat in the patio of my beautiful home, and I asked my girlfriend to pour me a big glass of wine, and I sat there so relieved. And I remember thinking, well, what kind of piece of work are you? Relieved, really? You're not grieving? And I realized that I didn't miss being told what to do constantly, without any reprimands or suggestions or sidelong glances. It was astonishing to me. This is not so long ago.
GROSS: How long ago?
MORENO: He died about 11, 12 years ago.
GROSS: How do you think you changed when you were on your own afterwards?
MORENO: I blossomed. I absolutely blossomed. I'm a person whose biggest hobby is laughing, truly. I love laughter. I love humor. I love being raucous, which is one of the things that really annoyed my husband. He called it my show-business self. And all of that was now up for grabs. I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could be what I felt I wanted to be, what I needed to be. And it was grand.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about a role that I really loved you in, and this was in the HBO series "Oz." And Oz was short for Oswald State Correctional Facility, and the premise of the series is that there's a kind of idealistic prison warden who wants to make this, you know, a - like, a model prison.
MORENO: An experiment.
GROSS: An experiment. And, of course, absolutely everything that could go wrong goes wrong. And there's, like, killers and, like, neo-Nazis inside. And there - you know, there's some really brutal scenes. And you play a nun who is, like, a psychologist and who has to set up the conjugal visits for the men. So you're often dealing with, like, sexual issues. And you are, like, so tough and so kind of great with the - like, the retorts and the sarcasm. And there's, like, this humorous edge to you. And you're - I don't know. It's a terrific performance, and I hadn't seen you in a role quite like that before.
MORENO: Nobody ever had.
GROSS: How did you get the part?
MORENO: Tom Fontana, whom I'm going to visit when I go to New York to premiere the documentary. Tom Fontana, who was also a partner to Barry Levinson.
GROSS: They created the series.
MORENO: He created the series, actually, this one on his own.
GROSS: Tell me what you drew on for that role.
MORENO: Nothing whatsoever. I went there a virgin. I went to "Oz" a complete nun virgin because I had no frame of reference whatever. Tom Fontana's sister is a nun, Charlene. And he was kind of basing - yeah, he was kind of basing the character on her. And she's a woman who consults with prisoners and does therapy with prisoners, that kind of thing. In fact, I really hit him on the head with a rolled-up newspaper once. I said, damn it, your sister dresses better than Sister Pete.
MORENO: What's going on here? But we are very dear and close friends.
Anyway, it was my idea for her to fall in love or get a crush on the Chris Meloni part, the sexual predator. And Tom just loved the idea 'cause it's so perverse. What I said to him was - at the end of the first season, I said, what if Sister Pete were to get a crush on an older prisoner - I didn't think of Chris Meloni - an older prisoner. And we can deal with the sexual wants and needs and fantasy of a religious person. And he said, oh, God, I love that. OK, great.
GROSS: What impact did that series have on your career?
MORENO: I got - I couldn't work. Everybody kept saying, oh, well, you know, have you seen what she looks like? She looks like she's a wreck. And I could not get employed. So I took - because, you know, the lighting was deliberately harsh. And I remember I was up for some big movie. And the producer said, oh, my God, no, she's just so battered. No, no, no, I don't want her for the part. And I found out about this. And I started going to parties that I didn't want to go to just to show people that I was really looking OK.
GROSS: I don't even understand that because I love the way you look in the series. I mean, you're, like, a tough cookie in it. And I don't know. I think you look great. I don't - there's a certain kind of Hollywood...
MORENO: Not Hollywood - I did not look Hollywood great.
GROSS: But Hollywood great is so false-looking so much of the time.
MORENO: We know that. We know that, my dear. We all know that. But it's not the way it works.
MORENO: So I literally was going around attending, you know, like, the openings of envelopes, as they say, just so people could say, oh, hey, doesn't she look good? Because I've always looked good for my age. It's my genes.
GROSS: Speaking of your age, like you're 89 now. You'll be 90...
GROSS: ...In December. Have your priorities changed? Has what you want out of your life changed?
MORENO: Yes, I think so. I think the priorities have changed in the sense that something else has taken the position of profound importance, and that's my daughter and my grandsons. I'm ever, ever so much closer to them than I ever was. I always was anyway. Family is very important to me, but I realize that they are everything to me. And I love being with them, and I love taking them places. And I love - I'm taking my grandson, Justin, who's 22, to Puerto Rico, where we are premiering the documentary, my homeland.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
MORENO: He is so excited. And, you know, that's what I'm able to do now. And that's what really, really means the most to me.
GROSS: Well, that's lovely.
MORENO: It is lovely. It's a nice way to end this conversation.
GROSS: Rita Moreno, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
MORENO: Well, you know, you're the one who asks the great questions, who thinks of all the great stuff. And you're someone I've always wanted to talk to. And it thrills me to pieces that you think I'm swell.
GROSS: I think you're swell.
MORENO: It's lovely to meet you, and thank you again.
GROSS: Rita Moreno is the subject of the new documentary "Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It." It will open in theaters June 18 and will be shown on the PBS "American Masters" series October 5.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, a medical story involving the kissing bug. It sucks blood from its victim and can lead to a devastating disease. My guest will be Daisy Hernandez, whose new book is a history of this disease. Charles Darwin may have had it. In the 1940s, the disease was the subject of an unethical experiment similar to the Tuskegee experiment. The book is also a personal story about growing up in New Jersey in an immigrant family, including her aunt who contracted the disease in Colombia. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY SANABRIA'S "PROLOGUE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY SANABRIA'S "PROLOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.