Refinery29: Celebrities on Rita Moreno’s level know how to navigate questions about their lives, but you got her to open up about some very painful and difficult experiences. How did you get past that training?Mariem Pérez Riera: “She was willing to open herself, but I think because she’s so used to being in front of the camera, she knows what to say and what not to say. In order to dig deeper, I would tell her my stories. I was going through a divorce when I interviewed her, and so would share things with her, and that allowed her to open up as well. For all the difficult subjects, that’s what I did, I asked her through my experience.
"Boyhood." Richard Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Samantha because she was always singing and dancing around the house and wanted to be in his movies. At about the third or fourth year of filming, she lost interest and asked for her character to be killed off. Linklater refused, saying it was too violent for what he was planning (Lorelei eventually regained her enthusiasm and continued with the project).
“We interviewed her for three different days. The first day, I just went through the basics — movies, shows. And because we were following her for so long, and the team behind the camera was mostly Puerto Rican, and we would talk in Spanish most of the time, I think that made her feel more comfortable because it reminded her of being in Puerto Rico when she was a little girl. The last interview was the tough one, the one where we asked everything I hadn’t asked before. She didn’t even wear eyelashes that day because she was worried that she was going to cry.”
"Into The Wild." The temperature outdoors was at freezing when Emile Hirsch performed the naked back float down the stream.
Were there any questions that you were hesitant to ask?“About her marriage, yes. ‘Was she relieved [when it ended after the death of her husband]?’ And she was so kind to answer. That was one of the toughest questions. There are others that aren’t in the documentary, about her little brother that she never saw again [after leaving Puerto Rico]. That’s one of the toughest things that she has gone through. She talks about it in the beginning, but that’s it.”Her description of her sexual assault by her agent when she was a young actress is absolutely devastating to watch. What was it like to be in the room when she talked about that?
"The Shawshank Redemption." When Andy goes to the library to begin work as Brooks' assistant and Brooks' crow, Jake, is squawking, Tim Robbins had to time his line, "Hey, Jake. Where's Brooks?" so that the crow wouldn't squawk over him, since the bird could not be trained to squawk on cue. Robbins was able to adapt to this and time his line perfectly by learning the bird's squawking patterns, for which Writer and Director Frank Darabont praised him. Robbins' improvisation is noticeable, as he watches the bird carefully while approaching it, waiting for it to squawk, and doesn't begin his line until after it does so.
“It was tough to ask that question, but I had to. She talks about it a little bit in her book, but she was open to go into details.The fact that she went into detail about it makes it an even stronger statement. There’s a moment in West Side Storywhere it’s implied that she’s about to be raped by the whole gang, and she told us how that moment was very tough for her, and she started crying. I asked her why, and that’s how we got into that question.” She also talks about her toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and how the fight that we see in 1968’s The Night of the Following Daywas actually very real.“Those are real moments. That’s part of what I think is cool about this movie, is now we see the scene in a different perspective. Now we have the backstory of what happened. Also, when she won her Oscar, she had gone through trying to die by suicide just months before. [When you know that,] then you understand, Oh, maybe that’s why she isn’t even able to speak to the audience. It’s because she’s still insecure inside.”
Actor Richard Gere's middle name is Tiffany.
One scene from the documentary that stuck with me is when we see her without her wig, before she has her on-set makeup. That’s an aspect of the Hollywood experience we don’t usually get to witness.
"Halloween." The Michael Myers face mask in Halloween is just a Captain Kirk/William Shatner face mask. They spray-painted the face white, teased out the hair, and reshaped the eye holes.
“That was difficult for her team. They didn’t necessarily want her to be seen without a wig. And every day we were hoping that it would happen, and that day she allowed us to see her putting the wig on, and that was a precious moment. Until that day, her team kept telling us, ‘It’s okay without makeup, not without a wig.’ They were very cautious of what to show and what not to because she’s a star. I think that’s one of the most amazing moments in the movie.”
The documentary interrogates the idea of Moreno as a symbol of the American Dream, asking instead what she might have achieved if she didn’t have all these obstacles in her way. Was that always your intention going in?“I live in Los Angeles but I’m from Puerto Rico, and my son came here when he was only 8 years old. The American Dream is not always happy, it’s a real struggle, and it was important to show that. Hector Elizondo says it [in the movie]: ‘To me the American Dream is only having opportunity. Everything else is on your own.’ The American Dream is not just her winning awards and coming from a poor life to stardom in this beautiful house in Berkley. It’s a lot of fights and a lot of struggles.”
"Les Misérables." Hugh Jackman lost considerable weight and went 36 hours without water, causing him to lose water weight around his eyes and cheeks, giving him the gaunt appearance of a prisoner. He also grew a real scraggly beard for scenes of Valjean as a prisoner, though mercifully they were shot first in production and he could shave and return to his usual weight for scenes playing Valjean as a wealthy man. '
Moreno is a producer on the upcoming reboot of West Side Story, but your movie gets into the more controversial aspects of the original, especially in its stereotypical representation of Puerto Ricans. What relationship did you have with West Side Story?“When I saw the film, I was very young, and I don’t think I saw it with that in mind. I was watching the movie with the first Puerto Rican actress to win an Oscar. It wasn’t until later that I realized: Wait. She’s saying ‘Puerto Rico, let it sink back in the ocean.’ That’s tough. Why?Actually when we were making the documentary, they were holding auditions in Puerto Rico for the new movie. And I told Rita, ‘Do you know there are a lot of Puerto Ricans who don’t like the movie because of what it represents?’ They even had a panel in Puerto Rico with actors and professors from the university and Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner. I think it’s great she’s part of the executives of this movie, because we were able to let her know what Puerto Ricans felt.”Has Moreno seen or reacted to the film at all?“Yes, she saw it once. Her reaction was really nice, because after, she said: “Oh wow, now I understand why so many women think I’m a trailblazer.” It wasn’t until she saw the film that she [realized] how important she is to many women like me.”.Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, will hit theaters later this year, followed by a national airing on PBS' American Masters.
Sandra Bullock won the Oscar and the Golden Raspberry (for worst film) in the same weekend. She collected both.