How 'West Side Story' Lead Rachel Zegler Stumbled Into Hollywood Stardom

Broadway’s always been her dream. "I always equate success to my Broadway debut. But it has to be the right thing," she told Drew Gasparini on his podcast, "Now We're Talking."

Newly named a part of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list,

Rachel Zegler is quickly becoming one of Hollywood's most influential young artists. But to hear her tell it, Zegler's rise has been purely accidental. She was a regular high school student preparing for college when she was plucked from her final months of senior year to star in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” The film, out in theaters Dec. 10, marks her first professional job.

“This is really weird and overwhelming isn't it? I think it’s only weird and overwhelming because it’s the first,” Zegler told Inside Edition.

Zegler's film debut in “West Side Story,” will be followed by the upcoming “Shazam! Fury of the Gods" and Disney’s Live Action “Snow White,” a role she has been preparing for since she was a preteen.

Broadway’s always been her dream. "I always equate success to my Broadway debut. But it has to be the right thing," she told Drew Gasparini on his podcast, "Now We're Talking."

As fate would have it, Hollywood called first.

“I actually didn't consider it my new path until halfway through the filming process when I decided that what I wanted to do, at least for now, was film,” Zegler said. “[Steven Spielberg] was very aware of my love of live theater and so, I think, is the rest of the world. When it came to making the movie, I fell in love with the process and the idea of doing things over and over again until I felt comfortable with my performance. I do miss the instant gratification of performing live on stage. That's what makes the premiere so exciting.”

Zegler's perspective and patience was put to the test when she had to wait a year more than anticipated, all while staying at her childhood home, for the premiere of her feature film debut. "West Side Story" was supposed to be released in December 2020, but due to COVID-19, those plans needed to be reworked.

Where It All Began 

Zegler's love for Broadway began when she saw "Beauty and the Beast" when she was 4. She got her start in musical theater with the New Jersey's Theater League of Clifton when she was 12, making her debut on stage in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

That was when she decided to make performing her career. A few years later in 2015, as a 14-year-old full-fledged musical theater fan, Zegler ventured to New York City to attend the Broadway Flea Market. She somehow wound up singing with Broadway actor Chris McCarrell. The video went viral within the Broadway community.

McCarrell later tweeted, “If I could put my money on one youngin' being a full blown star it's honestly @rachelzegler. I just like to put these things down for later.”

Zegler continued singing and acting -- and even played Maria in a community theater production of “West Side Story” at 16 years old. Little did she know that only six months later, everything would change.

A Miracle Would Happen

Auditions for “West Side Story” began in January 2018. Zegler's friend suggested she submit a tape through an open casting call posted on Twitter.

“I sat down with a horrendous haircut, and I sang ‘I feel Pretty’ in Spanish...it was embarrassing, but they saw it,” she said in “West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film,” by Laurent Bouzereau, a new book for sale. “They emailed me about two weeks later, asking me to send in another tape singing ‘Somewhere’ and to read some of the sides from Tony Kushner’s incredible script.”

Out of 30,000 women and girls who submitted for the role, 16-year-old Zegler was the clear standout. Months later, Zegler was called in for a four-day workshop. “It was terrifying because I was I was also studying for my finals at the same time,” she said to Bouzereau.

Like many teens, Zegler spent her free time on YouTube, posting cover songs from her bathroom in Clifton. People flocked to her channel to listen to the latest interpretations of her favorite artists and musical theater albums. She also posted a lot on Twitter, including once in 2018 writing in part, "Spielberg still plays a huge part in my artistic journey."

That same year, in December Zegler posted video on Twitter singing Shallow from Lady Gaga’s “A Star Is Born” from her school’s auditorium. It went viral and to all who watched, it was clear Zegler had a voice that was destined for more.

One year and eight or nine callbacks and screen tests later, Steven Spielberg offered Zegler the coveted role of Maria on Jan. 9, 2019. “I will never forget this terrifying and amazing day— having my final callback, finding out from Steven in person with our casting director and Ansel (and his bleach blonde hair) standing next to me. what a wild ride it’s been,” she posted on Twitter on the one year anniversary of that moment.

Recalling that moment, Zegler joked that she exclaimed something profane and then asked if she could still perform in her final high school musical at Immaculate Conception High School in Lodi, New Jersey.

She was playing Fiona, the lead, in “Shrek,” a show with music by Jeanine Tesori, who happened to be the vocal coach of the “West Side Story” film.

“She knew so much when she was so young,” Tesori told Inside Edition Digital on opening night of “Caroline, Or Change," of which she composed the music. ”She was 17 and had something already in her. All that had to be done was untap it."

And it was clear at one of Zegler's performances as Fiona in "Shrek" in 2019 that she was already a star. The applause and cheers that she received were rapturous, both in the middle of her rendition of "I Know t's Today," and after she met fans who waited at the stage door for an autograph. There, she seemed as if she had been at this forever, taking selfies and chatting with her fans.

For Here You Are

Rehearsals for “West Side Story” began as soon as “Shrek” wrapped. She missed her senior prom, as months of pre-production was underway. Zegler had turned 18 by the time cameras started rolling in the summer of 2019. She also deferred her college enrollment at Montclair State University for the fall of 2019.

Getting to play Maria is a proud moment for Zegler, who is Columbian American. The original 1961 movie starred Natalie Wood, whose singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Spielberg and screenplay writer Tony Kushner wanted Latinos to portray the Puerto Rican characters in the film. The casting choice stood in stark contrast to the original movie, where Rita Moreno was the only Latino in the film.

“The original film is the pinnacle O.G. of the musical movie. It will always stand as a timeless classic. However, there is no comparison. I am the first Latina to play Maria on screen," Zegler explained to Inside Edition. "I did my own singing and I was in love with the ideas that Tony Kushner brought to the table when it came to the character of Maria Vasquez. She's so much more multi-dimensional. She has a lot more agency. She's strong-minded, she's strong-willed. There are elements that I think a lot of people won't be expecting."

To say the set and production was star-studded would be an understatement. One of Zegler's favorite days on set was when Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita on Broadway in 1957, visited the set. Another day, Bradley Cooper stopped by.

Before singing on camera, Zegler warmed up her voice to "Phantom of the Opera." She cried after her first take, when Bruce Springsteen came to watch her film “I Feel Pretty” in Newark, New Jersey. There was another moment during production when Springsteen and former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama came to watch a recording session with the New York Philharmonic.

What Was Just a World Is a Star

As Zegler continues to book incredible roles, she’s been vocal about manifesting a part in a “Star Wars” film and wanting to do a movie with Oscar Isaac. And she’s still eyeing a Broadway debut.

She’s previously auditioned for “School or Rock," “Hamilton" and even the 2020 revival of "West Side Story." But ultimately, she wants it to be an original role, being that “person who burns Broadway down and builds a role from the ground up,” she's said in previous interviews.

She was part of a presentation for the Broadway-bound “The Notebook” musical during the pandemic, which will make its world premiere in Chicago in July 2022. Casting has not yet been announced.

As Zegler steps into fame, she also has experienced the pressures and expectations of what comes with the territory: red carpets like those at the Met Gala, big-time TV interviews and a growing social media presence, which she views as both a pro and a con.

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“Social media is great but it’s also fake. And behind those screens is a real person with real feelings,” Zegler said. She’s posted publicly numerous times about the importance maintaining her mental health.

“People don't hold grace for the fact that there's a spotlight that puts you somewhat against your will when people usher you into this world in this industry that tends to chew people up and spit them back out again," she said. "I talk about it very candidly because that's the reality and I don't think a lot of people realize it.

"So if I can bring light to that, then I'm a happy girl.”

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