Aspiring starlets used to sidle up to the counter at Schrafft’s in the hopes of getting discovered. These days, they get cozy with their iPhones’ front-facing cameras. A brief clip filmed on her phone was what ended up propelling one New Jersey teenager to the kind of overnight success that feels like a throwback amid a Hollywood landscape peopled with celebrity children and the TikTok-famous. It was the first time Rachel Zegler had ever done a self-tape; the casting agent politely asked if she might be able to submit a version with slightly better lighting.
The part Zegler was auditioning for—Maria in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic reimagining of the classic musical West Side Story—wasn’t just a plum role for a newbie. It had the po- tential to reinvent the iconic heroine for this charged moment. But when she sang “Me Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”), from the show’s bilingual Broadway revival in 2009, into that tiny lens, she couldn’t have imagined what would unfurl from there. Once the news that she’d aced a nationwide casting call hit the trades, Zegler’s family members were inundated with phone calls. She remembers “these random people being like, ‘Can we get the inside scoop on Rachel?’ And they were like, ‘What the hell? No.’ ” Her school hallways filled up with whispers about “the girl who got the movie,” she says. “I was one of those people who had decided that I was going to survive high school and not love it,” and the attention made her want to “stuff my head in my locker and not come out.” (“My principal was like, ‘You can come into my office whenever you need to just take a deep breath,’ because it was really overwhelming,” she adds.)
That said, other than a heart-stopping meeting with Stephen Sondheim, Zegler seems to be handling the spotlight with aplomb. (“I lost my mind,” she says of meeting the composer. “I just sank to my knees next to him instinctually. He said, ‘I’ve heard you sing on YouTube. You’re like a nightingale.’ And I was like, ‘Shut up. Fully, no, absolutely not.’ ”) When she Zooms in from Atlanta, where she’s filming Shazam! Fury of the Gods, her energy falls somewhere between bubbly theater kid and staid English major. Given the level of research and analysis she brings to our interview, she might as well be getting a degree in West Side Story, with minors in Shakespeare, Roman poetry, and urban planning. She’s eager to discuss the way the 1957 musical touches on many 2021-appropriate themes, from gentrification to racism. She parses Tony Kushner’s updated script, which she calls “the star of this film,” and which sheds more light on the feud between the rival gangs, since “in Romeo and Juliet—or even in Pyramus and Thisbe, if you want to go all the way back—we don’t know why they’re fighting.” She gives a rundown on the way that San Juan Hill, a largely Puerto Rican enclave in the West 50s and 60s at the time the story took place, was razed to make way for Lincoln Center. “It was destroyed for something that was made for the gringos to enjoy.” And she cites the fact that in this film adaptation, unlike the 1961 movie, the Latinx characters are all played by Latinx actors. “There’s a sense of pride,” the half-Colombian Zegler says, in “having so many incredible Latine performers in this movie—people who are from all over—because it’s a real testament to the fact that we all come from so many different places. That’s the point of the story, that we are all coming from our own backgrounds, our own conversations, our own upbringings. And what do we bring to the table if we can’t talk to each other about it?”
Maria isn’t the only iconic character Zegler is set to portray. She can’t say much about her mystery part in Shazam!, but it’s been reported to be a key role. All she’ll reveal is that the cast, which includes Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren, “is the greatest cast of all time. I’ve never had such a loving group of people, ever. I feel I’ve become dependent on them for my happiness, which is going to be really tough when we wrap it up.” And, appropriately enough for a girl who grew up wanting to be a Disney princess, she will be playing Disney’s live-action Snow White. She recently returned from what she joked on Instagram was a “character research” excursion to Disney World. “I got to sit outside the wishing well just for a second and take it all in,” she says with relish.
When her Snow White casting was announced, she received some racist hate on social media, and tweeted (and quickly deleted) in response, “Yes, I am Snow White. No, I am not bleaching my skin for the role.” Did the vitriol make her want to stuff her head in the proverbial locker again? Not a chance. “These are a bunch of faceless people that you’ll never encounter in your real life. They will never have the gall to come up to you at a Starbucks and say, ‘You’re not white enough to play Snow White,’ ” she says. “I’ve got a responsibility for young people in the future, who [can] say, ‘This Latina was able to play Snow White—I can do anything.’ ”▪
Hair by Clay Hawkins for Oribe; Makeup by Nina Park for Chanel Beauty; produced by Jonathan Bossle at Tightrope Production.
This article appears in the December/January 2021 issue of ELLE.
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