A longtime singer and dancer from Puerto Rico, Ana Isabelle has been doing more acting in recent years, and she scored a plum role in Steven Spielberg’s new movie version of West Side Story.
Ana Isabelle, whose full name is Ana Isabel Acevedo Avilés, is playing Rosalia, one of the Shark Girls. In the 1961 film version of West Side Story, the part was played by Suzie Kaye, who was very much not Puerto Rican, but Ana Isabelle was excited to participate in a project with much better representation. The actress participates in the new movie’s versions of several of the film’s iconic musical numbers, like “America” and “I Feel Pretty”:
We spoke with Ana Isabelle in early December on her visit to Philadelphia about the film, how she got cast in it, and her experiences working with the two famous “Steves” on the film: Director Steven Spielberg and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who passed away just two weeks before the film’s release.
Tell us a little about your character in the film.
My character is Rosalia. She’s Anita and Maria’s best friend, and she’s a Puerto Rican, and she loves to have fun, and be there for her friend.
What was the process of your being cast in this film?
Oh my God, so long. It lasted seven months, I sent like four self-tapes, I went in person in Puerto Rico once, and I went back in person in front of the creative team in Puerto Rico. Then, I got a call back to meet Steven in New York and then, I got the role.
It was long, it was nerve-wracking, and it was so special. I grew up so much in the process, and I was grateful to be a part of it.
Was the movie film entirely before the pandemic?
What was the process like, just waiting for it to come out for all that time?
You got your hopes up, you have this excitement, and then all of a sudden, everything shuts down, and this is happening in the world. So many people are suffering. You come from like shooting the best film and being surrounded with an amazing cast, and with incredible people, and all of sudden you’re locked down in your house, and you’re thinking over and over about this.
And you know the expectation and the anxiety of, when is it gonna come out? Is it gonna be good? People are gonna love it. We think we created a masterpiece, but we don’t know what’s gonna happen with the audience. There’s a lot of thinking, and a lot of waiting, anxiously. But in the end, I think it’s paying off. It’s going to be worth the wait, and it’s already been really good.
Seeing people like you saying [you] love it, is really the best reward.
Was West Side Story important to you before, whether the original movie or past stage productions of it? Has it been something that was important to you in the past?
It was since I was a little girl. Because growing up in Puerto Rico, I didn’t have a lot of role models, on the big screen, in Hollywood specifically. Only Rita Moreno. It was a story that I could see people like me, portrayed there. I was like, I can have hope, I can also be a Hollywood star. And directors are thinking about people like me, and talking about them, and creating stories for us. So yeah, it was really important and I also got the opportunity to play Anita, in a production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
I’m from Minneapolis originally.
Oh yea? So you know the Guthrie? I love the Guthrie. Actually, our production of West Side Story was the #1 play they’ve ever [had]… it was so successful that it sold out completely. We made history there.
I know the original movie didn’t exactly place a priority on placing Puerto Rican people in Puerto Rican roles. So was that something that was important to you, with the new movie?
Of course. That’s why, when I was auditioning for it, I wasn’t expecting anything, I just wanted to be part of this film, I just wanted to be one of those voices in any way. That was my mindset all the time. I just wanted to change history, and feel I was being part of something special, and we were creating something that was already magical, but now in a better way.
Do you have a favorite song in the show?
I love “America” and “I Feel Pretty,” those are my favorite two songs.
And you’re in both of those, right?
Yes. But not because… I’m happy that I’m in both of them. Because “America” is the song that tells so much about the mentality of Puerto Ricans sometimes. Because it’s real, sometimes we feel that we need to go out to have a better life, because in Puerto Rico sometimes possibilities are limited. That’s why I live in New York, because I’m trying to find a bigger dream. But at the same time, I’m proud to be Puerto Rican. So I love the battle in that song, and “I Feel Pretty,” because you know, we women, we need a song for ourselves, and to be able to say “I Feel Pretty” and feel good about it.
So a big part of the film was the set, the way [the filmmakers] sort of rebuilt the Upper West Side, circa the 1950s. I’ve been on those couple blocks, and I’m going to New York this weekend, and I’m going to be right there. They just made it look really real, though I’m not sure where they filmed those scenes. What was it like being on that set? Did it feel like a real New York City street?
The production team, the crew- wow. They asked some of the neighbors in I think it was Harlem, 113th, and Lenox, where we were shooting, one of the scenes for “America.” They literally asked all the neighbors in the area to move, for a day or two, or a week. They put them in a hotel, they created these buildings, they put up a façade of like 1957 buildings.
Every detail was like wait, where are we? We’re walking in modern New York, and we’re entering a new world of 1957.
How was Spielberg to work with?
Awesome. So fun. He’s approachable, he’s a kid, he loves to play. And that’s what actors do, you know, we play. And especially triple threats, like all of us. We love to have fun and play, and we need to be stress-free, and he creates an ambiance for people to be free in, and to actually enjoy what they’re doing. And that’s why you’re gonna love our cast in the film so much because we’re all free and happy and enjoying.
I should ask about Stephen Sondheim, who of course just passed away a couple of weeks ago, who wrote the lyrics for the original West Side Story. Was he around much? Did you get to meet him?
Yep, I got to sing for him actually. I got to our rehearsal one day and Jeanine Tesori, the music producer, came to me and Ilda Mason and Ariana and she’s like “I need the three of you to be ready because this afternoon, Stephen Sondheim is coming, and we need to sing him “America.” We’re working on the lyrics, [screenwriter] Tony Kushner’s gonna be there, so today you’re not going to be doing what everyone else is doing, because we’re rehearsing harmonies and the lyrics and who’s going to sing what.
So I was like, “okay, act normal, act normal, act normal….” So that happened. And then he was in the recording studio with us as well. He was actually with Steven in a special room when we were recording. But he was there giving his notes, like “I like this better, I don’t like…” and we were also — it was a collaborating process, and we were giving some ideas, like “I feel like this feels disrespectful for us, but how do you say that to Stephen Sondheim? Can we say this better?”
But he was really cool, it’s such a big loss for our community.