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Ariana DeBose on the joy and pain of playing Anita in ‘West Side Story’

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Ariana DeBose on the joy and pain of playing Anita in ‘West Side Story’

What makes Anita of “West Side Story” so iconic? “She’s a beacon of self-respect and agency. She speaks her mind. Those kinds of characters were typically described as ‘difficult women,’” says Ariana DeBose. You get the sense that playing the part came somewhat easily for her. “It wasn’t a stretch,” says the actress, flashing the smile that dazzled Keegan-Michael Key’s character in “Schmigadoon!,” and Jo Ellen Pellman’s Emma in “The Prom.” 

Today I’ve caught her on Zoom, wrapped in a charcoal-colored linen bathrobe, her short hair tousled, blue-blocking glasses on. This is the calm before the storm of premieres kicks up.

Gown, $9,890 at Oscar de la Renta, 772 Madison Ave.; 14-k gold earrings with turquoise and emeralds, $2,950 at Mateo
Ramona Rosales

Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated take on the classic, 1950s-set musical, with a new screenplay by Tony Kushner, is finally here. Shooting wrapped in 2019, but you know how these things go in the pandemic era. The 30-year-old DeBose steps into the role Rita Moreno played in the 1961 movie, as the girlfriend of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo, and friend to his sister, the lovelorn Maria. Moreno won an Oscar — the first Latina ever to do so. DeBose has big shoes to fill, and you don’t doubt that she will. As the queer actress wrote in a Pride-themed essay, several years before she’d get the role: “My brown, singin’, dancin’, lady-lovin’ ass is AMERICA and I am so proud of who I am, what I stand for, and all I’ve accomplished so far.” Could there be a better performer to literally belt out “America”?

Still, the journey wasn’t without its bumps: DeBose shot the film while nursing a sprained ankle, injured while just “being human,” she says. “I was in pre-production, and I jumped up to hug someone, and twisted my ankle. Man, it was so random.” But the consummate Broadway professional soldiered on. She looks back particularly fondly on shooting the “Dance at the Gym” number: “One of the only times you really see all the Sharks and the Jets together in one scene,” she says. “It was five or six days of sweaty, dancing bliss.” She remembers kicking back with her foot up on a break, surveying the surreal landscape of a massive Spielberg set: “You’ve got Steve in the corner in Video Village, sneaking a Pop-Tart, and then you’ve got the Shark girls having a conversation over there, and the Shark boys and the Jet boys had this ball they would kick around. It was like this really cool, very expensive, awesome summer camp vibe.” 

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Dress, $5,990 at Michael Kors Collection, 790 Madison Ave.; Three-star garland earstud with diamonds, $2,100 at Maria Tash; “Joan’s” 18-k yellow- and white-gold ring with diamonds $8,250 at Established Jewelery
Ramona Rosales

She’s proud of what this version achieves, especially its new curiosity for the realities surrounding the Sharks. “It gives the audience an opportunity to fall in love with this Puerto Rican community and shows what was actually going on for these people at the time, which is something I think productions in the past kind of skimmed over,” she says. “I think the film does a really beautiful job of allowing that conversation to be had.”

When she got to set, “I had such a clear vision of the character,” DeBose says. “I really wanted to try and explore how the audience could witness Anita’s joy, and at the same time get a good look at how hideous and hurtful her lived experience could have been, and probably was, for darker-skinned Latinas of the time.” This is one of several ways in which her Anita will be unique: “I’m a black woman. That’s the biggest difference between Rita Moreno and me.”

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Jacket, $1,595, and pants, $895, both at Aliette NY; 18-k yellow-gold and platinum chain necklace, $14,030 at Prasi; “Gemma” bobby pins with Swarovski crystals, $82 each at Jennifer Behr; “Maravilla Joli” pumps, $1,795 at Christian Louboutin
Ramona Rosales

Moreno’s also in the new movie, playing a sage older character named Valentina. How could she not be? The film legend raved to us about DeBose: “Boy oh boy, I think she’s just great. She’s a fabulous dancer. I think Steven Spielberg’s most inspired idea was to find this marvelous, talented Afro-Latina. That’s one thing I couldn’t offer as Anita — the color of my skin.”

It’s her biggest part yet, but DeBose has had a busy last few years. “Schmigadoon!,” the Apple TV+ love letter to drama geeks, showcased her theatrical chops alongside fellow stage actors such as Aaron Tveit and Kristin Chenoweth. “The Prom” put her firmly on the YA map. She’s been on the rise since 2009, when she appeared on “So You Think You Can Dance” and made it into the top 20. A trained dancer, she branched into theater acting and made her debut in 2011’s “Bring It On: The Musical,” going on to garner a Tony nomination for the title role in 2018’s “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” 

Cardigan, bralette and skirt, all price upon request at Louis Vuitton, 1 E. 57th St.; 14-k gold earrings with blue topaz and baroque pearls, $700 at MateoNewYork.com
Cardigan, bralette and skirt, all price upon request at Louis Vuitton, 1 E. 57th St.; 14-k gold earrings with blue topaz and baroque pearls, $700 at Mateo
Ramona Rosales

But DeBose may still be best known for her role in “Hamilton” as the Bullet, the curl-topped character who augurs death for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton. DeBose was in the off-Broadway production, and continued on with the show to Broadway.

Mystifyingly, the Tony-nominated actress was never invited to audition for the 2020 Broadway revival of … you guessed it, “West Side Story.” But given the way things worked out, DeBose — who was cast in Spielberg’s movie shortly afterward — is pretty sanguine about the slight. “I think everything happens for a reason,” she says. “That was not my blessing. That was somebody else’s blessing. And you know, I was really happy to see the two productions exist in the same time period. That’s a testament to the power of the piece.”

Pullover, $3,200, pants, $3,550 and suspenders, $2,850, all at Chanel, 15 E. 57th St.; “Stars and Pearls” earrings, $925, and RV “Bouquet Strass” slingbacks, $1,995, both at Roger Vivier, 750 Madison Ave.; Rings, from $750 to $1,850 at BernardJames.com
Pullover, $3,200, pants, $3,550 and suspenders, $2,850, all at Chanel, 15 E. 57th St.; “Stars and Pearls” earrings, $925, and RV “Bouquet Strass” slingbacks, $1,995, both at Roger Vivier , 750 Madison Ave.; Rings, from $750 to $1,850 at Bernard James
Ramona Rosales

DeBose is a New Yorker now, but she grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of a white mother and an Afro-Latino dad. “I grew up in a very white community,” she says. “Doesn’t make me any less Latina, doesn’t make me any less black.” She’s proud to be from the South, although she’s also quick to call it out. “I choose to identify as a Southerner. I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t love that we have plantations, and that slavery was rampant.” 

She came out to her supportive mother when she was 13, and has been open about her sexuality throughout her years in the spotlight, even giving an interview to Playbill in 2015 with her then-girlfriend, Broadway props master Jill Johnson. (The two have since split.) Her home state is not always friendly to the LGBTQ community. “There are parts of North Carolina I would not walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand,” DeBose says. “But then, there are parts of New York where I wouldn’t do that. They have that everywhere.

From left, Ilda Mason as Luz, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Ana Isabelle as Rosalia in “West Side Story.”
AP

“Can I get a vaccine for prejudice and oppression and racism?” she yells into the ether. “That would be awesome!”

She thinks back to the movies and shows she grew up with, and how “leading characters have been synonymous with whiteness for a long time. That was just a fact.” One of her favorites is “The First Wives Club” and she loves “The Golden Girls.” “I watched ‘Frasier’ as a kid. A weird kid … There was no one I saw who looks like me. I’m very grateful that my mother instilled a powerful work ethic in me. And my grandmother was also incredibly influential in my life. They both taught me to follow my dreams and that I could be successful if I worked really hard.”

She gives props to the A-list women of color working to change the ratio in the industry. “Thank God for people like Regina King and Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay and Kerry Washington. Women starting their own production companies, telling their own stories. It’s really important.”

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Dress, $1,500 at The Blonds, 917-388-2173; “Bouquet Strass” micro earrings, $325 at Roger Vivier; “Trio” 18-k yellow-gold ring with diamonds, $8,995, and “Joan’s” 18-k yellow- and white-gold ring with diamonds $8,250, similar styles at Established Jewelery
Ramona Rosales

DeBose hints at her own plans along those lines: “I’m excited to share them when the time is right.” Meanwhile, she’s got designs on playing all manner of characters, queer and cis. Will Hollywood be onboard with this? “I don’t feel like I’m in Queer Purgatory, by any stretch of the mind, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I think people are waiting to see what happens with ‘West Side Story.’”

For an actress who wants all the options, Alexa provided a wardrobe to match. “For the shoot,” she says, “it wasn’t just one type of dress. There were so many things. Which I thought was a fun concept, given who I am: I’m a big ol’ trail mix.”

“Laetitia” dress, $3,600, similar styles at TheAttico.com; “Maravilla Joli” pumps, $1,795 at ChristianLouboutin.com; “Linear Confetti” 50MM earring, $588, “Petite Cluster Linear” 50MM earring,$688 both at GraceLee.com
“Laetitia” dress, $3,600, similar styles at The Attico; “Maravilla Joli” pumps, $1,795 at Christian Louboutin; “Linear Confetti” 50MM earring, $588, “Petite Cluster Linear” 50MM earring, $688 both at Grace Lee
Ramona Rosales

She still wonders what, exactly, queer and BIPOC actors have to do to get Hollywood to give them leading roles. And she’s going to keep bringing it up with the people who can make it happen. “I think if you were to ask Steven Spielberg about me, he’d say, ‘She’ll tell you what she thinks!’” she says. “I’ll say it with respect, but I’ll tell you what I think.”

Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Photo Editor: Jessica Hober; Fashion Assistant: Sean Rodriguez; Hair: Mitchell Ramazon using Oribe; Makeup: Quinn Murphy at The Wall Group using Nars; Manicure: Leonobi Galvez

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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