How Spielberg's West Side Story star delayed the year's biggest movie

How Steven Spielberg’s 17-year-old West Side Story starlet Rachel Zegler delayed the year’s biggest movie – to star in her high school’s musical Shrek

  • Rachel Zegler, then 17, was cast at Maria Vasquez, the lead role in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story film
  • But having already agreed to play Princess Fiona in her high school’s Shrek musical, rehearsals were delayed
  • Move paid off for Spielberg, as Zegler had received rave reviews for her role and is even tipped for an Oscar
  • Zegler, now 20, has already finished her second film and will star in Disney’s live action Snow White

For almost any aspiring actress, a call from Steven Spielberg announcing she is to be his new leading lady would be a cause for wild celebrations.

But for 17-year-old Rachel Zegler, there was one question she had to ask the director before she accepted the lead role as Maria in his £120 million musical West Side Story: ‘Can I still do Shrek The Musical at my high school?’

It was ‘one of the first things out of my mouth’, she recalls, adding that his response was: ‘I produced the original Shrek, of course you can!’

Spielberg agreed to delay the start of rehearsals to accommodate Rachel – and it seems to have paid off as she is receiving rave reviews for her role, even being tipped for Oscar glory, while the film is being hailed as the director’s best in decades.

On the brink of global fame, as West Side Story opens this weekend, Rachel, now 20, has already finished her second film, the £110 million superhero blockbuster Shazam! Fury Of The Gods, and will star as Snow White in Disney’s live action version of the children’s classic which will film in the UK next year.

West Side Story starlet Rachel Zegler had director Steven Spielberg delay rehearsals for the £120 million musical so she could play Princess Fiona in her high school’s production of Shrek The Musical

Spielberg agreed to delay the start of rehearsals to accommodate Rachel – and it seems to have paid off as she is receiving rave reviews for her role, even being tipped for Oscar glory, while the film is being hailed as the director’s best in decades. Pictured: As Princess Fiona in the school version of Shrek she delayed Spielberg for

She saw off competition from 30,000 other hopefuls to win the role of Maria, and the late Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the musical’s lyrics, proclaimed she sang ‘like a nightingale’. Pictured: Zegler and Ansel Elgort in West Side Story

Zegler grew up in New Jersey and still lives in the family home with father Craig, 59, who is of Polish descent and works for a construction firm, housewife mother Gina, 51, who has Colombian roots and sister Jacqueline, 23

She saw off competition from 30,000 other hopefuls to win the role of Maria, and the late Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the musical’s lyrics, proclaimed she sang ‘like a nightingale’.

Spielberg says that when he heard Rachel sing Tonight on the audition tape, ‘I just broke down in tears, not just me, everybody around us.’

Based on the story of Romeo And Juliet, the 1957 stage musical was first made into a musical in 1961, with Maria hailed as one of Natalie Wood’s greatest roles.

Its plot was inspired by New York gang violence, depicting bitter rivalry between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. But Rachel’s upbringing was far from that world.

She grew up in New Jersey and still lives in the family home with father Craig, 59, who is of Polish descent and works for a construction firm, housewife mother Gina, 51, who has Colombian roots and sister Jacqueline, 23.

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, her drama teacher, Greg Liosi, said: ‘It was obvious from an early age that Rachel had special talent. When she was 16 and in the school production of The Little Mermaid I turned to her mother and said, “This is real, her talent, do you want me to call some agents I know?”


Based on the story of Romeo And Juliet, the 1957 stage musical was first made into a musical in 1961, with Maria hailed as one of Natalie Wood’s greatest roles. Pictured: Natalie Wood as Maria in 1961, and Rachel now

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, her drama teacher, Greg Liosi, said: ‘It was obvious from an early age that Rachel had special talent. When she was 16 and in the school production of The Little Mermaid I turned to her mother and said, “This is real, her talent, do you want me to call some agents I know?”. Pictured: Zegler enjoying an ice cream, aged four, with older sister Jacqueline – they still both live in the family home

But her newfound fame has a flip side, with online trolls questioning why a Hispanic actress was picked to play Snow White. Pictured: Zegler dressed Superwoman

Posing on social media last year and, right, taking part in the online fad of eating Cheetos with chopsticks to keep your fingers clean

Her Shrek castmate Devyn Siegel, added: ‘She was always a very bright, friendly personality.’ Pictured: Zegler starring in The Little Mermaid at school

‘But her mum said, “No, I want her to enjoy her high school experience.” When she landed West Side Story, I expected her to drop out of Shrek but she said, “I want to do it.” Spielberg said, “Absolutely, finish it”, and she did!’

Her Shrek castmate Devyn Siegel, added: ‘She was always a very bright, friendly personality.’

But her newfound fame has a flip side, with online trolls questioning why a Hispanic actress was picked to play Snow White.

She hit back: ‘These are a bunch of faceless people that you’ll never encounter in real life. They will never have the gall to come up to you at Starbucks and say, “You’re not white enough to play Snow White.”

‘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.”‘

Additional reporting: Peter Sheridan

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