Rachel Zegler is poised for her big break in Steven Spielberg’s take on the award-winning musical “West Side Story”. Taking on the iconic role of Maria – made famous by Natalie Wood in the 1961 film adaptation – Zegler says the new film isn’t a remake, but rather a reimagining of the classic star-crossed lovers tale.

“We’re not trying to recreate, frame for frame, the 1961 film,” the 20-year-old tells Town & Country. “That film exists as this incredible piece of pop culture that everyone has seen and been affected by in some way. I don’t think any of us would ever try to recreate that. There are things to improve on and things to address.”

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Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the 1961 film went on to win 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno. With a screenplay by Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s version will once again focus on the rivalry between the street gangs the Sharks and the Jets and the forbidden romance blossoming between Maria and Tony (Ansel Elgort) in 1957 New York.

“It’s such a cultural phenomenon, that film and the musical in general,” Zegler explains. “I think the way Steven and Tony framed it to all of us when we were auditioning, when we were rehearsing, when we were shooting, was, ‘We are making a movie of the original Broadway musical. This is our take on a story that every-one has heard, and knows so well, and really loves.’”

Pamela Hanson/Town & Country
Pamela Hanson/Town & Country

The original Broadway play itself was an adaptation of the story of Romeo and Juliet. Zegler says the Shakespeare tale is still an influence, but the new take reflects timely themes, despite being set in the past.

“Every Juliet-based character is pure and innocent. She’s the Virgin Mary, and she can do no wrong. But in reality, she’s 18. She’s discovering so much about herself and the way she thinks about the world,” she says. “What does it mean to be an 18-year-old discovering all of these things about herself in 2019 – or in 1957, which is when West Side Story takes place? There are layers of being an immigrant: How long has she been here? How long does she plan to stay? She plans to stay forever. Does Bernardo want her here?”

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For her first big role, Zegler is preparing for the spotlight that will come when “West Side Story” is released in December.

“I haven’t done any other film projects, but I’m constantly pinching myself – there’s no way this is my life,” she shares. “That comes with a lot of gratitude and a lot of anxiety and a lot of impostor syndrome.”

Read Zegler’s full interview in the September issue of Town & Country, on newsstands Aug. 31.