“I’ve always been into manifesting my future,” Paloma Garcia-Lee shared. “I’ve always written down my goals and dreams, made vision boards, even covered my entire room in photos of the life I dreamt for myself. In a series of incredibly fortunate events, many of the things I’ve written down over the years have come true. I know that is a combination of hard work, incredible support from the people around me, and the stardust of universal timing.”
Universal timing was definitely on Paloma Garcia-Lee’s side. She made her Broadway debut starring in “Phantom of the Opera” at 17. It was soon after she graduated from UNCSA’s high school drama program and had moved to New York bursting with ambition. “Phantom was one of my first auditions,” Garcia-Lee recalls. “In a brilliant stroke of luck, I made my debut in one of the most famous shows of all time. I’m forever grateful for that show and that team for giving me my first major professional job and starting my career.”
In 2019, she landed the role of Adrienne in the FX limited series “Fosse/Verdon.” Now, you can catch her starring as Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s big screen rendition of “West Side Story.”
“It’s incredible to meet someone so aligned in their calling, so established in their existence on this planet,” she says of working with the legendary “Jurassic Park” director. “Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest movie-makers of all time. He’s one of the most incredibly kind and generous people I’ve ever met. He made us all feel so seen and so valued. He respected us all so deeply as artists and people. He created the safest environment for us to do our work, and as a result, the work is astonishing. This film was the collaboration of the best of the best, assembled by the greatest leader. There aren’t words that properly express what it was like, but I will tell you this – I can’t unsee what I have seen – in the best way possible. I know what I want and how I want to feel every day at work because of working with him and the process of ‘West Side Story.’ I don’t want to settle for anything less. How grateful I am.”
Looking back on filming, Garcia-Lee recalls her favorite number. “‘Dance at the Gym’” is iconic,” she remarked. “There are so many things happening at once, and the beauty of it is that it’s not just a typical dance number. That scene is an integral part of the story. It’s where Tony and Maria meet. It’s where Riff and Bernardo are playing a game of Battleship. It’s where dance is used as a vehicle to further the story – and used as a weapon – I love that. It’s acting through movement – it’s war through movement. I love the depth of the movement in this film. I am just so inspired with what Steven [Spielberg], Tony [Kushner], Justin [Peck], and the team have done with so many sections of this movie.”
The incredible thing about “West Side Story” is how it stands the test of time. From stage to screen, again and again, there is something so timeless and constantly topical about this story. “It is [essentially] ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – one of the greatest love stories of all time. It’s a story about love, acceptance, adversity, and fighting for a place for us all. It showcases a shared conflict that we all face daily in this world,” Garcia-Lee shared.
One of the big changes, she points out, in this iteration, we’re looking at an entirely new script. “I don’t want to give anything away,” she said, “but what Tony Kushner has done with this script, the depth that he and Steven were able to infuse into this already beautiful and rich story and its characters, is just astounding. I also feel we are seeing a true film. Not simply a movie musical. Or a musical being filmed. We are seeing it through a cinematic eye. We are in the hands of one of the greatest directors and filmmakers of all time, so there is just an elevated level to the feel and the texture of this remake. It’s fresh, new, and deep in all the right ways, while honoring, nodding, and pulling from the original – not only the original movie but the stage version, and even the deeper roots of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”
Highlights for Garcia-Lee have been getting to interact with some of the original “West Side Story” cast members. Rita Moreno [who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1962 for playing Anita] steps into the role of Valentina in Spielberg’s 2021 edition. The actresses had the opportunity to spend a good amount of time together on set. “It was incredibly special to get to hear her stories, watch her work, and also watch her celebrate us all – the next generation telling this story,” Garcia-Lee said. “I’ve also reached out to Carole D’Andrea, who was the original Velma. She was so kind lovely in our e-mail exchange. Hopefully, soon I’ll be in touch with Gina Trikonis, who played the original Graziella. Those two are icons to me. Many original cast members, both from stage and screen, came by the set while we were filming. It was thrilling to meet them and connect over this material in such a beautiful and powerful way.”
In this new version, Garcia-Lee was excited to bring her own authentic energy to the role of Graziella. Gina Trikonis from the 1961 film served as a huge inspiration to her. “I think it’s fascinating,” the actress/dancer points out. “Graziella, on paper, could sometimes be seen as a ‘dancer,’ but she was always so much more than that to me.” Garcia-Lee recounted at the age of 15, starring as Graziella under the direction of Gerald Freedman, giving her insight on yet another version of the same character that she would one day be playing on the big screen.
“I knew I wanted to bring a lot of myself to the role,” she says of Spielberg’s production. “Everything from how I interacted with Riff [Mike Faist] to my interactions with Velma [Maddie Ziegler] and Anita [Ariana DeBose]. I know that Steven and Tony saw my innate connection to this character and allowed me to just infuse her with so much of myself. Graz is strong, passionate, fiery, and opinionated – she’s different. Her relationship with Riff is complicated. Her love for the Jet boys, for Tony and Riff, is so deep.”
Garcia-Lee may be making leaps and bounds in the entertainment industry, but she’s only just getting started. “I’m proud to be a triple threat and hope for opportunities that keep combining my love of acting and dancing in amazing ways,” she voiced. “I’m also so excited to fulfill my lifelong dreams of stepping into so many different versions of myself. There are characters that I want to play that have nothing to do with dance or anything like that. Of course, I will always carry that work in my body, but to be re-aligning with my love of acting at this moment and getting new opportunities to flex, stretch and grow in new ways, is igniting me in a way I have never felt before. I’m ready to chase it, manifest it, and watch it unfold.”
The “West Side Story” actress is excited about what the future will bring. “I’m looking forward to stepping into this next chapter – allowing the universe to lead me to the rooms I need to be in, the directors I need to work with, and the creators and collaborators that I am meant to align with. I want to act. I can’t say it enough; I want to tell complicated, nuanced stories that are powerful and important. I want to tell complicated love stories. I want to work with Wes Anderson. I want to create my own work and write for myself. I want to exhaust myself making and doing. During this pandemic, I have let myself rest and reset. I am stepping out of 13 years on Broadway, and with this film, I’m at the beginning of a new chapter. I have gone through some major life events during this time, too, so I truly step into this moment, an eager, glistening soul who is rested, ready and inspired. I want to do so many things and have ignited the fire to run after them full-force,” Garcia-Lee professed.
“There is absolutely nothing that replaces the butterflies I feel when I am making art,” she adds. “Whether that is dancing or acting or singing – it’s just the exhilarating feeling of doing the work. The feeling of exhausting myself in the pursuit of growth as an artist and a human completely lights me up. I’m enamored with making art. I love the trial and error of it. I love the collaboration of it. The bubbly space of making and telling stories, of using my instrument and my soul to expand past my own human limitations and transforming into whatever it is I’m working on is the greatest pleasure of my life.”
Paloma Garcia-Lee on the “Golden Age of Hollywood”…
Favorite movie from that time
“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “An American in Paris,” “On the Town” – oh gosh, there are SO MANY! If I stretch into the early ‘60s, of course, I will include “The Music Man” and “West Side Story.”
Favorite dance number from that time
Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Another dream-come-true alignment – I’m a company member of American Dance Machine. It’s an incredible company that re-creates and performs classic works. It ensures to carry on the legacies of past shows, choreographers, and incredible musical numbers. I’ve gotten to perform that very duet many times. Something about the sensuality of it and that connection between those two characters always intrigued me. Also, “Dance at the Gym” from “West Side Story” is a number I have revisited so many times in my life that music is singular in its power to me. I have watched that section from the ’61 film more times than I can even tell you. It’s not lost on me that I have gotten to step into the very music and roles that have inspired me so much.
Favorite actor/actress from that time
Gene Kelly, James Dean, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Donald O’Connor, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball – the list goes on and on.
Favorite thing about how movies made you feel at that time
I love the love stories, the drama, the heightened stakes, and just the insane production numbers in the musical films of the time. They make me feel so alive and glittery. Watching the industry shift over time as the equipment gets better and new things are invented – it’s just a complete masterclass in cinema. I recommend everyone go and watch a few “Golden Age” movies this winter. It’s a total joy.
Favorite movie line from that time
It’s from “Singin’ in the Rain.” “People? I ain’t ‘people.’ I am a – ‘a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.’” [picks up newspaper] “It says so – right here.” – Lina Lamont.
Favorite fashion from that time
Skirts and dresses with a high slit up the leg. I think the women’s fashion of that time was so incredibly sexy and flattering. The men, too. Actually, I love it all. Let’s bring it back.
Creative Director/Stylist: Elena Vasilevsky
Photographer/Videographer: Hector Guajiro
Makeup: Mayela Vazquez
Hair: Martin Plascencia
Cover look by Randi Rahm
Words: Sari Cohen