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West Side Story’s Mike Faist Wishes He Got to Sing ‘America’

Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for 20th Century Studios

From the very first trailers for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, one character popped off the screen — the scraggly John Mulaney lookalike playing Riff, leader of the Jets. Without taking anything away from Russ Tamblyn’s jovial performance in the 1961 film, this new Riff is something different. He’s a true street rat, almost feral with a live-wire charisma. Since the film started screening, viewers and critics alike have been asking: Who is this guy?

That guy is 29-year-old Broadway veteran Mike Faist, whom theater buffs will recognize as one of the newsies in Newsies as well as the depressed teen whose death kick-started the plot of Dear Evan Hansen. (Faist got nominated for a Tony but declined to reprise the role for the movie — a wise decision in retrospect.) West Side Story is his 14th screen credit but his first major film role, and it’s a true breakout performance: Alongside Ariana DeBose’s Anita, Faist’s Riff has been spotlighted as one of the best things about the new film, the personification of Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s more historically grounded take on the material.

The praise is a long time coming for Faist, who shot West Side Story back in the summer of 2019. As he told Vulture over Zoom recently, he’s spent the intervening months looking for projects that would live up to the experience, living that #VanLife, and thinking about what he actually wants to get out of acting.

In the most recent interview I read, you’d left New York and were living out of a van.
The pandemic did a lot of weird things to everybody. I was working in Austin when everything shut down. They were going to send us back to New York. I’m in Austin. I have all this space, the sunshine. I’m not going to go back to New York and just hang out in my apartment during a pandemic. So I had my dog, and we drove around the country a bunch. I would purposefully stay away from people. I would find people that had farmland. They were nice enough to let me set up a tent. I actually sold my apartment in New York this summer. Got rid of it.

This is maybe a heavy question for early in the interview, but what did you learn about yourself from that experience?
I didn’t know that I liked being alone. I think it’s important to really get quiet. I lived in New York for 13 years. And when you’re here, it’s just like constant adrenaline. Which I love. But I think when you’re here, you don’t realize the toll that it takes until you leave it.

In that interview, you also said you weren’t sure if you hated acting or loved it. That was six months ago — have you come closer to an answer?
I’m embarrassed by this because everyone’s asking. It’s so strange. I don’t know, man. Ultimately, the issue really was that I had come off shooting West Side Story, which was such an incredible experience artistically. It was everything I wanted to do as an actor in terms of how I wanted to approach the work, what I demanded out of myself. And then I had to leave. Jumping into the next project wasn’t a negative experience. But one was such a fulfilling thing, and the other one, I was going to work.

So I was thinking, To what end do I do this? Ultimately, what am I trying to get out of this thing? Do I really need attention that bad? What are the things that I really want to do? Because if it’s just to go from job to job — which is a gift, so I’m not trying to knock it. But it was more just asking myself all these questions about what my goal was. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion recently that I love it. I love it too much, maybe to a fault. I’m a little precious about the craft of it all. I’m learning not to take myself too seriously. Enjoy it, let things come when they come.

You shot West Side Story two and a half years ago. What’s it like watching it after all this time?
It’s so weird. All that time was passing, and there was this thing floating there in the ether. And eventually, maybe the world was going to see it. I remember calling Steven over the pandemic, and I said, “For me, if nobody saw the movie, it wouldn’t matter because the experience was amazing.” Then you go and see the film for the first time, and you’re in a theater with only five people, and you’re just like, Huh. 

How so?
In that initial screening, I wasn’t able to relive the experience of making it. You can’t help but watch yourself, and you can’t help but critique. While I was making the film, I felt like I was giving it everything that I had. And then when I saw the film, I was like, Oh, buddy, maybe you need to go find a different job. We’ve all talked about it as a cast. We drove home back to the hotel, and we were all like, “It’s a good movie. But man, I’m bad.” And everyone else was like, “No, you are great, I’m bad.” And I think Steven and Tony sensed that we were all too close to it to actually see what was going on. So they invited us back for another screening. The second time around, I was like, Stop being such an egomaniac and just watch the movie. And being able to remove myself more, I thought it was a great movie. But still, it was an entire theater with four people. At the premiere, I realized why it’s very important to have a collective experience of going to the theater. There’s something about communal experiences that allow you to see aspects of art that you wouldn’t necessarily experience if you were by yourself. And that’s the same thing for when you’re performing onstage in front of an audience. We’re all co-creators in this thing that’s happening right now.

I know the Bruce Davidson portraits of 1950s Brooklyn gang members were a key bit of inspiration for you. What struck you about those photos?
When I saw those photos, I knew that these were the guys. These are the Jets, visually, for me. I’m not trying to knock any production of West Side in the past, but there felt like there was maybe something missing — a certain groundedness, a seriousness or desperateness, that I started understanding as I was doing research. I think that pops off the page with Bruce’s photos. You see these guys, and they’re emaciated, they’re nihilistic, they just don’t care. You can tell that they cannot see what’s beyond tomorrow. And then as you do more research, you find out they’re all orphans. None of these people have families; the only family that they have is each other. And then on top of that, too, they’re heroin addicts. They’re broke. At the end of the day, they would pool money, and instead of really eating, they would just buy wine and get wasted. They just feel so lost.

Tony Kushner also does a good job of making the Jets the embodiment of 1950s white resentment. I’m curious how you approach that element of the character.
Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?

Sure. I mean the way they’re a community that sees people moving in from Puerto Rico and feels like they are an existential threat. They act out in ways that are, to modern eyes, quite racist. But obviously, it still gets at the fact that these are desperate orphans.
Where Tony really nails that, and Steven as well, is the setup of the film. The opening shot, where you see the demolition of all these homes so that Lincoln Center can get built. Everybody’s getting kicked out. It’s like the only thing constant is change. And that’s why this story’s going to be able to be told over and over again. Humans’ inability to deal with change, that’s what makes this story super fascinating to me.

It’s an interesting thing. There are racist acts that happen in this movie. Are the Jets racist? I don’t know. I couldn’t approach that from my point of view: being the actor, trying to empathize with this character who’s doing these really questionable things.

Because you’d be putting a judgement on it?
Yeah. I can’t do that as the actor. My job is to be like, “No, this guy’s the victim.” Now, I accept that this guy does a lot of racist stuff. But where it’s coming from is the xenophobia of it all. It’s the fear of the unknown. And from Riff’s point of view specifically, his home’s getting taken away. His best friend doesn’t want to be his best friend anymore. It comes down to this weird codependent relationship between Tony and Riff. I keep joking that it’s like Thanksgiving. Tony’s a guy who wants to not be that way anymore, but he’s still trying to be loving and have a conversation. But Riff doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to understand that.

Some productions of Romeo and Juliet add a romantic subtext to the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio. Was that something you guys were playing around with as well?

I mean, Riff is sleeping with Tony’s ex. I was wondering if there’s a little transference there.
I think it says something more about Graziella: She has to be with whoever’s the alpha at that moment. I’m not sure if it is romantic. If an audience member wants to interpret it that way, go ahead. That’s fine. But for me, I keep going back to the familial kind of love. Tony and Riff raised each other because there was no one else. They were their only line of defense. It spread out among other guys, but it all started within these two. Which is what we see in gangs, right? You don’t have a family, well, we got you. We will do this for you, but you have to do this for us. You don’t have power in that situation, but you feel accepted.

The new movie shuffles around the musical numbers in terms of who gets to sing what. Is there a song you wish you could sing, even if it doesn’t make sense for Riff?
I mean, “America” is amazing. Those dancers are incredible, man. They’re absolutely amazing. I would love to be in that number. I think all the Jet boys got a little FOMO from that one.

One thing that I and many others who’ve seen the movie have noted is your remarkable resemblance to John Mulaney in this film. Is that something you got before West Side Story, or is it Riff specific?
No, you’re not the first person to say that. People have come up to me and been like, “You ever get that you look like John Mulaney?” It’s fun. It would be fun to see John Mulaney as Riff in West Side Story, though.

He’s got the limbs for it.
For sure. He’s definitely got the nothing-but-arms-and-legs thing going on, like myself.

You said you’re trying to be a little more intentional about where you go from here. What’re the ideal next few years for you?
Tony used the word “stewardship.” And that’s very accurate. We had a deep respect for this story and the legends that have told it in the past. I feel like I have a great responsibility here to do this right. And on top of that, to tackle roles that force me to find the pieces of myself that I didn’t know existed.

What part of yourself did you find here?
I was reading this interview from a while back where Tom Hanks and Steven were talking about Saving Private Ryan. And Tom said there was this weird thing that Steven subliminally did in terms of, you have to step up and take charge of the group. I felt that way too. It wasn’t ever explicitly said. It was just an energy thing he was putting out there, like, “You know what you’ve got to do.” I’m in charge of 15 other guys. Some of them have done some movies, and others this was their first time, they’ve never done this before. I guess what I had learned was that I’m able to do that. I demanded of them. When it was time to have fun, it was time to have fun. And when it was time to shut up and do the thing, it was time to shut up and do the thing. And they ran with that. We did this thing together. They elevated me, and I elevated them.

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West Side Story’s Mike Faist Wishes He Got to Sing ‘America’