When David Alvarez got a message out of the blue from West Side Story’s casting director, he was off studying at Case Western University. The 27-year-old actor had already had quite a run of a performing career as a kid. He grew up studying ballet and won a Tony Award in 2009 for Billy Elliot alongside the two other actors that shared the role when he was just 14. He joined the U.S. Army for three years, returned to performing (including in a role in Broadway’s On the Town in 2014), backpacked around Mexico for several years, and then decided what he really wanted to do was pursue a degree in philosophy and perhaps even become a professor. The chance to audition for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story brought him back to his ballet training. After a chemistry test with Ariana DeBose, he landed the role of Bernardo, the head of the Puerto Rican street gang the Sharks, who, in Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s retelling, also dreams of a career as a boxer. Talking with Vulture over the phone, Alvarez talked through his long and winding career path, working with choreographer Justin Peck on Bernardo’s dancing, and how he connected Bernardo to his own experiences in an immigrant family.
You had gone off to college and taken a break from performing when you got the call to audition for West Side Story. What was that like?
It was insane. I had left the art business and I didn’t think I would ever be back. I had joined the Army for about three years, and then I went backpacking through Mexico for another three years, and then I came back to just finish my degree. I wanted to be a philosophy professor. But I got a random message from Cindy Tolan, the casting director, that Steven Spielberg was looking for Bernardo and that she had seen me when I did Billy Elliot on Broadway when I was a kid. I thought it was such a long shot, but decided to not expect anything, just send it.
At what point did you think, Maybe this is an actual possibility?
A day later, I got a call from Cindy that Steven saw the tape and loved it. That just blew my mind, and I was quite intimidated. I went to New York and I kept asking Cindy, “What should I do for this role? What should I change?” She was like, “Just be yourself and do what you did on the tape.” After that, it evolved into a second callback where I got to meet Ariana DeBose and we did a chemistry read together and danced together, and I think that ended up getting me the role. We just had such great chemistry together. She’s such a giving actress; she was there making sure I look good too. We had each other’s backs, and because of that, we both gave each other the roles.
What did you have to do in your self-tape?
I had to do the kitchen scene where I’m speaking with Ariana and telling her not to worry, I’m going to be fine when I fight the Jets. Then I had to sing the “Tonight” quintet and send in some dance videos, and I hadn’t danced in a while. So I had to go to the studio and warm myself up and see what I could scratch together and not look terrible.
What did you do to get yourself into dancing shape again for the part?
I had a great dancing foundation of training at American Ballet Theatre that prepared me so well that whenever I leave it and come back, it’s like riding a bicycle. It’s all there; you just have to be reminded of the ten years of ballet training. I also did boxing classes and dialect classes to make sure I could do the most authentic Puerto Rican accent of the time. It was an elaborate process of piecing together all these different things.
Bernardo’s got more of an expanded backstory in this movie, with that boxing plot, for instance. How much of this new version of him was already fleshed out when you first came on?
I watched the original movie and George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, did so much that I didn’t know how I could come close to it. So I tried to take my inspiration from another source. I watched the 1968 Romeo and Juliet, and the character of Tybalt there, who is pretty much Bernardo, that Michael York played, had a lot of internal anger and passion and intensity and will to fight, and I loved that about Tybalt. I wanted to make sure that my character as Bernardo could bring that to life. I actually think the three years that I spent in the Army brought a lot to this character, in the sense of this honor code of protecting the family and protecting the community. But there were also a lot of things that I just ended up showing on the spot on set.
What did you discover on set?
It was important for me to show a little bit of vulnerability and that love and care. I hadn’t really thought of that, because I was so focused on making sure this Bernardo was intense and a warrior that once I got to set I was like, Wait a second, I need to show this innocent side of him. That kitchen scene where you see him interacting with María, that was my chance to show that vulnerability.
How did you think about how Bernardo would dance — for instance, across from Ariana in “America”?
I think there’s a lot of commonalities between how Justin Peck expresses himself through his choreography and how Spielberg expresses himself in this filmmaking. I think they’re both able to jump from fantasy to reality. Justin’s choreography is very much street ballet, with a sense of fantasy behind it, but it’s real and grounded. He choreographs depending on what your strengths are. He saw that I had a good ballet background, and gave me all these crazy jumps and turns and stuff. I lack, obviously, in other departments but he emphasized those strengths.
Another of the big dance moments is the dance at the gym, where Spielberg has the camera do all these intricate movements as the Sharks and Jets are facing off. What was the process of filming that like?
That was the first time where every ensemble member was onscreen together, and it was a week long. I remember every time we finished shooting a scene, Spielberg would be so excited and happy and call everyone to see the playback. He’d just show us how incredible the shot looked and everyone would burst into joy and hug as if we had cured cancer or something. The entire project was full of that love and energy.
The rumble between the Sharks and Jets itself is pretty gruesome, meanwhile. What was it like filming that?
We never realized how gritty it was going to be. When you look at the 1961 movie, it’s much more dancey. This version, I thought I was in a war zone. All of a sudden it turned into Saving Private Ryan. It was about six days of night shoots, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. We got to see the sunset and then we’d start shooting and then by the time we were done, we were seeing the sunrise and were letting go of some of that intense energy we’d been dragging around all night.
West Side Story itself has long been criticized by some members of the Puerto Rican community for its stereotyped depiction of the Sharks, and that’s something Spielberg and Kushner have talked about trying to address with this version. How did you approach that as an actor?
I was able to understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. My parents were both born in Cuba and defected in the ’90s. They were literally starving in Cuba, so they had no choice. That mentality is very different from when you grow up in your own country and you have all the opportunities, know the language, and understand the culture. I wanted to emphasize how hard it is for Bernardo to be dealing with all these things, and how there’s this anger in him because of it. It’s hard when you’re not feeling accepted in the place you’re trying to live a better life in, and I really wanted to make sure that showed.
At the film’s premiere, Spielberg said that Sondheim sat in on some of the recording sessions. Did you get to interact with him?
We all got to meet him and sit down and take in this wonderful person. I really resonated with who he was. He was brutally honest, but he cared so much, and everything he did came from his heart and his soul. He may not be here with us, but here we are breathing life into his words, and it’ll continue to happen forever. He left us a legacy, and I’m just hoping to do him justice.
After filming this movie, you also did a role in the TV show American Rust. Did doing West Side Story make you want to get back into doing more acting?
I was interested in the role because it seemed like the polar opposite of Bernardo, and I wanted to explore that range. I feel like I learn by doing, so I had a great time filming American Rust and I learned so much from West Side Story, and so I’m grateful to be able to incorporate those experiences and make myself a better person and a better artist in the future.
So do you imagine yourself continuing on with acting and performing, then?
Well, where I stand now is that I love what I do and I can’t see myself not doing what I’m doing. And philosophy is a hobby of mine that helps me as an artist and a person. I guess that’s what I’ll leave it at.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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