Thespian and big-screen actress, singer, and dancer Ariana DeBose got her professional start on reality television, where she vied to be crowned America’s best dancer. When she participated in season 6 of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” she made it to the Top 20 but was eliminated before reaching the final round. Over a decade has passed since her time on the show, and DeBose’s career is nowhere close to losing its momentum. The triple threat is now a Tony-nominated actress that has earned acclaim after starring in “A Bronx Tale,” “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” She has also made significant strides in front of the camera. First starring in Netflix’s “The Prom” (2020) and now headlining Steven Spielberg’s long-anticipated “West Side Story” (2021) adaptation.
In Spielberg’s adaptation, DeBose takes on the role of “Anita,” the charismatic confidante first made famous by Rita Moreno in the original “West Side Story” (1961). Earlier this fall, LATINA’s Alissa Lopez Serfozo connected with DeBose.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You made your television debut competing on “So You Think You Can Dance.” How did your stint on reality television shape your artistic perspective?
I sure did! “SYTYCD” was a whirlwind experience! I learned how to successfully audition from my experience on the show. I also learned that reality tv is not real at all, HA! It was during that time that I chose to pursue theatre in NY. I left the show knowing I wanted to do more than just dance, I missed the challenge of singing, dancing, and acting at the same time.
Walk me through your pivot to theatre and acting. What inspired you to cultivate a career in both industries?
Dance is my first language and after a while I wasn’t feeling as challenged by it. That’s when I discovered theatre. I am someone who thrives on being challenged & theatre never allows me to settle. After almost 10 years on Broadway, the next logical challenge was to try my hand at acting for the camera, which is a whole different world/craft in and of itself. I love it! Early on I learned that being versatile would allow me to always find work. So that’s what I live by!
Walk me through your Broadway career. Did you always envision yourself performing on NYC stages or did this develop over time?
Growing up I thought I was going to be Madonna’s backup dancer and then I saw my first Broadway show at age 10 or 11 and was absolutely entranced by the whole experience. I remember walking into Times Square and seeing a billboard of Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly, but I recognized her as Lilith from “Frasier.” That’s when it clicked that you could potentially do it all, particularly in NYC.
So, when I came to the city, I started to audition for literally everything until I landed my first big show, “Bring It on The Musical.” I followed that up with “Motown the Musical,” “Pippin,” and then “Hamilton.” I’m extremely proud that all those shows are completely different in style and time-period (VERSATILITY!). Post “Hamilton,” I chose to pursue more featured and leading roles which led me to playing Jane in Chazz Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale” the musical and Disco Donna Summer in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” for which I was Tony nominated. Not too bad for a girl who started out just wanted to be a backup dancer, huh!
You’ve starred in many Broadway productions. Are there any roles that were especially challenging to take on? Are there any roles that were especially rewarding?
Every role I take on is challenging in its own way. Playing Donna Summer on Broadway was a huge challenge. She was the “Queen of Disco” and a very real person, so bringing her persona to the stage without having her feel like a caricature was very important to me. “Hamilton” of course was incredible because I had the privilege of a front row seat to how a show can change lives, appeal to all ages, inspire political players, and ultimately make people believe in the democracy again. “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away…”
You work in Television and Film. Do you approach each medium differently when preparing for a new role?
Of course! There’s an art to each medium, but the creation of a character is the same for me no matter the medium. Typically starts with their body language for me, or the way they walk. It depends!
Are there any roles you covet? Are there any roles you would love to take on in the future?
There are, but if I told you then it wouldn’t be a surprise later.
Looking back on your role and experiences filming “The Prom,” are there any aspects you are especially proud of?
Recently I found my onscreen work to be especially rewarding as it’s allowed me to reach so many people! I cannot tell you how many young people I heard from after they saw “The Prom.” Alyssa Greene’s journey coming out to her mother and her community was one that I believe young girls especially hadn’t seen on screen. Alyssa held space for so many young people to find the courage to accept themselves for exactly who they are and stand in their own power.
Walk us through your journey to landing the role of Anita in “West Side Story” (2021).
Well, I got a call one night having just finished playing Donna on Broadway. Casting asked me to come in to audition the next morning. I said yes, but that I wouldn’t read the sides because I was exhausted from the show and didn’t have enough time to prepare. I arrived the next day to discover Steven Spielberg was actually there for the session.
So, I danced. He liked my dancing and asked me to sing. So, I sang. Then he asked me to read, and I said, “No sir,” and thankfully the casting director came to my rescue and explained. Steven mercifully understood and asked if I would come back and read at a later date. I said I would be honored. About a month later after a very intense chemistry test, Steven called from a plane to offer me the job and ask me to be his Anita. Class act. I cried like a baby and here we are!
What led you to initiate the Unruly Hearts Initiative?
Jo Ellen and I created UHI as a bridge for young people and their parents to be connected to resources to help them along their journey with identity. We are so proud to have been able to raise over $100,000 for our 2021 partners (Covenant House, Point Foundation, and The Trevor Project). As we grow, UHI will grow with us! We are so grateful for all those who have supported us in our goal to support LGBTQAI+ youth.
Tell us about your collaboration with Diageo and Johnnie Walker.
I’ve always loved the Johnnie Walker slogan “Keep Walking,” and I’ve found it particularly inspiring as we are coming back from a global pandemic. I believe passionately that those with power and privilege have a responsibility to invest and uplift our local communities and that’s exactly what the Diageo family is doing with their campaign by partnering with organizations like The Street Vendor Project to support Hispanic Street Food vendors in NYC in need of support. I had a blast hosting an event in the Bronx celebrating and uplifting local businesses and encouraging the community to safely return to social settings, nightlife & move towards a positive future, and all the things I love in one space: Culture, Johnnie Walker y comunidad!