Rita Moreno Dishes on the Returns of One Day at a Time and West Side Story

The legendary actor discusses her latest projects over a laugh-filled phone call.

I had never spoken to Rita Moreno before I called her yesterday afternoon to talk about One Day at a Time and West Side Story, and I was fairly apprehensive. Moreno is a living legend, the dictionary definition of "spry" at 88, and one of very few artists to complete an EGOT.

From the moment our conversation began, it's like I had been friends with her my entire life. We talked about so much over the course of our half-hour call, from the need for rain in California to her love of cinema. She was so effusive about her two big projects — One Day at a Time, returning tonight for season 4 on POP TV after getting canceled by Netflix, and Steven Spielberg's forthcoming West Side Story remake, where she pivots from her Oscar-winning turn as Anita to a new character called Valentina — that it was almost like she couldn't believe she had the good fortune to be in them.

But before we started talking, she had some question for me:

"Did you see the first three new episodes of One Day at a Time? Aren't they hilarious? Don't you love the one about masturbation?"

She howled with laughter.

"What's so fabulous about it is that as far as I'm aware, that subject has never been approached on television." That encapsulates the pleasure of both watching One Day at a Time, a show that consistently breaks new ground in a classic format, and talking to Moreno, who, like Lydia, her character, knows how to earn a hearty belly laugh without missing a beat.

Rita Moreno stars in One Day at a Time and West Side Story.
Rita Moreno stars in One Day at a Time and West Side Story.
(© Mark Hill)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Take me through the timeline between Netflix canceling the show and POP TV picking it up.
It felt like a year but it wasn't. It was a long enough time that we lost some writers, because they had to eat and pay rent, so we were heartbroken. We know what a great show this is. All of the critics came on board. They were very upset and wrote about it, which made us feel even worse. It was terrible.

The show does cover territory that you don't often see, so the cancellation news was very disheartening.
That's the reason I was very upset. We took on very difficult issues and just did it. That's why the masturbation episode is very important. Nobody ever addresses it on TV. God, I just love Lydia's take on that. It's just hilarious. There's so much stuff there that has us laughing uproariously. Doing scenes with Stephen Tobolowsky [who plays Lydia's love interest] kills me. I love him. When he tries to speak Spanish, I pee my pants. God. You can see, I love doing this show and we [the cast] really do love each other. Right now, we text constantly.

How many episodes did you get through before production was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how will it affect production going forward?
I think we got through six or seven out of 13 episodes. We were about to do an episode that Justina Machado [who plays Lydia's daughter Penelope] was going to direct. Unhappily, we can't have an audience when we come back, which is very sad. We're going to miss that terribly.

Does it feel like theater when you're working with a live audience?
It does and it's marvelous. [Creator] Norman Lear absolutely wanted us to have an audience for the show, and it really sets us off. Now, the poor writers are going to have to serve as the audience and laugh even when it stops being funny by take 4 or 5. They're going to be absolutely under duress, because we need them to laugh. It also tells us how long an episode will last, because the show is much shorter now. It has to be 22 minutes now [as opposed to the longer running time on Netflix]. But it feels better. The episodes are so tight, which is very interesting. I didn't think they would be.

Rita Moreno stars as Lydia in the series One Day at a Time.
Rita Moreno stars as Lydia in the series One Day at a Time.
(© Nicole Wilder/POP TV)

What can you tell us about your character, Valentina, in the West Side Story remake?
Valentina is Doc [the drug store owner]'s widow. That was Tony Kushner and Mark Harris's idea. Tony told Mark, his partner, that he was offered West Side Story and Mark asked what he was going to do about Doc. Doc is the most unrealized part in the whole movie. I always remember feeling sorry for the poor actor, Ned Glass, because it was the most un-anything part. It was dreadful. So Mark said, "Why don't you get Rita Moreno to play Doc's widow?" and that's how that happened.

When Steven [Spielberg] called me, I said that I would like to read the script, because, without being offensive, I didn't want to do a cameo. Not in that movie. And he said, "Oh, no, it's a real part." So he sent me the script, one of about 100 because Tony is famous for rewriting, and it was a real part. That's when I said "a thousand times yes."

Let me tell you one wonderful thing.

I was in and out of New York while we were shooting. One day, Steven calls me up and says, "You've got to come to New York. We're doing our first pre-record of some of the music and I think you should be there." They had the entire New York Philharmonic recording the score, and our conductor was Gustavo Dudamel, who's Hispanic, which is incredible. The dancers were there, because they were recording "Mambo at the Gym," and they had to ensure that the tempos were right.

I was dancing with the dancers and having the best time, and at one point, I hear a female voice saying, "Rita!" I turn to my right and [laughs] there watching this very special event are the following people: Barack and Michelle Obama, and Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. I damn near peed my pants. I couldn't believe my eyeballs. Steven knows the world so he had asked them over for what he considered a very special occasion. So I spent an evening with these astonishing people. It was surreal and it was thrilling.