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Josh Andrés Rivera

Interview: Jordan Arthur

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Star of stage, and now screen, Josh Andrés Rivera joins ReVamp in this special interview discussing his movie debut as Chino in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story as well as tales from Hamilton tour, plus some insight on bringing a new character to life for theatre.

Hi Josh and welcome to ReVamp! I've got to start by asking you about West Side Story, a reimagining of the classic movie, this time from the legendary Steven Spielberg. As far as big screen debuts go, it doesn't get much bigger than this! What was your first reaction when you found out you'd been cast as Chino in this new version?

To be honest I was in disbelief. Like, I didn't believe it. My agent called me to tell me that Steven saw my callback tape and he just said, "that's Chino" and they were gonna send the official offer. If I remember correctly, I kinda lost control of my body and let out a loud yelp and threw my phone at the sofa just reflexively. I ran over to it and picked it back up and shouted "YOU'RE LYING". I mean, as far as I knew it seemed way too good to be true, and the more I processed it, the more surreal it felt.

It's like you said, it was going to be my big screen debut, and not only that, it was going to be a reimagining of an extremely acclaimed classic, and not only that,  but I'll be working with the guy responsible for like half of my favorite movies of all time. So yeah - personally I feel the reaction was justified.

West Side Story is beloved for its message of love over all else. Romeo & Juliet thought more about class and political divisions, while the 1961 movie adaptation put race and social injustice right at the centre. Was it challenging at all to update the story to reflect some of today's specific issues, while keeping the 1950s setting?

What's nice about working on a timeless story is just that. It's timeless. We had the luxury of being able to put trust in the core themes of the story that made the original movie so groundbreaking. In addition to that we had this amazing opportunity to retell this story using the cinematic creative lens of Steven Spielberg. The love story portion is timeless, but the social injustice component is timeless as well. The idea of audiences watching a story about 1957 Manhattan through their own modern perspective is very exciting to me, as I think inevitably people will draw important parallels to the world we live in today.

Those familiar with WSS will be more than aware of the crucial role Chino plays in the story. Without spoiling it for anyone who will be going into the cinema for the first time this December, how does it feel to be entering the canon of legendary baddies?

To be honest, I don't really see him that way. For the people who do feel that way, I'm excited to hear after they see it how they feel about the motivations of this incarnation of Chino. Don't get me wrong, it would be a pretty cool experience to portray a straight up villain, but I don't see how someone like Chino, motivation wise, stacks up to someone like Darth Vader or Scarface for example.

Chino's arc is tragic. I'd argue that he's an inherently kind and empathetic person who through a series of traumatic events gets pushed to his absolute breaking point. The nuance that went into building that arc is what made him so fulfilling to portray.

A big movie musical seems like a very appropriate place for you as you have spent a lot of time treading the boards, including in the first national tour of the sensational Hamilton. That must have been such a fun experience. If you had to press you for a personal highlight...

It's hard to press for a particular memory as the whole experience was an absolute adventure. I was freshly out of college and got to perform this amazing show and travel across the country to a bunch of places I'd never been before. Every city was extremely welcoming and gracious towards us.

Overall a super formative experience to have as a young adult that I was very lucky to have. I will say that something that was particularly cool is after I booked WSS I found out that two of my best buddies on that tour were also getting called back for it, one as a Jet and one as a Shark, and they both booked it! So we all kinda had to celebrate in secret because we couldn't tell people or post about it, but that was pretty thrilling I got to share that experience with them as well.

You're set to originate Dallas in The Outsiders later next year. Could you tell us a little bit about the process of originating an original character for the stage - I believe it's quite an involved process, though one that I imagine is very rewarding?

There's probably a lot of different ways to go about it but something crucial to me is determining the baggage and inner conflicts that I both share and do not share with my character. In empathizing as best as I can with their personality and their sources of joy and trauma and explore why those sources exist.

Obviously theatre is very physical, the more I get a feel for this person's disposition, their motivations, and the tactics they use visibly and verbally to accomplish whatever objective it is they have in a story, the more I get a feel for their general physicality and the way they exist in their day to day outside the context of the story.

This makes it far easier to be spontaneous while still in character, because ideally I'd know that character inside and out at that point. This process is extremely rewarding, not only because I like performing, but because it's a wonderful exercise in empathy that does carry over to the real world in the sense that it helps me practice being a more understanding person in general.

A massive thanks to Josh for talking to ReVamp. West Side Story hits cinemas today!

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