Though living legend Rita Moreno is a woman of many achievements — like, say, being the first Latino to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, and one of only 12 artists to have earned the coveted EGOT status — the West Side Story actress has no intention of resting on her laurels.
In fact, 2015 has been Moreno’s busiest year to date, with the release of her Spanish-language album Una Vez Más, numerous speaking engagements, voiceover work for Sprout’s new animated series Nina’s World, a guest role on the hit dramedy Jane The Virgin, and a slew of other projects. And the 83-year-old shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, she takes significant pride in tackling a number of “firsts,” including her first-ever appearance at PEOPLE en Español’s Festival, where she’ll be featured in conversation with Mexican actress Adriana Barraza and journalist María Hinojosa on Oct. 18.
Ahead of taking the stage at Festival, Moreno — who will be named a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in December — spoke to EW about staying busy, achieving new goals, and spilled the shocking details about her worst audition ever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At the PEOPLE en Español Festival, you’ll be appearing at a panel entitled “Inspiring the New Generation.” Looking back, what do you think is the biggest difference between the media landscape now and when you first emerged as an actress?
Rita Moreno: Oh my dear, how much time do you have? We Latinas weren’t even recognized or acknowledged in my time. If we were in the public eye it was because we probably committed a crime somewhere. I didn’t have a role model. There was nobody for me. The only person who I could even try to emulate was Elizabeth Taylor, because she was young and she was a brunette. I’ve had so many wonderful things happen to me, but it’s a kind of reward for my effort. And the only problem is that there are too many Hispanics who haven’t been recognized yet. It kind of breaks my heart. At the moment, I seem to be the one, but it would be wonderful actually not to be the one.
You’re going to be surrounded by a lot of fans at the festival. What is the craziest fan experience you’ve ever had?
One of the most bizarre experiences — and it was a very long time ago, but it was so bizarre I’ve never forgotten it — I’ve ever had was when I was in Japan appearing on behalf of West Side Story. I said, “What would you like me to do?” and they said “Give some free tickets to a young girl who’s a real fan.” And I said, “Oh, that’s so nice — okay.” So I got on stage with her, and I’m giving her the extra tickets, and there was a little translating, and I said, “Tell me; how many times have you seen the movie?” thinking that she would say two or three. And she said “42 times.” I couldn’t believe it. Isn’t that crazy? 42 times, holy moly.
You’ve been busy this fall with promotion for your new album. Why record an album now?
I’m a busy Puerto Rican! You know what I call this year? This is my year of rewards. And I’m about to be 84, for Pete’s sake! When [producer] Emilio Estefan said to me, “I wanna do an album with you,” I said to him, “I may not even have a voice left.” He said, “Listen. I saw you accept the SAG lifetime achievement award and you sang a cappella. And you have a wonderful voice and I want to do this album with you; you’ve got to leave a legacy, blah blah blah.” And we did this album! It’s really quite a marvelous record. It has some pretty surprising things in it, songs that people don’t even assume that I could sing.
Has there been any chatter of a Grammy nomination?
That is what Emilio keeps saying to me and I keep saying “Stop it, stop it! Don’t even mention that to me!”
It must feel lovely to hear praise now, but I know you’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs during your seven decades in show business. Looking back, what has been the most hurtful thing someone has told you during your career?
Oh my God, how long do you have? It’s so amazing how insensitive people can be. At the time, I think I was in my 60s, and I hadn’t done a movie in a long time. My agent sent me a wonderful part. I thought, “Oh man, I’m gonna crush this one.” I worked like a beast on it, every nuance, every word. I really worked hard because it was for a really famous director, who I do not want to name. Anyway, I went to the office for the audition, and I said, “I can’t wait to do this scene for you because I think I get it.” And I had the script open to that scene and he looked at it, and there was this awkward silence, and he said “Oh no, my dear, sorry. That’s not the part we want you to read for.” And I said, “Oh, what’s the part?” And it was a three-line part in Spanish, of a Mexican whorehouse Madame. And here I am at 60, not feeling terribly secure, but I’m suddenly saying to myself, “Wait a minute: Oscar, Grammy, Tony, 2 Emmys… what’s going on here?” The humiliation was profound. My face was just on fire with embarrassment, and it’s like I suddenly became 5 years old again and I was that little girl that people were calling racial slurs. I just stood there, absolutely paralyzed and trembling, and I said to him — I don’t know where I got the guts because I was so close to tears — “I’m sorry, but I don’t do Mexican whorehouse Madames.” And he said “No, darling. You don’t understand.” And I said “No, you don’t understand.” And I deliberately very, very slowly picked up my coat, put it on — because the urge of course was just to run out of there with my hair on fire — and I took my bag and put it on my shoulder, and slowly, slowly walked out of the office. When I got to my car, I just got hysterical crying. It was horribly painful.
Now you’re working nearly non-stop — you’re everywhere. Can we expect to see you back on Jane the Virgin this season?
Wasn’t my character such a modern b—-? I loved it — I just loved it! And I think it’s the first time that anybody realized that Jaime [Camil]’s character is really a momma’s boy. We’re still in negotiations so I can’t say for sure, but it’s looking good, let’s put it that way. I’m looking forward to it.
You’ve earned dozens of awards, and you’ll be named a Kennedy Centers Honors recipient this December. Which achievement are you the most proud of?
I mean, short of the Nobel Peace Prize — and I’m working on that — this is the pinnacle, oh my gosh! It’s for a lifetime of achievement; that’s what’s so amazing about this kind of award. It’s not for a specific performance. It’s for a lifetime of work, struggle and la lucha [the fight]. It’s very, very, very, very special indeed. But I will admit, one of the first things I thought about once I accepted what was happening, was the subject of what to wear! It had to be a Latino designer, so I called to [designer] Narciso Rodriguez. Now I’m really excited!