Inside HEROINE 15

West Side Story star Talia Ryder in conversation with the film’s choreographer Justin Peck
Film+TV | 8 December 2021
Photographer Fabien Kruszelnicki
Stylist Zach Mauer.

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This article is part of HERO Vault – Gems from back in time

This week sees the release of Steven Spielberg’s epic cinematic adaptation of the 50s street gang musical West Side Story, starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as the couple in forbidden love. Marking the occasion, we reconnected star Talia Ryder – who’s on the Jets side of the divide – with the film’s choreographer Justin Peck.

Talia Ryder does what so many don’t: she takes a gamble and bets on herself to succeed. After seeing a performance of Matilda the Musical on Broadway at the age of thirteen, she convinced her mum to let her audition for the show – and nailed it. Then, when the script for Eliza Hittman’s acclaimed 2020 indie, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, landed at her doorstep she seized the opportunity to move into film work with a stunning, brave portrayal of a young woman having to travel from small-town Pennsylvania to New York City for her friend to go to a planned parenthood facility without a parent. Next, a blockbuster leap, joining the cast of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.

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Justin Peck: How old were you when you came to New York?
Talia Ryder: I moved when I was twelve.

JP: And that was to do Matilda?
TR: My sister booked Matilda before I did. So, we moved for her to do the show, and then while we were here I re-auditioned and was always hoping that I would get to do the show, too. Then I started Matilda when I was thirteen.

JP: What was that experience like, being in a Broadway show at that age?
TR: I mean, I honestly don’t think I totally understood what we were getting into. My mum took me to see the show for my twelfth birthday, and my sister and I just left like, “I think we could do that.” We convinced our mum to drive us to New York to let us audition. We were only dancers at the time, but we had a lot of dance training. So, we were able to keep up in the auditions, and then, at some point, by some magic in the universe, be in the show, but I don’t know, we were so young and so willing to just pretend we sang and acted, willing to try everything.

JP: Did you feel like you caught the bug from doing that show?
TR: Yes. I found it really cool and I was just like, “I don’t want to move back to Buffalo. So, I might as well just try to do this now.”

JP: That’s amazing. So after you finished the show you stayed in New York and were going to school – what was it like being a kid in New York City?
TR: I couldn’t have been happier to be living in New York. Honestly, in terms of the freedom of not needing to be driven everywhere, I could just hop on the subway. I scootered to school at that age. I could hang out with my friends and walk home. I’d previously come to New York over the summers to dance and I had friends here and saw what their lives looked like, what they did and where they hung out, and it was just cool to do that and be there.

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“I just remember wanting to keep up and make everyone feel happy that they hired a sixteen-year-old”

JP: I had a similar experience when I came, I just loved it. I felt like there was a sense of community in terms of what we wanted to do. For me, dance and theatre were big parts of what that was, what made up that community.
TR: Yes. I’m so excited to go play the lottery for shows again with friends.

JP: I love that, play the lottery for shows!
TR: The $40 tickets.

JP: So was Never Rarely Sometimes Always your first film experience on camera?
TR: Yes.

JP: Did you audition?
TR: Yes, after I ended Matilda I found an agent. One of the other kids in the cast set me up with a meeting, and I’d been starting to go out on film auditions and see what that was like and if I wanted to do it. I went in, read and then got a call back to read with Eliza [Hittman, director] and Sidney [Flanigan], and ended up getting to be in the film.

JP: I loved that film so much. We watched it right at the beginning of the pandemic – is that when it came out?
TR: It came out in theatres like the day everything shut down.

JP: Oh man, that sucks, but then they were able to pivot and share it on streaming services, right?
TR: Yes. It was disappointing at first, but I feel like, honestly, more people were able to see it this way.

JP: It really made a huge impact and was such a beautiful and specific film about the right to choose and just a lot of very relevant issues that we’re all talking about and grappling with. What was the process like shooting it?
TR: It was a pretty intimate crew, especially compared to West Side Story. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and didn’t really know what preparing for a film would look like. It was Sidney’s first time acting too, who played Autumn, so Eliza really just focussed on making sure that Sidney and I were comfortable with each other. We did a lot of bonding exercises, then we’d read through the script almost as a secondary thing to getting to know each other. Once we got to set, the relationship was there. I mean, we just had to focus on the lines in the scene, which really made it way more approachable.

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JP: I’m always fascinated by how little rehearsal there is for films compared to theatre. With theatre it’s like you’re preparing, preparing, preparing, you rehearse and rehearse, you do table readings, more rehearsals, workshops, you change things. You’re changing things day-to-day, even when the show’s in previews, until it freezes and there’s the opening. But in film, there can be such little prep, and I know that there’s a range between how each director works. Like, Mike Nichols, for example, would insist on doing some rehearsal, and that partially had to do with the fact that he came from a theatre background. I was surprised by how little Steven [Spielberg] rehearses his actors. I talked to him a lot about it and I think he tries to capture a sense of spontaneity and instinct in the moment. Did you guys actually sit down and read through the script together?
TR: Yes, we did. Eliza had us do a lot of physical things while we read through the script. We didn’t really dive into the scenes and work through them in a really rehearse-y way, she would have me do Sidney’s make-up while we read or she would do my hair, just so we were practicing the scenes and being comfortable with each other.

JP: And also applying action to the dialogue, which I feel is often how people communicate with one another. So, that’s a really great exercise. What was the audition for West Side Story like?
TR: The West Side Story audition, oh my goodness. I still laugh about my first audition. I came from school and forgot to print my resume, so they printed it out for me on the day and, for some reason, it didn’t end up making it into the pile for the very first audition. So, when they were calling groups for the very first time, they never called my name. I had a mental debate with myself, whether I was just going to let it slide and assume that I wasn’t going to get a call back anyway or go and ask if I could have a turn. I went and it was Patti [Patricia Lucia Delgado, associate choreographer] that I asked, like, “They didn’t call my name for some reason. Can I go?” and she was like, “Yes, let’s go again. Who wants to dance again?” Then two other people volunteered to dance with me, and I was so embarrassed. I’ll never forget that.

JP: Oh my god, I’m so glad that you approached her because we were so happy to have you as part of the film. You know, there were so many people who auditioned. It was an overwhelming amount. I do remember Patricia that day telling me about you, she was like,  “There’s this young girl, Talia, and you’ve got to see her dance. There’s something there.” You had some great moments in the film too. I’m so excited for you to see it.
TR: I can’t wait.

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JP: I’m really curious, what’s the difference… Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a very, kind of, indie, grassroots film, and the scale of West Side Story is obviously different, it’s produced by Disney and a Steven Spielberg film. What did it feel like coming on the set and into rehearsals?
TR: In Matilda, they were really big on journaling a lot, not only looking back but as headspace to write everything down and know how you feel. I also did that for West Side Story because I was like, “I don’t want to forget this, and I know I’m going to be learning and I want to bullet everything.” So I actually have a pretty memorable idea of what everything felt like. I looked back on it at some point during the shutdown and I was overwhelmed. It was the same in auditions, being in a room with all these people that you’d seen on stage, on Broadway and everything. It was crazy, and I don’t know, I just remember wanting to keep up and make everyone feel happy that they hired a sixteen-year-old to be in this. I wrote down every note I ever got and would look at them all before I went to bed to drill those things in, so when I got there the next day, it would never be worse than it was before. I always want to get better. I remember you and Patti were really supportive, because sometimes me and Patrick [Higgins] would be having a hard time with the lifts and stuff because I’d never really partnered, but we made it work.

JP: It was a great learning experience, that’s how I approach any project. You know, it’s funny you say that. I don’t usually journal, but for that experience, I also did bullet points.
TR: Really?

JP: Just very simple things that happened, so that I could remember those moments, because it felt like the whole experience was like watching a movie. There’s so much to it, so many details, so many interactions, emotion, conflict and resolution, and breakthroughs. I just felt like there’s way too much to remember, so I tried to write as much as I could. It was a 79-day shoot, which is very long for a film. When you booked this job, did you know that you would be speaking lines?
TR: Yes, after we’d done dance at the gym, someone reached back and was like, “Are you available to come back in September for a little bit?”

JP: I think that Steven [Spielberg] and Tony [Kushner, writer of the West Side Story screenplay] were really impressed with your acting and they wanted to see if they could create space for that. I was really happy to see that and for you to get the chance to work in that way, because you are amazing in the dance sections, but it was also so special to see you and Patrick and the whole cast in that scene, kind of, flex a little bit.
TR: It was really exciting to see how everyone approached filming the dance aspect, what those days looked like and how it was creating a full scene.

“It was so cool to watch. I came back to set a lot of days I wasn’t working just to watch it happen”


JP: You’re going to love seeing how Steven and the whole team approached capturing those moments on film…
TR: It was so cool to watch. I came back to set a lot of days I wasn’t working just to watch it happen, and I remember Steven would just change a little thing or change the timing of how the camera came in and it would capture things in a completely different way. I’m so excited to see that all translate because it already looked insane on the monitor.

JP: There’s something really remarkable about the way Steven tells the story using the camera. Every shot feels like it is building forward narratively, and that’s so rare to see in film. It’s a gift he has because he would never really plan that much. It’s not like he spent months creating a very rigid shot list. Many times, it would just be like, “Okay, we’re here on the day. Here’s the location. Here’s what we’re shooting. Okay, this is the shot,” and then he would design it in front of our eyes. I’ve got to ask, tell me about this Olivia Rodrigo music video [Ryder stars in Olivia Rodrigo’s deja vu video]. How did that come about?
TR: Kristie [Macosko Krieger, producer, West Side Story] set it up. I was on-set working on another film and I got a text from Kristie, like, “Hey, would you be down to come to LA and do a video with Olivia? Within a week, I Zoomed with Olivia, we spoke about the storyboard and she had a really cool concept. I really appreciated how she wanted to take a more cinematic approach to the song. Then it happened really fast, I flew to LA and did the video with her.

JP: That’s so awesome, was she cool to work with?
TR: Oh yes. We’ve hung out since, we’re the same age.

JP: Her show on SNL was great.
TR: Yes, she’s a really vibrant performer.

JP: I’m curious, who are your role models? Who do you get excited to see on camera?
TR: Honestly, Steve Carell probably first, and Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls, that specific performance really made me want to continue acting. I just love everything that she was able to capture about being a kid and growing up in that film. What about you?

JP: Oh, man. There’s this really amazing actor I’m super excited about. Her name’s Talia Ryder.
TR: Oh, no, no [laughs]. Does not count.

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JP: There’s definitely people I really admire as actors. You know what I watched recently that I loved, the Fosse/Verdon series.
TR: I literally just watched that last week. It was so good.

JP: It was really well done. I thought Sam Rockwell was amazing in it, as was Michelle Williams. Both of them did a phenomenal job of portraying those characters. Fosse’s a creative person, dancemaker, filmmaker that I’ve admired for a long time, or been interested in for a long time, so that was cool to see. Are you working on anything right now?
TR: I’m working on a film in Atlanta right now called Strangers, which I’m very excited about. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson is the director, she did Someone Great, a Netflix film. This next film is going to be through Netflix too, and it’s a [modern] take on Strangers on a Train – if it were set today at an insane Miami high school.

JP: That sounds amazing.
TR: It’s a lot of fun. I had my first day two days ago and I’m back in New York now. I think we’re scheduled to wrap end of July, but I’m back and forth to New York because I’m also training for dancing in a new film that I’ll be working on in the fall.

JP: Do you have any interest in doing more live theatre?
TR: I am dying to do theatre again.

JP: I would love to see you in a show on Broadway.
TR: What about you? Do you want to do more film or theatre?

JP: Damn, you’re throwing it back at me. Okay. I want to do both, but I’m really interested in doing more film. I feel like I caught the bug working on West Side Story, it was like a masterclass in filmmaking that I was able to be privy to. It’s been an interesting time to take a step back, zoom out and think more about developing stories and projects from the ground up. Seeing where they go, and having the creative control to express what I want to. I think I would like to see where all that goes, in a patient way.

West Side Story is released on 10th December 2021
Interview originally published in HEROINE 15

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