“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is the latest documentary from filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera (“Lovesickness”, “Croatto”, “la huella de un emigrante”). The film uses clips from Rita Moreno’s acting career, combined with intimate interviews and stop-motion animation to tell the story of the first Latina EGOT winner and all of the immense hardships she has gone through. From poverty, discrimination and sexual harassment, Rita Moreno has been able to rise above it and remain a positive, radiant figure in the entertainment world. I found this film to be incredibly inspiring, especially for women and women of color. Rita Moreno has appeared in over 150 films and TV episodes, most notably “West Side Story”, “Oz”, and “The Electric Company.” The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and has screened at many film festivals since then, including San Francisco International, Tribeca, Denver’s Women + Film Festival and more. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is now playing in theatres nationwide.

I was wondering if you could talk about what Rita meant to you throughout your life? I imagine that she was probably a pretty big role model for you? 

Yes, she is because I’m Puerto Rican, and she’s Puerto Rican herself. As a Puerto Rican filmmaker, her life and her career has been a big inspiration, and the fact that I’m able to make her documentary is an honor. I’m so grateful for that. 

What was it like working with her? She’s such a larger-than-life figure, and she has so much positivity radiating off of her all the time. What was it like being around someone who is just so accomplished? 

It was a great experience. She is someone who has so much to say and who has gone through so many things. To be able to be in her presence and to see how humble she is, to see how she likes to learn about everything and anything at her age, and how she’s so aware of herself and everyone around her, is really amazing. It’s great to see her and to be able to be in her presence. You learn a lot just by observing her. 

Rita Moreno in the film RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Watching the film, I was just thinking about what it would be like on your crew. She has such a draw to her, and she’s such a likeable and loving person. Do you have any stories or moments to share from the filmmaking process where she really inspired you, or from when you had a really good one-on-one conversation and she gave you great advice?

All of that is in the documentary. The way I did her interviews or I questioned her on so many topics was I did it through my own experience and through my perspective. She gave me her answers, and in her answers was her advice. I was trying to be vulnerable with her so that she could feel comfortable and so that she could be vulnerable with me as well. We talked a lot about many things, particularly about being a woman in Hollywood and what that means, and going through so much, while dealing with so many insecurities because we don’t fit into that box that they want us to fit in. We talked about prejudice and discrimination, even harassment. We also talked about her divorce and her relationship with her husband. All of that are things that I talked with her about.

But to me, I would say the fact she talks so openly about therapy, and how therapy is such an important influence to the woman that she is today and in the woman that she became was the biggest thing that she could’ve told me. You think that she is someone untouchable, and that she’s someone who’s an alien, but when you talk to her and you know how much she has gone through, you understand that all of that has to do with the fact that she went through therapy. For me, that is the biggest takeaway I took from her. 

Rita Moreno
From the film RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT
Courtesy of Getty Images

Did you know before you started shooting that it was kind of going to take that trajectory? 

I mean I knew about her therapy because I read her book and she talks about it there, but I didn’t know she was going to talk about it as much as she did. When I saw her talking so much about it, I realized that this was something very important in her life. I understood that this is the main reason why she is the person she is today. So I asked her right away, and she said, “yes, therapy is what saved me, and therapy is what made me become the person who I am today.” She said it in the movie: “if it wasn’t because of therapy, I wouldn’t be here.” 

I think it’s so important that it’s a part of the film, and that she shares it as part of her story, because unfortunately so many of us can relate to things that she went through. You see this larger-than-life person who is super-successful, yet she’s dealing with so many of the same things that we’re all having to unfortunately deal with too. During those difficult interviews, how do you take care of yourself after a long day of talking to her? 

Some of the things we discussed are not fun and or happy, but she talks about them with so much inspiration. She found a solution to all of those things that she went through. I think it’s inspiring. You end up wanting “to go for it!” You end up wanting to also continue with your life and your career, and be brave and say, “okay, bring it on.” Whatever situation I’m faced with, I’m able to overcome it because Rita was able to do it in the time when things were so much worse. If she’s able to do it, then I’m able to do it. So if anything, it gives me a lot of inspiration and a lot of strength to continue.

Mariem Pérez Riera

You’ve been making films for quite a while, but what is a way that you have personally grown, or grown as a filmmaker through making this documentary? 

This is the first documentary where I got to really have a good budget and do as much as I wanted. Of course, there’s always some limitations and budget limitations, especially in documentaries, but I was able to include many of the things that I was dreaming to have in this film, such as the stop-motion animation, but also the music and the interviews that I was able to have. I’ve done many other projects with a very ,very low budget, and so this is the first time that I was able to ask and dream big. Almost everything that I dreamt about is in the documentary. 

Do you see this film as a turning point for you and your career? 

Yes! And I hope…not just yes, but I hope. Because I honestly think that the reason that I had the opportunity to pitch this idea, or pitch and be considered as a director for this story is because I’m a woman and I’m Puerto Rican. But I just hope that for other projects I don’t need to be just a woman and a Puerto Rican because the project is about a Puerto Rican woman. I hope it’s because I did a great job and because I’m a good filmmaker, not because I’m pigeonholed in a specific genre, or in a specific niche, but because I’m a filmmaker, period. That’s what I’m hoping that I get to have with this documentary. 

Yeah, absolutely! I think so many artists can relate to that. 

Rita Moreno at the Tony Awards,1975
Photo Credit: American Theater Wing
Courtesy of Tony Awards Productions

What do you hope that people see in this film? 

I hope that people see a woman who was able to break barriers, who was able to manage and continue despite all her hardship. Despite all of the harassment, discrimination and prejudice that she went through, she was able to continue and succeed. I hope it inspires others to continue going with what they are passionate about. If you’re a woman, if you’re a woman of color, if you’re a Latina woman, but also anyone… a man, an immigrant, or you’re going through something tough, I hope you see in Rita an inspiration and the strength to continue doing what you want to do. I think that’s what she brings with her story. 

What advice do you have for young emerging female filmmakers? 

I would say to be true to yourself. If it’s a personal project or a project that you are doing for someone else, try to find what connects you with the subject or with the story because it’s through your own lens, and from your own perspective that you’re going to make it your own, and unique and authentic. I think that’s important when you tell the story. You have to tell a story from your experience, from your perspective. That’s what I did with this documentary. I tried to find what connected me with Rita, and what was my experience to bring through her stories, and to tell my stories through her stories. So I think that it’s important to be very connected to the story and not disconnected because that is shown in the final project. You need to be very aware of telling it from your own perspective and be authentic with that. 

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Dawn Borchardt is the host of the filmmaker interview podcast Faux Reel. For more filmmaker interviews, or to listen to the audio version of this interview, check out: 

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