Basking in the Moment with Paloma Garcia Lee of ‘WEST SIDE STORY’


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Paloma was photographed and interviewed by Alison Engstrom; she was styled by Sarah Slutsky; makeup by Tina Turnbow and hair by Marc Mena; styling assistance Carlee Princell.

First Look: Dress by Solace London; Shoes by M. Gemi; Hair pins by Lelet

Above: Dress by Elie Saab; Jewelry by Alighieri


Tomorrow will be my fourth time seeing it; it’s more beautiful than I ever thought it could be. It’s such a visual treat for the eyes and on top of it you have these epic breakout performances—I just can’t say enough. Usually, you go to a movie and you’re seeing three or four massive stars and a handful of supporting cast who are still pretty well-known. But here, there are like 50 feature film debuts. Many of the people in this film I’ve worked with for a long time, it’s like the whole Broadway community. We’re all celebrating each other, which has been so fun. The New York cast screening and the New York premiere were like a rock concert because our friends kept popping up on the screen.


It’s a major film and Steven said it was meant to be seen in the theaters and to be an experience. I remember sitting at dinner one night with a friend and saying, he would truly push this five years if he had to in order for it to have the proper release it deserves. At the time, I had just moved out to LA after 13 years in New York. I drove across the country with my dad and every one of my belongings. When I got out here, it was September, I slept in my apartment for one night and the next morning, Steven did a Zoom with us and announced that the film was being pushed by a year, it was crazy. I was like, my plans!


I have this crazy moment that I have spoken about a fair amount but it bears repeating. I’ve had a crazy journey with West Side Story my whole life—it’s always been in my periphery. My mom did many productions of West Side Story professionally, she was also a Broadway performer, so I grew up with posters around the house and seeing her cast jacket.  I was shown the film at an early age and I was always drawn to it, but initially, I was on the ballet path. I wasn’t thinking about musical theater when I was younger. I went to North Carolina School of the Arts, where Gerald Freedman was the dean—he was the original assistant director on the original production of West Side Story on Broadway. Every four years the school puts on this giant musical and while I was there, they decided to do West Side Story with the original Jerome Robbins choreography. My mom said, you have to audition for this; I was like, I don’t know.

I auditioned at 15-years-old and I got the role of Graziella. At that moment, I decided to change my focus from ballet to theater, because I was like, I love this; I love this so much. Since then, I have tried to play Graziella so many times. I auditioned for the Broadway production in 2009 and got really close but I didn’t get it. I remember sobbing on the street to my mom saying, I just know I’m supposed to play this role. At the time I was doing other big Broadway productions, but I was looking for any excuse to do Westside. I was like, I will literally leave my Broadway show to go do West Side Story again. It struck such a bone marrow chord in me. I think West Side Story means a lot, to a lot of people. That score was revolutionary, something about it grabbed my spirit. When they put out the Deadline article in 2018 about Steven Spielberg remaking it, I’ll never forget sitting at my computer at my apartment on the Upper West Side when my heart started racing. I thought, oh, I’m going to do that—I’m 100% going to do that. The nuts thing is I wrote in my journal that night: I am Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. I’m big into manifesting—you get those moments when you’re like, I want this. I’m gonna go write it down and I’m going to bring this into my reality.

When the auditions started coming out, I got an appointment and anyone who was anyone was at those auditions, over 35,000 people auditioned just for the leads of the film, let alone those who auditioned for the supporting roles in the film. You’re in a room and there’s Steven. In those moments, he is out of his element because he’s never directed a musical before and it’s fun watching him. He’s up on his feet. He’s running around, he’s giddy, and he’s witnessing this whole new world through our eyes.


There’s a funny story I haven’t shared with anyone yet. So we danced and I make it through the cut. They are making cuts throughout the day and I’m asked to stay, I’m asked to stay, and they had holding rooms for men and women. Most of my friends are men and I’m always in the boy’s dressing room that’s very much my vibe as a human. All of a sudden, one of the casting associates runs into the room and said, Paloma, we have been looking for you for like, 20 minutes! We’re doing a callback right now and you’re supposed to be dancing in the room right now.

I walked into the room late and  people are already doing the dance. Then  all of a sudden, I’m realizing that small group, was a callback for Grazi. I walked in, it gets quiet, and Steven was like, well, where were you? I said, if I’m being totally honest, I was flirting in the boy’s room, I’m here now, and let’s go, let’s do it.  I said I was totally just being a flirt (laughs) and that just poured out of my body. At the end of the day, that’s who Grazi is, too. I think that I was able to walk in and be authentically myself with him. He cultivates a sense of ease around him. Many people would be like, what’s it like being in a room with him? Honestly, it’s made me more comfortable than I’ve ever been. It’s why I’ve always been drawn to this character—she’s a ferocious dancer, she’s super opinionated, and she has a crazy weird attitude. She’s all of these things that I possess so I let him see that in me. He and Justin Peck, the choreographer, said they knew that day that I was this role for them. It’s one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever gotten, which is crazy. There are jobs I’ve done 80,000 callbacks for and worked so hard for and not gotten and obviously those were not for me. I’m the biggest believer in what’s meant for you won’t pass you by and sometimes just showing up is enough.


There are so many especially in this version. We’re all using the word reimagined and sinking our teeth into that. This West Side Story focuses a lot more on the female narrative and the female figures than ever before and I think that’s beautiful. We have a much more empowered Maria and Anita. Obviously, Rita Moreno coming back and playing a role that was formerly a man’s role and giving again that female perspective. My character, Graziella, takes a turn towards the end of the movie, you see a moment where even in her narrative, women come together to help and to support each other. You see it through those bonds with Maria, Anita, Valentina, and Graziella, where we’ve never seen that before in the film in such a powerful way.

I think we’re holding a mirror up to society today. I do agree wholeheartedly that the film is actually more topical now than in 1957 or 1961 when it was released initially. We are so divided as a country and as a world right now. In this story, we can hone in on even through our differences, can we find a place of common ground? Can we put our assumptions aside about others, because that’s the thing, we get to focus in this version about the common denominator between the Sharks and the Jets, which is their neighborhood is being demolished. This isn’t just your street, my street, we get to see on a wider scale, that everything is being taken away from both of these people that are trying to make a life. a community, and families for themselves. It’s not even about them hating each other, it’s about them trying to defend the very little that they have, which again, wraps around to today.

The world is facing a lot of loss and injustice and these pots keep boiling over with things that are not handled and dealt with. But there might be more places for empathy, there might be more places for common ground for listening, for hearing, for love, and less violence. I love the reimagining in this film and how Steven and especially Tony Kushner’s chose to focus on that and you leave thinking.  At the end of the film, there’s no happy ending, you’re left to think about the cost of it all, the cost of hate.


I posted something on Instagram last night because I was watching the ABC 2020 Special and I was just crying at my computer. What I wrote last night was about these highs and life, these big moments, the breaks, the goodness, the sunshine, the really top of the mountain highs are sandwiched with some pretty low valleys and pretty dark times. I was overwhelmed.  I’ve gone through a very transformative few years—an over a decade-long relationship ending, leaving Broadway in search of other dreams, and it’s not been easy. This moment is not lost on me and again, how hard it was to wait another full year because we filmed this movie almost two and a half years ago. It’s like here you go, you’re going to get a movie with Steven Spielberg, your feature film debut is going to be a larger supporting role on a Spielberg film—you’re like, yes, yes, yes and then having to wait this long. When you’re in that moment of frustration, when you’re in that darkness and in the valley, can you exhale and be grateful knowing bright days are coming? Life ebbs and flows, one is actually not as great without the other. Had I just had a hunky-dory last two years of massive success of booking every TV show or film I auditioned for, I’m not sure this would be as massive and as transformative as it is right now. So it’s funny now to look back and to understand why all of those things didn’t work out so I can bask in this moment and in this feeling, and then bottle this up and for lack of a better term, save it for a rainy day.

Dress by Ashlyn; Headband by Jennifer Behr


Gratitude can change literally our perspective on everything. Mike Faist, who plays Riff in the film, would play this game during that summer called rose, bud, thorn. He would ask, what is the rose of this moment, this day, or this experience? What is the bloom; what is the highest high; what is the joy? What are you taking from this that’s so blissful? Then what is the bud? What is the thing you’re discovering; what’s coming up; what’s bubbling up in you; what’s transforming in you; what’s about to happen? Then the thorn—what are going to grow from in this, what is the thing that maybe stung a little bit or is a little bit of a shadow, a little bit of a dark moment, but you know is going to be good for you? I loved reflecting on these things daily because it was choosing gratitude in the moments, even those harder times. It’s about remaining in these moments, we are so lucky to do what we do. In these moments—and throughout this process and anytime I wish this or that—realizing that people would work their entire careers just to be in the same room as Steven Spielberg. I am lucky enough that it’s my first film. This isn’t even the height of my career, this has just informed where I want to go. This is the starting point; this is the launching block and it’s like, how can I not be bathing in a clawfoot tub of gratitude everyday?

Dress by Melitta Baumeister; Bodysuit by Eres; Shoes by M. Gemi; Necklace by Alexis Bittar; Ear cuff and rings by Mejuri




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