The only thing cold about Rita Moreno when we speak is the fact that she has one. Otherwise, the “EGOT” actress—one of an elite group of actors crowned with the theater industry’s prestigious Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards—is warm, salty, even fiery, and only occasionally pauses as if about to sneeze or grumbles like a Christmas Carol curmudgeon about her raspy voice.
“I have a slight cold, and that’s why I sound so funny. I haven’t been touched by any germs until Thanksgiving. I was with my daughter and her in-laws, and my daughter, her husband and myself, we all got a mild cold… drives me nuts. Wait, wait, let me turn the sound off on this broadcast. I’m a real news hound, you know. There, it’s off. Now, where were we?”
Where we are, or at least where Moreno is during our conversation, is back in her beloved home located high in the Berkeley Hills. Poised on the precipice of her 91st birthday on Dec. 11, she has just returned from three whirlwind weeks of hotel living and appearances—talks at colleges and other venues, a Disney television special, work on a movie coming out in 2023 and more—all of which left her clamoring for her very own home, bed, pillow and snacks. I ask her if she is ever alone enough to get lonely.
She tells me she lives in a “fancy-schmancy house” with sunsets “like you’ve never seen in your life,” which launches her into several stories that frequently start out gruff and wind into dizzy-in-love territory.
“For years, we’ve had really crappy roads up here that are shocking. Other than that, I love Berkeley. I wouldn’t be anywhere else. Oh no, I have to correct that. I still have my apartment in New York. I’m a New Yorker and so is my daughter, Fernanda. I’ve just been invited to be on The View in New York in January, and I’m saying, ‘Yes! I’ll go!’ We get to see incredible plays and performances and eat in places I would normally not eat in. It will be a wonderful time.”
But it won’t be the same as Berkeley, to which she and her late husband, cardiologist Leonard Gordon, who died in 2010, moved to be closer to their daughter.
“She married the young man she was seeing, so we just stayed, built this house. I love the people here. I love the opinionated women here. That’s the first thing I noticed when I came up here from Los Angeles. I loved the people who would write angry letters to the editor. I thought, oh, those are my kind of women. I also love Berkeley’s charm. It’s funny, there’s something a little wacky, which I adore. Let’s put it this way, it’s certainly not Los Angeles, and that’s a good thing.”
Contributing another good thing to Berkeley in 2023, Moreno will appear Feb. 26 in a conversation at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. It’s likely the Puerto Rican actor who has risen to iconic status will speak with vigorous energy about key experiences she has had during her seven-decade career.
That career spans work on television, Broadway and theatrical stage productions—and in films such as her Academy award-winning turn as Anita in 1961’s West Side Story and the re-imagined 2021 West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, and in which Moreno plays a new character, Valentina.
The conversation may touch on the rigorous, one-woman show she performed in 2011 at Berkeley Rep, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. Far from a nostalgic trip down memory lane, she will without a doubt leap from every angle to address some of her passions: racism and sexism in the entertainment industry, the importance of her not only appearing in the Spielberg film but being credited as one of the producers.
She can’t help but include talk of the “shot knees” of a 91-year-old performing artist, a suicide attempt years ago and a real-life assault she suffered that are included in the documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, and life lessons learned from great loves and adventures she has had: Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, and participating in the Women’s March on Washington.
“The Women’s March was one of my greatest experiences. You know, I’m old, but I can walk. I’ve been around for 91 years, so I have a lot to say. I have opinions. I’m adamant about certain things. I’m an activist. I’m a political person.”
I ask if her tongue is looser because she is nearly 91, and she says, “Absolutely. I don’t stint. I’m salty. I’m raucous, I love to laugh, I get angry at social conditions. None of that is hidden from the public. I don’t hold back.”
Proving the reins are off, Moreno gallops on: “While I’m remembering, I want to tell you what audiences are in for when I appear. It’s not the usual talk, talk, talk. It’s a conversation. That’s when I’m at my best, funniest, most touching. I’m appearing with someone and opining my ass off and that’s fun. I have hilarious stories to tell, and I have a great sense of humor about myself and my life.
“I stopped doing talks because they don’t have half the effect on the audience that a conversation has. I just tell stories, the audience laughs a lot, and there’s a tear or two shed sometimes. I never know what I will say. I never know what I will be asked. That’s the exciting part of it.”
When I consider the package that is Moreno—the blend up superwoman confidence and a performer’s needy desires—it is complex. Moreno appears to thrive on attention, craves to please an audience, aspires to otherworldly perfection that includes not only her artistry, but the ability to remember the names of hundreds of people she meets each year and to defy aging joints that leave her to say, “Bending knees is a chore. No more pliés, my dear. But I’m not crippled.”
At the same time, there’s no hesitation in her voice when she says she is “very, very good at storytelling” and “very kind and thoughtful, with a great sense of humor” and skilled at “not making jokes like standup,” but making people laugh by telling them about situations in her life she finds funny. “I’m complex? Well that’s interesting. No one has ever called me complex. What do you think makes me complex?” she asks.
I mention again this alchemy of confidence and vulnerability, but also another fact she has told me. In addition to the physiological changes due to aging, nouns and Moreno have become mortal enemies. The names of things, and especially names of people, are things her brain doesn’t want to remember.
“It makes me nuts. Movie star names, names I know really well. Sometimes the names of objects, but mostly it’s about people. Of course, I could be less lucky and not be able to speak or have a stutter. I can’t complain, but it does make me crazy. The name eventually comes to me, but it’s after I’ve forgotten it and it’s five minutes later, and that’s not useful.
“Part of the problem is that even when this was not happening as it is now, I never listened to names when I first heard them. It’s because when I’m introduced, it’s to people I’m not likely to ever see again. My life is filled with strangers. It became habit, and then in the rare times I’d run into someone again, I’d feel so embarrassed because I couldn’t remember their name.”
See? I say to her. Complicated cross-wiring: wanting to please people, speaking truth with “no bullshit”—her words—and being well-rehearsed with little guilt in forgetting personal touches like people’s names.
“You’re right, I’m complicated.” She issues a big, husky laugh, followed by a few coughs. “How am I complex and keep going? Life lessons. It’s having the ability to learn from your life, from things that happened, from anxiety I felt. Being in psychotherapy was the magic in it all. If it had not been for my going to see someone in-and-out for eight years, I wouldn’t be this Rita Moreno you’re talking to right now. Therapy is what shaped my life from age 23 on. I’m a person who learns from life lessons. I examine all kinds of stuff.”
Moreno is observant and sensitive to human behaviors and individual quirks, part of an actor’s job. Inevitably, that orientation leads to self-examination. She believes people resist psychotherapy and shouldn’t.
“A therapist presents a mirror. That’s what you can get from a good therapist: This is what I see, what I hear, where you are wrong, where you are right, this path is a good one, that one not so much. You learn about negative patterns you keep repeating. Why do I always find the wrong guy, for instance.”
Having recognized and broken free of patterns and finding herself in tremendous demand during the last 10 years, Moreno says her “sudden” popularity is a mystery. Perhaps it is because she no longer tries to please everyone, I suggest. I mention as an example one topic she addresses with forceful protest in interviews and appearances: the continuing underrepresentation of Latin actors and culture in films, despite her and other Latin actors’ success.
“With respect to Latin actors—not just women, but all—we are still severely underrepresented. Something about being Latin in the film profession keeps us back. Someone suggested to me recently that the reason is that Hispanics, we come from many different countries. We tend to silo ourselves. Regardless of if we’re Argentinian, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Mexican, she feels we need to come together in a more serious, political way. Why, as a community, have we still not made it in films? It enrages me. We have such talent in our community. What the hell is going on here? It’s bizarre. She may have a point. We need to hold our hands together.”
Moreno is unafraid to admit she is surprised but also pleased that she is today heard and held with greater regard and respect. “People listen to me. The resurgence, it’s crazy.” She has just wrapped up work on a Disney/ABC special of Beauty and the Beast that has Martin Short playing the Candelabra and the singer, H.E.R., playing Belle.
“It has incredible costumes and sets. I am the narrator who is not just voice-over, but I am visible and present these things. I think it drops on Dec. 15. It’s spectacular. And then there’s the movie, 80 for Brady, about four old gals going on a road trip to see Tom Brady and coming in February. It has me, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and… oh, where is that name? (Earlier, she easily recalls the fourth actor is Sally Field.) This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts. That’s my story, morning glory,” she says.
As we say our goodbyes, Moreno tells me I must come to the Berkeley event and stop backstage to say hello in person. I say yes, on one condition. She must promise not to worry about remembering my name. “You can call me Agatha, or any other name, and I’ll act like it’s the real deal.” Moreno delivers another long, deep-chested, hearty laugh and says, playing along with the joke, “Oh, I like anyone named Agatha. I can’t wait to meet her.”