Rita Moreno high-kicked, sang and acted her way into the pantheon of performers to become one of only nine living Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners.
She won an Oscar as Anita in “West Side Story,” Emmys for “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files,” a Tony for “The Ritz,” and a Grammy for best recording on “The Electric Company.”
But it’s Moreno’s less flashy work, as a mensch, that has her colleagues bestowing their top honor: the Life Achievement Award at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, airing live on TNT and TBS on Saturday, Jan. 18.
In an hour-long interview with Zap2it, Moreno, 82, talks about her volunteer work and career that took her to Broadway at 13, and to movies, where she never landed the sort of roles she knew she could do.
Zap2it: You have earned so many accolades. What does this one mean to you?
Rita Moreno: Isn’t it hilarious? The last six months I have had three more lifetime achievement awards. Are they saying, “Quit before you hit the bucket”? Aside from the very impressive side that is given to you by your peers, it is an honor that no one else metes out. It is a lifetime achievement for a life lived and performed and humanitarian service. You are usually awarded for a particular performance. This will make the two-minute acceptance speech difficult.
Zap2it: Are you already writing the speech?
Rita Moreno: I keep waking up in the middle of the night [thinking]: “This may be the track to take”. Another time, something else will come to mind. It has to be very special and unique. It goes beyond an Oscar — and I never thought I would say that in my life! It is an extraordinary homage, so I have to carefully parse my words.
Zap2it: What are your charities?
Rita Moreno: I have always been very involved with the Hispanic community. I do not have one cause as other performers do. I go to where I think the greatest need is. I am very concerned about hunger in local communities. A lot of people these days are going to other countries to help out. We tend to forget the very same conditions exist here.
For my last few birthdays — every year I am still here, I have something to celebrate — I asked my friends to bring a toy for a child. I sure as hell don’t need anything. I am very privileged and very lucky. I also contribute to the Oakland (Calif.) food bank, which is in dire need. You just have to make up your mind what you want to ally yourself with. I am also very active with Meals on Wheels. Hungry older people are heartbreaking.
Zap2it: After your Oscar, did you expect more and better roles?
Rita Moreno: I did not do a film for seven years, not because I wasn’t offered some. I mean, [there were] about three — gang pictures, B movies — and with my little gold man in my possession I said, “Been there, done that.” I guess I taught them a lesson because I did not work for seven years. It was heartbreaking, and I was stunned. My agents could not get me a job for love or money. Except for those three gang movies.
Zap2it: Did you actually play an East Indian exchange student on “Father Knows Best”?
Rita Moreno: I hated that episode so much. I was stuck with those kind of roles all the time — my dusky maiden roles.
Zap2it: Has the industry changed enough?
Rita Moreno: Not enough. I think we have to be very careful when I speak of us talking about minorities. We have to be careful not to ghettoize ourselves. It is important that the film industry widen what the rest of the world really looks like. We have a long way to go. Certainly the door is ajar, but it is only ajar, and it is a very, very heavy door, and you have to push very hard to persevere and get through it.
Zap2it: Who were your influences?
Rita Moreno: I certainly never had a role model. There was nobody in my youth. I finally chose Elizabeth Taylor because she was staggeringly beautiful and near my age, and I tried to emulate her by doing my eyebrows that way. I did the audiobook for Sonia Sotomayor‘s book. She was smart enough to constantly be looking for mentors, and she was astonishing, but she had a confidence in herself that I never did. We have become great friends, and I said to her, ‘Boy, I wish you had been around when I was a girl.’ She said, ‘You have now become the role model.’ I never think about that, but it is so.
Zap2it: What roles would you like to play?
Rita Moreno: Anything that Meryl Streep does I want. That explains it all.