Rachel Zegler is a modern movie star. She exploded onto the scene with a stunning performance in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and a fairy tale of a Hollywood origin story—unknown New Jersey schoolgirl beats out 30,000 with self-taped audition! Before the movie was released, she had filmed the superhero sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods alongside Helen Mirren and had been cast in a live-action adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As befitting a celebrity tale of today, though, she has also walked headfirst into a fame machine where glamour and accolades are undercut by trolling and online attacks. The spotlight on her has led to an intense scrutiny of everything from her looks and personality to her ethnicity.
“I got cast as Maria in West Side Story on 1/9/19. And I just won a Golden Globe for that same performance, on 1/9/22. Life is very strange,” Zegler tweeted after winning the award. She’s still getting used to the strangeness. While Zegler became an overnight celebrity after landing the role of Maria, being cast in Snow White caused a more world-changing shift. “I felt more of my anonymity go out the window after Snow White was announced, because Disney has such a dedicated following,” she says. There was a dark note to the commentary, with an undercurrent of anger at the idea of a Latina woman playing the quintessential Disney princess. For the second time, Zegler was taking on a historic part loaded with cultural associations. “I had to step into these iconic shoes,” she says. “The first thing I thought personally was just how to block out the inevitable comparison that would come between myself and Natalie Wood, and myself and a literal two-dimensional cartoon that everyone and their mother seemed to care about the second they announced that I was in the movie. Snow White was this incredible piece of art, hailed as this triumph for animation, and put Disney on the map in such a huge way.”
The mild-mannered princess might seem at first glance to be an odd match for Zegler’s vibrant and outspoken persona, but the vision of director Marc Webb, whose earlier films include 500 Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man, gave her confidence that the story would embrace a new take. When he initially approached her, the project was so shrouded in mystery that she was unaware what the film was even about. “We had a very straightforward conversation before I’d even realized that [the movie] was Snow White. When I started to put the pieces together and I knew it was a Disney princess thing, he was like, ‘Who’s the fairest of them all: What does fair mean? What does it have to mean? Does it mean skin tone? Does it mean beauty? Or does it mean whether or not you are just? The way you treat people? The way you approach others with kindness or lack thereof?’ ” she recalls. “It’s just been a really beautiful moment for my inner child, bringing her back. We were forced to grow up very fast with all of the life change that we went through in the last couple of years. [This is] just this very healing process for me.”
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When we meet on Zoom, Zegler, who turns 21 in May, is in London rehearsing the film, which costars Tony Award winner Andrew Burnap and Gal Gadot (who plays the Evil Queen and calls Zegler “a delight to work with”). She appears warm and welcoming, dressed casually in a plaid shirt, her newly chopped hair wet. Her exploration of London has been tempered a bit by her COVID caution, but she’s been able to visit a few restaurants and vintage shops with Burnap, who lives a floor above her, and to spend a night out with West Side Story costar Mike Faist while he was in town. Her time abroad comes right after a period living in Atlanta shooting Shazam! She’s still making the transition to a life filled with constant moves while also navigating the very ordinary, bittersweet pangs of growing up. “My relationship with my family, my ‘core four,’ as I call us—my mom, my dad, my older sister, and me—has stayed the same, truly,” she says. Her mom left her job so she could accompany Zegler to the West Side Story set each day. “I truly think that I would’ve lost my mind if I didn’t have her there, even after I turned 18,” she recalls. “I’m across the world now, and I miss that.”
While Zegler made gestures toward attending college after graduating from New Jersey’s Immaculate Conception High School, somewhere in her mind she knew that it might not happen. “I really believed in my talent very early on, and probably in a psychotic way, to the point where I was, ‘Yeah, I’m in an audition for a Spielberg movie; maybe then I won’t go to college.’ That was the idea I had.”
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Maybe it’s that self-assuredness, the kind young girls are encouraged to have and also punished for having, that has fed the undue online hostility. Some of the backlash has been reactive, like the negative response to a video in which Zegler did a dramatic line reading of sensitive tweets regarding Britney Spears’s family turmoil. But other comments seemed to come out of nowhere. “It’s hard,” she says of the criticism, “but at the end of the day, you have to remember that, at least in my case, I’m the one with the confidence to go out there, and show my face, and be myself, and I’m getting paid. I’m working, doing what I love…and it’s all I’ve ever wanted in my entire life. I’m really excited to share myself in that way, and let them all talk, you know? Let them all talk. I lead with love, and that’s all I can really tell the world.”
Zegler, who began her career posting her performances on YouTube, appreciates what an online audience has offered her. But at times, more frequently now, social media is just too much. “Every day, I watch as we distance ourselves further and further from love and understanding,” she says. “Everybody learns just how fast these people who claim to love you can turn on you in an instant. We put so many eggs in the basket of parasocial relationships and these expectations that are impossible for these normal human beings to meet, and then we feign disappointment when they don’t meet them. Everyone is learning every day, and I’ve constantly found myself being rightfully called out for things, and absolutely, there are necessary moments of learning, and adapting, and understanding—that’s how we grow as human beings, and I’m really proud of those things. There’s also just a lot of unnecessary things. Comments that people make about people’s relationships, their appearance, and the way that they decide to live their lives, even though it’s quite literally nobody else’s business but their own. You just sit back and think to yourself, ‘Do I need this?’ ”
There’s so much for Zegler to enjoy within her own reality. She’s still close with her childhood best friend, Brenna, and is in a relationship. While she doesn’t mention her boyfriend by name, it’s reportedly actor Josh Andrés Rivera, who played Chino in West Side Story. Sweet snaps of the couple pepper her Instagram; when he visited her in London, she took him on the Harry Potter studio tour. She says that having a partner who shared in the life-altering experience of West Side Story has helped her achieve some needed peace. “There’s always this deep understanding of what I go through. Since [his experience was] on a different scale, he’s able to bring me back to earth and tell me when it really doesn’t matter. Because he’s removed from it to a certain degree, he’s able to just snap me out of it, and tell me to stop checking my phone, or remind me of what actually matters, and remind me to be present, and to not focus on the opinions of 3,000 faceless strangers on the internet.”
The intense press days preceding West Side Story’s December release, when Zegler took part in interview after interview, have passed. One moment remains in my mind. In a roundtable conversation, women in the cast—Zegler, Ariana DeBose, and Rita Moreno—were questioned about controversy surrounding costar Ansel Elgort. In 2020, a woman accused Elgort of sexually assaulting her in 2014, when she was reportedly 17 years old and he was 20. Why would it be on his female costars, of all people, to speak on his actions, I ask?
Zegler is immediately alert, open to the question. She too doesn’t understand why throughout the film’s junket, she was the one receiving questions about Elgort’s actions, “even though the person in question was present,” she says. (Elgort, who reportedly participated in only group interviews during the junket, said initially in a now-deleted Instagram post that he had a “brief, legal, and entirely consensual relationship” with the woman and denied all allegations of sexual assault. “I have never and would never assault anyone.”)
“It was a real gut punch, honestly,” says Zegler of being asked to answer for her male coworker. “I reverted back to this brain space I was in [back in] June of 2020, when the accusation surfaced. We were in the middle of the first wave of lockdown, and there was nothing to do but doom-scroll. Those days were some of the worst mental health days I’ve ever had. I was sitting there having just turned 19, on the precipice of what was promised to be the biggest moment in my life, and was being held accountable [by the public] for accusations that not only had nothing to do with me but were made about a situation that was said to have occurred [five] years prior to when I had met and worked with this person. With no thought to the fact that I was also 17 when I met this person, 17 when I worked with them, 17 and 18 when I had to do love scenes.”
Much has been read into what Zegler did or didn’t say about Elgort, with the internet desperate for clues into how she responded to the situation. Behind the scenes, she says, she was devastated. “[There is] inherent discomfort that comes with that realization that there are tons of people who think that you have to answer for the actions of an adult male who can speak for himself. It is so wildly disappointing at every turn, no matter how you slice it. No matter how many times I’ve tried to justify people’s concern when it comes to me in my brain, but then realizing that it comes from a place of me having to answer for that, and not them actually caring about whether or not I was okay, was really hurtful. And also paying no mind when it came to the conversation between myself and these other incredible women in my cast, without any thought process to our experiences as women in the industry who constantly find ourselves in close encounters with men in power, and a very iconic woman in Hollywood who has spoken about her experience with sexual assault. In the grand scheme of things with this woman who has come forward with these allegations, I cannot imagine what she had to go through. If I’m sitting here thinking that those days were traumatizing for me, I don’t pretend to know. I could never know,” Zegler says, finally adding, “I really don’t have anything to do with this conversation, and I’m looking forward to moving past it.”
Her words give a new meaning to something she said earlier. “Nobody is actually aware of what goes on in my day-to-day life. They don’t know the conversations that I have with my team, or the things that I think about myself, or the situations I’ve been forced into, the things I’ve had to say or not say. They don’t know. And so I have a lot of grace for those people as well.”
While in London, Zegler saw Cabaret in the West End. She thinks a lot about the song “What Would You Do?” Its life-and-death prewar context is worlds away from her life, she is careful to say, but there’s something she sees in the lyrics. “If you’re faced with something that seems absolutely impossible, like being held to impossible standards as a young woman in Hollywood who is just starting out and cannot risk to ruin her career before it’s even begun, what would you do?” she says. “I have to think people would make the same decision I did or they wouldn’t, and they would also get the horrible comments that I get, or the horrible backlash that I get for breathing sometimes. You have to know you’re doing the best thing you possibly can to preserve yourself. To take care of something that is so fragile, and can be gone in an instant, which is everything that I’ve worked so hard for in the past four years of my life. You can only hope that it’ll get easier, and get better, and get bigger and brighter.”
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Hair by Eugene Souleiman at Streeters; Makeup by Lotten Holmqvist for Dior Beauty; Nails by Chisato at Caren Agency; Set by Max Bellhouse; Produced by Thea Charlesworth at The Arcade.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue of ELLE.