In 2018, Steven Spielberg began a very public, worldwide search to cast his remake of West Side Story. A highly publicized YouTube competition had every aspiring star looking for their big break, from professional actors to virtual unknowns, competing for a role. All told, over 30,000 people auditioned.
“I wrote down in my journal: ‘I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story,'” she said, “and there was just some weird knowing in my gut.” West Side Story, as Garcia-Lee put it, “had just been in my periphery for so long.” Garcia-Lee’s mother, Terri Garcia-Lee, had performed in some of the first-ever productions of West Side Story during her professional career. She remembers growing up and seeing West Side Story posters and costume pieces like bomber jackets around her house. She went on to perform Graziella, her first-ever theater production, as a teenager at UNCSA. It was her experience with “Grazie,” as she affectionally calls the character, that led to her to widen her focus early on from dance-only to also include acting. “How could I even feel that?” recounts Garcia-Lee, remembering the entire audition process as feeling oddly natural. “I’ve never felt so authentic in an audition.”
And, among the many stars and rising talents in the global audition pool, Garcia-Lee landed that dream role of hers. The 2021 musical film stars New Jersey native Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony. Broadway star Mike Faist plays Riff, who is Graziella’s boyfriend.
If her Phantom of the Opera experience was her college degree, she graduated with a master’s degree in film from the “School of Steven Spielberg” through her West Side Story experience. Garcia-Lee shared how far above and beyond Spielberg went for the cast, many of which are newcomers. He rented movie theaters on the weekends in order to share films he felt were important for the cast to see, and facilitated discussions from a technical perspective about all aspects of the film, from lighting to storytelling to cinematography. After her involvement in Spielberg’s film, which will premiere in December 2021, “The bar is set so high to make such high caliber art, in such a safe and beautiful environment,” Garcia-Lee said. “And now that’s all I want to do.”