Hollywood Story

Sundance 2021: Mariem Perez Riera & Brent Miller on the gay, Latina fury that is Rita Moreno

Brent Miller & Mariem Perez Riera

Hollywood makes strange bedfellows.

Brent Miller & Mariem Perez Riera met on the set of the rebooted One Day at a Time. At the time, Miller worked as one of the producers on the show, while Perez Riera watched over her son Marcel Ruiz, who played one of the kids on the series. Marcel’s grandmother was played by Emmy, Grammy, Tony & Oscar-winner Rita Moreno–a woman who commanded the affection of both Perez Riera and Miller. For Miller, a gay man, Moreno’s talent and bravado had made her into an icon. For the Puerto Rican documentarian Perez Riera, Moreno represented the realization of the American dream.

Both Miller and Perez Riera decided that Rita Moreno should be the subject of a documentary, and much to Moreno’s surprise, they decided to collaborate. The resultant film, Rita Moreno: A Girl Who Just Went For It, debuts this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.

Featuring extensive interviews with Rita Moreno herself, as well as collaborators such as George Chakiris and Terrence McNally and fans such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria-Parker and Gloria Estefan, the film retraces Moreno’s journey from child immigrant to international celebrity. Along the way, Moreno herself doesn’t hold back, sharing her devotion to social justice causes, her experience with sexual assault in Hollywood, finding work as a Latina actress, and the painful details of a longtime relationship with Marlon Brando. 

We snagged some time just before Sundance to chat with Miller & Perez Riera about the film, their odd meeting, and the eternal glory of Ms. Moreno.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It premieres January 29 at the Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking theatrical distribution.

Brent, I’m told this project was one you very carefully cultivated. Do you remember your first exposure to Rita Moreno?

BM: It’s funny you ask. Yes, it happens to be from my sophomore year of high school when our drama teacher announced we would be doing West Side Story. Being the drama student I was, I auditioned and got the part of Baby John. As a high schooler, when you’re taking on any kind of production, you’re very quickly to study it prior to putting it up on your own.

Rita Moreno

It’s a great place to start. That’s one of the great performances in musical cinema. So how did you arrive at Mariem as director?

MPR: I’m the mother of my son Marcel who plays the grandson of Rita on One Day at a Time. That’s how I met Brent. So over the years, Brent told me he wanted to do a documentary on Rita. We were talking about how I was a filmmaker, a documentarian. So he told me about this idea, and I told him that I wanted to be considered to pitch an idea. And he gave me the opportunity. So Brent, continue with the story…

BM: Exactly. Thanks for the baton, Mariem. As Mariem says, we were very specific. We wanted a female, Latinx director. We interviewed a few, including one that was male. We don’t discriminate. But I thought it was important to tell the story from a woman’s point of view. So my office collected all the treatments with everyone’s name taken off. I went through each one to see which one was the most compelling on paper. Mariem’s was the one that was the best.

Mariem, what was your relationship with Rita like prior to shooting? How well would you say you knew her?

MPR: I only knew her from shooting the show. She new me as the mother of my son. Because I did a previous documentary on the diaspora of Puerto Rico, I had interviewed her. So I had kind of already established a relationship as a Puerto Rican filmmaker. Sometimes we would talk about films that we watched, or episodes of different shows. I rezlied we had a lot of the same taste, but that was about it. I would observe her a lot, because she was Rita Moreno. I’m Puerto Rican, so she’s an idol of mine from the time I was a little girl. I was always watching her way of being: how she prepares for her character, how she drives to set, how she does her makeup, what she eats—all that is in the film now.

That’s wonderful. This is also, correct me if I’m wrong, your first English language film. Were you at all intimidated to shoot in English?

[Long pause]

MPR: No. I think the language of cinema is mutual. I wasn’t intimidated by that. I would struggle sometimes trying to express an idea in English specifically with me talking to the producers or crew. But aside from that, I didn’t feel it was different. It’s the same language visually.

What really sets this apart from the average, lionizing bio-doc is the incredible candor you get from Rita. She names-names. She describes harassment, assault, domestic abuse. How do you build trust with someone enough so that she’s comfortable to open up to you?

MPR: I think it was a team effort. Brent knew her better and had a close relationship with her. So she trusted whatever Brent wanted to do. Me and Brent talked a lot about wanting to do this kind of documentary—not just celebratory, but in-depth. Rita, too, didn’t want to do a documentary based on her success. She wanted to talk about her struggles. That is her way of telling younger generations, Latinx generations, and especially immigrants how hard it is to struggle, but also how great it is to succeed. When I would interview her, I would talk about my own experiences before asking her a tough question. I realized, that as a woman, I had a lot in common with her struggles. So I allowed myself to be vulnerable with her to feel comfortable. In general, she was comfortable because she trusted Brent, and Brent trusted me.

Related: Julio Torres, Rita Moreno, ‘Sesame Street’ and a ‘Beautiful Boy’ The Queerty Sundance 2021 Preview

I would add that most of the footage following Rita in her house was mostly a crew of Puerto Ricans behind the camera. We would talk in Spanish mostly, and she was so happy to hear our accents. It made her go back to her childhood. It made her feel more comfortable.

BM: I would add that part of the reason she trusted me the way she did was because of my history with Norman Lear, and working with him for 15 years. Ultimately, she was very eager to know at the beginning of One Day at a Time, “Whose idea was this?” And it was my idea. And while I can take credit for the idea, I can’t take credit for what Mike & Gloria brought to the screen, or what our actors were able to do so brilliantly. I’d say it was halfway through the first season—I had just come off the documentary I produced on Norman Lear. And I had shared it with the cast. After that, I approached Rita and said “How come there is no documentary on you?” I was eager to try and win her over to trust us with her story.

Moreno winning a Tony Award

What do you think would surprise people the most about Rita? About being around her?

BM: I would say how self-aware she is. She’s done the work all of us wish to do as we age. She’s never stopped learning. She’s very curious about her surroundings and other people in general. And she never let go of little Rosita, that little girl that lives inside her. It doesn’t just bring vulnerability, but it brings curiosity. So many people perceive iconic actors as narcissistic. For Rita to allow us a peek behind the scenes, once you see how unapologetically honest she can be, you’re just transformed. You feel you can relate.

MPR: I would agree: her vulnerability will be what people take from this documentary. Her honesty in still going to therapy, for example. Her accepting that she’s someone insecure at times. Talking about the fact that she’s finally, in her 80s, found her she really is and her freedom. That’s a hard moment. There are so many people who die trying.

And it’s so inspiring to see. The two of you obviously have a great working relationship, if your rapport here is any indication. When obstacles crop up in shooting, how do you maintain that?

MPR: This was our first job together. I think it was challenging for both of us to trust each other and be honest with one another in terms of what I wanted to accomplish visually, and what he wanted to accomplish and what he wanted the movie to be. We were in it together, knowing it was the first time for both. So we just had to trust and communicate and try to find a middle ground. That’s what happens in any project.

BM: Yes.

MPR: You need to work as a team. And we both wanted the same thing: we wanted the movie to be the best. I think that made it easier for us to accomplish the same product.

BM: I would agree with that. I would also be remiss not to mention Iliya Velez, our co-producer on the project, who I was introduced to through Mariem. They had worked together before. The two of them, both being from Puerto Rico, are their own force. So for me it was a very interesting learning experience. We all have our own process. On this film, I really wanted to step back and let the creative process happen through a female lens. So having two women who know each other well—there was no reason for me to interrupt any kind of creative process. I kept telling myself who am I, a white man, to jump in when these two women are telling the story? At the end of the day, it’s Mariem’s vision, and that’s what I wanted to support. So as she says, it was very much a collective.

Wonderful.

BM: And there were no shortage of challenges along the way. Aside from the obvious with the pandemic, there were challenges you have in any documentary from Rita being in production to events she would attend to her living in the Berkely area when we’re in LA. All of those things that come into play when you’re trying to make a film possible—as Mariem says, we worked together to make it work. And I don’t think any of us have any reason to regret it.

MPR: Oh no. I’m very grateful for the support I got from Brent and Act III. Not knowing me, they really trusted me and allowed me to work and supported my vision. And of course, Brent had to do the same for PBS and American Masters in making sure they trusted me. So that was on him—he was the one that had that fight.

BM: That’s a perfect way to introduce Michael Kantor, the Executive Producer of American Masters, who stepped up to the plate immediately when I approached him about this film. PBS and American Masters specifically have always been so supportive of the arts, and of diverse voices. When I explained what we were doing, he jumped in with a significant amount of funding to help us get started.

Obviously, Rita has a huge connection to the LGBTQ community, both in terms of her fans, and in terms of her collaborators. What is it about her that speaks to a queer audience?

BM: As the gay man in this conversation…

MPR: Yes.

BM: I think what makes her so iconic is the role she played in West Side Story. The fact that Anita was a fierce woman who was not afraid to stand up for what she wanted. But at the same time, she was a Puerto Rican woman who ultimately was here to represent. Rita has always been someone who stands true and strong with her characters. She has a force within: all the activism, philanthropy, who she is, and what she stands up for. And all gay men love an amazing performer.

[Laughter]

MPR: I would add that I think because she has always tried to be herself. She has always had to fight to be herself and be accepted for who she is. That resonates with the LGBTQ community.

Absolutely.

MPR: So that’s an inspiration to them. Also, I would imagine the movie The Ritz. [Moreno plays a gay bathhouse singer]

Oh yes.

MPR: But I agree. She’s a fighter for “who you really are.” And that’s what the LGBTQ community has always fought for.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It premieres January 29 at the Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking theatrical distribution.