Rita Moreno relishes playing the diva on 'Jane the Virgin'

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Posted: Apr 10, 2015 6:33 PM
Rita Moreno relishes playing the diva on 'Jane the Virgin'

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rita Moreno's guest-starring turn Monday on "Jane the Virgin" represents a tribute from the comedy's young Latina star, Gina Rodriguez, to the trailblazer who helped pave her way.

"I was approached (for the role) because of Gina," Moreno said. "She told me some wonderful things about how I inspired her, great stuff that made me feel very proud."

Looking back, Moreno, 83, marvels at the stage, screen and TV career that made a "little Puerto Rican girl" one of the rare performers to win the supersized awards combo: Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy trophies.

"It astonishes me that I've come this far. I'm humbled by it and thrilled by it," Moreno said in a phone call this week from New York.

The path wasn't always easy. Her early movie years were filled with what she calls "dusky maiden" roles because Hollywood found it difficult to see Latinos, especially actresses, beyond stereotypes.

"I can't remember playing roles in movies that did not require an accent and very dark makeup. ... Even in 'West Side Story,' it was (director) Jerome Robbins' idea that all of the Sharks have very dark skin, because he wanted a contrast between the Sharks and the Jets," she said, referring to the musical's Latino and Anglo street gangs.

"I remember resenting that," she said of the production that brought her an Academy Award. "I thought, 'I'm Puerto Rican. I don't look like that."

She's pleased to see evolution in the entertainment industry that has led to shows including CW's "Jane The Virgin," focused on a Latino family.

"There's actually a lot of progress. I don't think it's enough but, my God, when you compare that to when I was a young woman in movies, it's totally different," Moreno said.

The veteran actress retains the vibrancy to take advantage of the changes, with a role in a comedy pilot that's under consideration by CBS as well as an upcoming album of Spanish-language songs, aimed at a May release.

Her guest role part on CW's riff on telenovelas proved a delight for Moreno: A bad guy, or at least an imperious woman, who sweeps heedlessly into the lives of her son, TV star Rogelio (Jaime Camil), and Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who are Jane's parents.

"She is a real diva, a rude woman who spouts off mean things to people," Moreno said, delight in her voice. "When she comes on the scene you find out that Rogelio is a real mama's boy."

The character, Liliana, doesn't have a warm relationship with Xiomara, Moreno said, and for "such a hilarious reason. I don't want to give it away because it's silly and funny. But in telenovelas, anything can happen."

"Gina said to me early on, 'The person I most admire more than anyone is Rita Moreno. It would be my dream come true if she could come on the show,'" recalled executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman.

Moreno turned out to be everybody's dream, Urman said. "She came with so much energy and passion and enthusiasm. ... She just invigorated our cast and crew. Everybody was so stunned and honored to be working with her."

The star's focus now is on her as-yet untitled upcoming album, her first in more than two decades. Emilio Estefan, husband of Gloria Estefan, is the producer.

"The compliment is I still have a voice," Moreno said, proving it by crooning a few bars of one of the album's songs, "Concierto de Aranjuez," the famed composition by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo.

She describes the album as an eclectic mix that includes "some really terrific salsa numbers," a jazzy version of "Brazil," and "Somewhere," from "West Side Story."

"It sounds even more beautiful in Spanish," Moreno said.

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Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.