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As Riff, Mike Faist runs wild on ‘West Side Story’

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Among the many fine points of Steven Spielberg’s new “West Side Story” is his stellar cast of relative strangers, including Mike Faist, whose indelible portrayal of Jets frontman Riff is earning him some buzz for the actor. Oscar support.

At just 17 when he shook the dust off Gahanna, Ohio and made his way to Broadway, it didn’t take long for him to land his first role as an understudy in the hit musical “Newsies” . Five years later, he received his first Tony nomination for his portrayal of suicidal teenager Connor Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen”. And now he can be seen as Dodge Mason, an alien determined to avenge his sister’s death in the Amazon Prime series β€œPanic”.

After sending in an audition tape for Tony’s lead role in “West Side Story,” he was surprised to end up playing Riff – who took over as the Jets street gang leader while Tony was in jail. β€œI was nervous going into this production because of the Hollywood of it all and the scale of it all and the Spielberg of it all,” he says. β€œI thought it was going to be overproduced and an operation run by a Hollywood dictator. And I would be the actor where they would say, “Stay there, look over there” and be a prop. And Steven was not like that at all.

Here, Faist tells The Envelope how Spielberg was and talks about the formation of a tribe among the Jets as well as the actual Riff he found in the photos of Bruce Davidson.

What is a typical staging by Steven Spielberg?

Steven is like, “Show me what you got.” He’s there with a cigar, “What do you think?” ” I did not expect that. He really knows when to step in and how to step in. He allowed me to go wild and trusted me with the homework I had done. So by the time we go to the set, we live, breathe, do the thing. He allows us to do our work and gives us space, and he will take it and sculpt it. Everything is human and Steven is a humanist.

Did he tell you the story of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, when Indy shoots the swordsman?

He told me the story of Harrison Ford suffering from food poisoning, showing up on set after throwing up the night before. β€œI can only give you an hour. And Steven says, “One hour !? What do you wanna do, shoot the guy? And Harrison said jokingly, “That’s kind of what I was thinking.” Steven was nervous about Indiana Jones killing a man onscreen. “Do you think we can get away with this?” And Steven does an incredible Harrison Ford impersonation. Harrison is in the makeup chair, he leans back and gives her jazz hands and says, “This is just a movie.” And history was written!

What was it like to shoot “West Side Story” and then sit on it for a year during the pandemic?

I was talking to Steven last year. I said if no one ever saw this movie it wouldn’t matter, at least for me personally, because we did and that was it. You do it for yourself. You’re glad people can see it because the experience has been so great, and I think it translates and hopefully jumps off the screen.

A close-up shot of Mike Faist as Riff in a scene from

Mike Faist as Riff in “West Side Story”.

(Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios)

You lost weight for the character based on photographer Bruce Davidson’s study of Brooklyn street gangs at the time. How can such a shy guy carry so much weight?

You just mean what you say. In Bruce Davidson’s photo album, they’re emaciated, tense, totally broke. They pooled money at the end of the day to participate and get wine and fries. Or they shoot the heroine. These guys aren’t in the gym to take care of their bodies. They smoke cigarettes, live on the streets and barely survive. Every stage version of “West Side Story” that I had seen was a tall, imposing type. And, frankly, it just seems less interesting to me.

Did you watch Russ Tamblyn in the original?

I had to separate myself from Russ completely. I can’t do what Russ is doing. You have to go back to the original source material and start over. Starting with the physical, looking at the photos, the nihilism, the sadness, the recklessness, there is so much in these photos. Talk to tony [Kushner], about Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”, the relationship between Mercutio and Romeo.

How did you bring the Jets together into such a cohesive unit?

We shot the rumble first, then the song Jet. We had been together for six months at that time. I was in rehearsal for four months. We only had time to get out. We did Jet activities where each Jet had to choose an activity and whatever it was we all had to do it. We did a lot of crazy stuff that summer.

Redoing a classic like this is fraught with pitfalls.

When Steven brought the idea to Tony, he said, β€œWhy don’t you put your hand in a blender? It is faster.”

He is right. Most remakes of classics are crass cash grabbers.

In ’61 it was revolutionary, he won 10 Oscars. We’ve been on the show for so long, it resonated in our subconscious and we made it into something new, something fresh. And in 60 years, they will be able to do the same. It will be the best ever.

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