David Alvarez won a Tony Award at the age of 15 for playing the title role in “Billy Elliott.” He is one of the youngest people to ever win a Tony Award and, seemingly, the opportunities on Broadway and Hollywood were bright and prosperous. He’d been dancing and on stage since he was a kid, but he made a decision few would expect. At the age of 17, he left the business and as he puts it “gave it all up” to join the Army.
“I feel like I just wanted to be a part of something bigger than just myself. And I kind of wanted to experience what it was like to be a soldier, what it was like to go through that,” Alvarez explains. “And I knew it would make me a stronger person mentally, physically. A more disciplined person. And I went into the military thinking I would make it a career and just stay there. And then everything kind of changed. I really missed the art world. I really missed being on stage. I really missed being an actor, dancing and singing. So, I decided to leave the army after my first contract and head back to New York. And that’s where I did ‘On the Town‘ on Broadway. And then shortly after that, I was really inspired by a book and a movie called ‘Into the Wild.‘”
And then he gave it all up again.
“I went to Mexico with a one-way ticket to backpack [the country] and I never thought I would come back,” Alvarez says. “And then after that, I decided to go back to university and finish my philosophy degree and that’s where everything changed. I get a message from Cindy Tolan, the casting director of ‘West Side Story’ saying that she had seen me in ‘Billy Elliot’ when I was a little kid and that she was wondering if I was even alive and if I wanted to send in a self-tape for Bernardo. And when I saw that it was Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and Janine Tesori, Justin Peck, I couldn’t… It was such a long shot, but I also couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to at least just send in a tape.”
Alvarez got the role and has earned accolades for his portrayal. Now, after giving up the business twice, he finds himself in a critically acclaimed Best Picture contender and with a role on Showtime’s “American Rust.” And at just 27, who knows what he’ll do next.
The Playlist: This has been a long journey for you. When did you first find out you even got the role?
David Alvarez: Oh, so at the time I was in Ohio, in Cleveland. I was studying at Case Western University trying to finish my philosophy degree and those plans kind of went out the window when I got a call from Steven Spielberg saying he wanted me to play Bernardo and start getting ready and training for it.
How long ago was it?
It was the end of 2019, I think November. Yeah, November of 2019.
It was originally intended to come out in 2020. How hard was it to just wait for two years as opposed to one?
Yeah. I mean, it was really difficult because I think everyone was eager to see it and then see all the work that we put into it. We all knew it was something special when we were working on it. Everyone was so happy to be there and so grateful, so much love and passion going into it. We knew it was going to be special, so that made it even harder. But in the end, we wanted it to come out in theaters and we wanted as many people to be able to go and see it and enjoy the movie. I think it was the right decision to hold off for a year and let people be ready to see it in theaters.
Speilberg is not known as someone who does a tremendous amount of rehearsals. Obviously, when you’re doing a musical, you really don’t have a choice. What was he like in the rehearsal process?
For the rehearsals, we mostly only rehearsed the dance choreographies. And what he would do is he would show up in the rehearsal studio with an iPhone and just kind of shoot different takes, different sides of different people. Kind of started getting an idea of what he wanted. How did he want to showcase this choreography? Whether it was a wide shot in a certain moment or a closeup at another certain moment. That was kind of his playground to figure out what he actually wanted to do the day we started shooting. But we didn’t ever rehearse any of the acting scenes. We would just show up on set. And it was kind of really beautiful because he gave you all this trust, and responsibility as well, to do what you want to do. And then he would see what the actors could do first without telling us what to do. Then he would mold around what we just did. He kind of really respected everyone’s work and wanted to see what everyone could bring. And then he molded as he needed to for his final vision. It was a very collaborative process. Definitely very rare. Never had an experience like that.
Your entire life, you’ve been on stage, you’ve been in front of thousands of people night after night after night. Were you more nervous acting for Steven Spielberg than anything else you’ve done before or is that just me making a naive assumption?
Well, I think I’m always nervous no matter who I’m acting in front of, but there was definitely this sense of this guy really is a master at his craft. And the only thing you can do at this point is just to remember to not doubt yourself, remember that you have something unique to bring to the table. And then the great thing is that for me, once I’m on stage or once the cameras are rolling, I can kind of forget about everything, just immerse myself in the character, which helps a lot. But definitely, the moment before we’re going to actually shoot or do any of that stuff, I’m really nervous. Because I want to live up to this iconic movie and characters and it’s very nerve-wracking. But I think we were in such a great environment where you didn’t have to be scared to fail. You didn’t have to be scared to screw up. You could just play. You could play until you got it right until you felt that you had what you needed to do. And that doesn’t come by so often.
You’ve been dancing almost your entire life, like since you were a kid.
Was that the easiest part of it?
It was definitely a little difficult for me because I think I hadn’t danced in a couple of years, so I definitely had to get back into shape. Kind of like riding a bicycle again after so long. But the great thing about my training is that I grew up training ballet at the American Ballet Theater and that really sets such a strong foundation that whenever I do go back to dancing, it’s there. I just got to retrain my body and get it back up to the standards. But that training, that ballet foundation, is so important that it really made the whole process easier. Same with singing. I hadn’t sung in a while, but we had such good training when we did “Billy Elliot” and all these different skills, that you carry that with you in your life and you can use those skills in different projects. So, it was difficult, but it wasn’t out of my reach.
I’ve read you left the business to join the military, but how did you get back into acting? And how did this role come into your life in that context?
I was very fortunate. I did not have an agent or a manager or anything. I didn’t have any team. I had kind of just left the business completely and never really expected to come back to it. And at 17, I kind of gave up everything. I gave up ballet, I gave up Broadway. I just gave it all up and I decided to join the army. I feel like I just wanted to be a part of something bigger than just myself. And I kind of wanted to experience that, experience what it was like to be a soldier, what it was like to go through that. And I knew it would make me a stronger person mentally, physically. A more disciplined person. And I went into the military thinking I would make it a career and just stay there. And then everything kind of changed. I really missed the art world. I really missed being on stage. I really missed being an actor, dancing and singing. So I decided to leave the army after my first contract and head back to New York. And that’s where I did On the Town on Broadway. And then shortly after that, I was really inspired by a book and a movie called “Into the Wild.” Not sure if you’ve heard of it.
Yeah, of course.
I was really inspired by that and I kind of gave it all up again and went to Mexico with a one-way ticket to backpack [the country] and I never thought I would come back. And then after that, I decided to go back to university and finish my philosophy degree and that’s where everything changed. I get a message from Cindy Tolan, the casting director of “West Side Story” saying that she had seen me in “Billy Elliot” when I was a little kid and that she was wondering if I was even alive and if I wanted to send in a self-tape for Bernardo. And when I saw that it was Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and Janine Tesori, Justin Peck, I couldn’t… It was such a long shot, but I also couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to at least just send in a tape. I had zero expectations. I never thought they’d get back to me, but I just sent it for sh*ts and giggles pretty much. And then after that, I get a call I think the next day from Cindy Tolan saying that Steven Spielberg really loved my tape and he wanted to see me in New York next week. And that’s just what spearheaded this whole experience, this whole journey. I went to New York. I did the callback. I met Ariana [DeBose], who plays Anita. I met Rachel [Zegler] who plays Maria. We had such great chemistry together. We all knew that there was something special about that relationship. And a couple of weeks later I get a call from Steven Spielberg saying that he wants me to play Bernardo. And that’s when my training started. It was three months of training, three months of rehearsals,, and then three months of shooting. And yeah, I never expected to be here, man. I really never expected it.
After shooting “West Side Story” and waiting for it to come out, you’ve done “American Rust” on Showtime. You’re clearly still in the business now. Do you feel like you’re like, “Listen if I decide to leave, I leave and I do something else, it’s cool, and if I’m not doing this 10 years from now, it’s O.K.”?
Yeah. I don’t really think that far ahead and it might not work for some people, but for some odd reason, it works for me. I kind of just take it one step at a time. I kind of just go with my gut feeling and I do the things I’m passionate about and I do the things that inspire me. For me, it’s really about inspiration and whether I’m passionate about what I’m doing. So, if nothing happens in the next five years, nothing happens. If I book three movies that I’m passionate about in the next five years, then so be it. I don’t think I’m really married to any ideas, but I am married to continue this journey and continue learning and growing as a person and an artist.
I read somewhere, I don’t know if this is true, that the “America” dance number scenes were shot in like 95 or100 degrees heat?
It was like 105, I think.
First of all, why did they just not push it a day? [Laughs] And secondly, were they wiping you guys down between every take?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]
And how were your costumes not sweaty?
Let me tell you a secret. A lot of it is CG. I was sweating so much and I felt so bad and I kept going to Steven, I’m like, “Steven, is this even going to look good? I’m soaking right now.” And he is like, “Oh, don’t worry. We can CGI your sweat out.” I was like, “Oh, O.K. I didn’t know they did that.” But yeah, it was crazy. And they did cancel, I think, two days of shooting because it was at the peak of the heatwave. So, we shot when it was a little cooler, but it was still incredibly hot. I remember Ariana’s shoes were melting on the cement floor because we were out in the street dancing and jumping and turning. She had to use three different sets of shoes because they were just melting. But the thing is, it was such an incredible experience because we were all going through it together and it was such a huge scene with the whole Puerto Rican community and all of the Sharks and the ensemble. There was just so much lovely energy there that, although it was miserable at times because of the heat, we were just happy to be there.
I don’t know if Steven is someone who lets actors look at playback. Did he let you guys see how beautiful those shots were after you did them?
Oh, yeah. Every time we were on set, he was just so excited with how good it looked that every time we finished a shot, he would just say, “Hey, come over here. Come over here to the playback, watch this shot.” And then we’d all run to the playback, see how amazing it looked and everyone was just screaming, jumping up in the air, and hugging Steven. It was just like a giant celebration after every single shot we got. Yeah. And that just kind of spoke volumes of how passionate everyone was throughout this entire experience, and grateful, just grateful to be there.
You have to obviously sing and Bernardo was a key character in the film. Besides the fact that you had to get back on a bike after not having sung and danced for a while, what was the toughest aspect of playing this role for you?
I would say the toughest aspect would be just the combination of all these different skills, combining acting, singing, and dancing and making it realistic, in a sense. You don’t want to feel, when you’re watching the movie that, “Oh, the scene is over and okay, the musical number starts now. And you’re singing and now you’re dancing. Oh, O.K. Now that’s over, now you’re acting again.” It was about combining and flowing through all these three different skills where you don’t even know where the acting and the singing and the dancing start and end. I thought that was the hardest thing to implement, but I think this movie does that beautifully for everyone.
I know that there’s been a lot written about the box office and stuff, but I got to tell you, man, you’re going to be in a movie that’s going to get nominated for best picture. People will see it in many different ways. I’m sure you’re all on message threads and stuff. I hope you’re all not disappointed or something about that.
Oh no, not at all. Honestly, I think the greatest gift and award is being part of this experience is having been able to work with Steven and all these legends. And then also, I’m so happy that people are recognizing this work that Steven Spielberg created with so much love and passion. That’s what makes me happy. What’s being recognized is his love and his passion for this project and how that kind of trickles down through the entire casting crew. So yeah, I mean, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It really is.
“West Side Story” is now in theaters nationwide.