The actress won an Oscar for her portrayal of immigrant Anita in the musical but admits she almost pulled out of the film after reading the initial lyrics to the hit song "America", in which her character mocked her own people.
"Anita is a person who loves America and wants nothing to do with Puerto Rico and the verse of the song originally was really quite disparaging to Puerto Rico," she tells "Good Morning America".
"I got the part after working very hard to get it... and I realized, 'Oh my God, this verse from America... I don't think I can do this! I don't think I can do this to my people!' "
"I was this close to calling my agent to say, 'I can't do this...' but it just happened... that Stephen Sondheim changed the lyric and made it possible for me... to do that film. I was heartbroken. I thought, 'My agent's gonna kill me!' "
Rita is reliving the beloved 1961 movie musical after landing a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's remake - she'll play a shopkeeper named Valentina in the new version. "I have a real part in it," she raves. "I even sing one song. I can't believe it."
In another interview, Rita looked back at producers' decision to darken her skin for the 1961 movie. "I remember saying to my makeup man once on the original 'West Side Story,' 'Why do I have to wear such dark makeup? I'm not that color,' " she told USA Today.
"And he literally said to me, 'What, are you a racist?' He really said that and I was so astonished that I shut up, because I didn't know what to say to that," she further recalled. "If I said, 'No, I'm not a racist,' I feel he would not believe me, so I let it drop. But it was shocking."