How ‘West Side Story’s’ Mike Faist went from ‘blue-collar stage actor’ to remarkable film

It came after an early scene was filmed, in which Mike Faist’s Riff and his Upper West Side gang, the Jets, splash paint on a Puerto Rican flag mural to antagonize the territorial rivals Sharks. As Kushner lingered on set and the crew members got to work cleaning the paint off the mural, he peeked out and caught an unexpected sight.

“One of the people who washed it was Mike,” Kushner said of the 29-year-old actor. “And it was in no way made for display. It was something he had to do because he felt terribly what his character had just done, and he needed to do something to feel good about it. It shows how deeply I think he engages with the world he helped create.

In the New York theater community, Faist’s talent, dedication and inherent empathy are no secret: He was 20 when he made his Broadway debut in the original cast of “News‘, and he earned a Tony nomination five years later for his supporting role in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’.

But “West Side Story,” now in theaters, marks Faist’s first major film role. Based on early reactions, he could be propelled towards further recognition, with critics latching onto his magnetic performance as the wayward Riff – a tragic figure steeped in more depth in Kushner’s updated script – as the one of the highlights of Spielberg’s film received with enthusiasm. In her four-star review, The Washington Post’s chief film critic, Ann Hornaday, called Faist “a revelation…who is not only a gifted singer and dancer, but stars as the Jets’ gang leader, Riff, with just the right mix of prickly resentment, hair-raising anger, and thanks to loose limbs.

“People have kind of mentioned some of these things to me, and it’s lovely — really, it’s very lovely,” Faist says. “But that’s not, ultimately, why I do what I do. For me, it has to come from a place of passion and love.

From this point of view, it’s no mystery why this project fits the bill. Growing up in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, Ohio, Faist was obsessed with classic musicals as a child. Dance lessons, forays into community theater and dreams of the Great White Way followed for Faist, who recalls being struck long ago by Russ Tamblyn’s performance as Riff in the Oscar-winning 1961 version of “West Side Story” (itself an adaptation of the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired Broadway show).

“I remember watching it as a kid in my basement and wanting to be a Jet, and being mesmerized by these guys dancing and the story being told,” Faist says. “After watching those movies, it was one of those things – I don’t know, it was like instant love. I just knew I had to do this.

After making headlines for his breakthrough in “Newsies,” Faist joined the original “Dear Evan Hansen” company for a 2015 production at DC’s Arena Stage. He would go on to play Connor Murphy, the tortured teenager whose suicide sets the musical’s plot in motion, for the better part of three years, accompanying “Dear Evan Hansen” to his next off-Broadway run and acclaimed transfer. on Broadway.

“As soon as he was in the room and he started working on Connor, it was really clear that he was a very unique and very special actor,” said ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ director Michael Greif. . “He always took his responsibility to represent this kid in this kind of emotional desperation and this kind of crisis very seriously.”

Shortly after Faist left the show in the summer of 2018, he sent in his audition tape for another tormented character: the pithy but pitiful Riff. In November, he was performing in Steven Levenson’s off-Broadway play “Days of Rage” when he got the call to audition. Still, he thought the competition to cast as a violent thug would be a brutal melee in its own right. In his mind, reading for Spielberg was probably nothing more than a to-do list-checking anecdote.

“I’m a blue-collar theater actor and this is a big animated Hollywood production,” Faist says. “And blue-collar theater actors don’t really have those chances.”

But her rapport that day with Ansel Elgort – who had already been cast in the lead role of Tony – was electric. Surprising even himself, he came out of the audition confident he had the gig. After officially landing the role, he called Kushner to better understand Riff’s version of that movie, then peppered the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner with questions over coffee.

As Faist came to learn, Kushner fleshed out Riff by running to Mercutio, the character’s “Romeo and Juliet” analogue, and incorporating the ill-suited Jets frontman with traces of lyrical language and maniacal madness. Kushner also spoke to Faist about the 1950s film’s approach to gentrification and tribalism, and how the changing landscape of mid-century New York left young men from broken homes struggling to create a sense of community.

“Mike really gobbled it all up,” Kushner says. “He’s really one of those actors who wants to know as much as possible about his character and really digs into the hard stuff. He really wants to think about economics and politics and psychology and psychotechnology, and he feeds with a kind of sharpness and precision that I think is the mark of a great actor.

While a lifetime of musical theater craftsmanship left Faist well equipped to execute the nimble dance moves and sharp vocals needed for his numbers, “Jet Song”, “Cool” and “Tonight (Quintet)”, the role always proved transformational.

Reference to an image of an emaciated gang member by a photographer Bruce Davidson “Brooklyn Gang” Collection, Faist lost about 20 pounds to give Riff a suitably malnourished physique. One of Riff’s tattoos was also inspired by this photo, at Faist’s suggestion, as was the rosary the character wears around his neck. When the cameras weren’t rolling, Faist gave the production more verisimilitude by taking on a sort of leading role among the actors playing the Jets.

“I wanted to transform myself. I wanted to change. I wanted to create an environment, not just for myself but for others, where we didn’t have to…” explains Faist, pausing before finishing his thought: “Where we didn’t have to act. We just did.

This take on the role helped Faist find one of the film’s most tense moments, in a scene set shortly before the Jets’ rumble with the Sharks. As Riff tries to buy a gun, another character grabs the gun and points it squarely at the boy’s head – at which point Riff presses his temple against the barrel. It was an unscripted choice, Kushner says, and one that came from Faist’s innate understanding of Riff’s doomed-to-die-young mentality.

“What Mike found in that moment,” Kushner says, “is all the character in that little gesture.”

In fact, Faist found the collaboration experience so rewarding that this year he raised questions about his future as an actor, postulating that “West Side Story” represented everything he had set out to accomplish as an actor. that interpreter. “I don’t want to be just a working actor anymore,” he said. Recount the New York Times, later adding, “I can’t tell if I hate acting or love it too much.”

Asked about these comments, he clarifies that he is not going anywhere: “There is still so much to say,” he clarifies, “and there is still so much to do. Yet when Faist talks about his projects having to come “from a place of passion and love,” he doesn’t pose either.

“There was just something so pure and wonderful about the making of this thing, and it really came from this place – this place of ‘I love doing what I do,'” Faist says. “If it’s anything less than that, I don’t know if it’s worth it. I was just really struggling with this idea of, ‘Do I like acting or do I hate it?’ And the truth is, I think I love her too much. I really do.”

Elizabeth J. Harless