Mike Faist Tries to Keep His Cool as Riff in ‘West Side Story’

Mike Faist Tries to Keep His Cool as Riff in ‘West Side Story’

He’s the menacing gang leader who fights, frolics and finger-snaps his way through “West Side Story”: that’s Riff, the frontman of the Jets, who commands a cadre of lost boys in their turf battles against the Sharks, and takes center stage in numbers like “Jet Song” and “Cool.”

In Steven Spielberg’s remake with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, the role of Riff is played by Mike Faist, a 29-year-old veteran of the New York stage. Faist earned a Tony Award nomination in Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” where he originated the role of the title character’s would-be friend, Connor Murphy; he also performed in “Newsies the Musical,” understudying its hero, Jack Kelly.

Despite his theatrical pedigree, Faist said it was not so easy to keep calm and collected for this “West Side Story” — he did not necessarily think he had the required dancing skills and wasn’t sure of the project’s intentions.

As he explained in a recent video call, “I was nervous going into it, because of the Hollywood of it all. I thought it was maybe going to be this overproduced thing, and I was just going to be told what to do and where to stand and how to say it.” But, Faist said, Spielberg “allowed me the freedom, quite frankly, to run wild and to be liberated.”

Faist is garnering strong reviews for the performance and he is considered to be a contender for the coming awards season. He spoke further about the making of “West Side Story,” learning the choreography for “Cool” and being a leader to his Jets both onscreen and off. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

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Credit…20th Century Studios

How did you find out that Steven Spielberg was planning a remake of “West Side Story”?

Tony Kushner came to see us Off Broadway at “Dear Evan Hansen” and mentioned it. At the time I just thought, well, that’s cool. Congratulations. Best of luck with that. That was six years ago. Casting wanted me to submit a tape and then another tape and then come into the room and dance. I didn’t really want to. I do remember asking specifically, “Do I have to dance?” And they said, “This is ‘West Side Story.’”

Hadn’t you danced on Broadway?

The only dance show that I’d really done in New York was “Newsies.” For the most part, really, I just pushed around sets. I danced as a kid and I like dancing at weddings, that’s fun. But I wouldn’t say that I speak the language.

As you started to audition for the film, could you see yourself as Riff?

Originally they asked if I could put a tape together for Tony. I sang “Maria” and I read a scene or two. Months later they called me in and said we’d like you to put together a tape for Riff. I got excited. But you can never invest too much. After reading for the part, there was just this energy and this realization that this shoe fits. And, oh crap. [Laughs.] Now I have to do it.

Once you had landed the role, did you talk with Kushner and Spielberg about how they envisioned Riff?

We talked about the relationship between Tony and Riff. Tony wants to be a different person, someone better than who he was. And it’s nearly impossible for Riff to let go of who Tony was for him. It’s like going home for Thanksgiving. “This is who I am.” And your family’s like, “No, you’re this.” That’s the simpler version of what I’m trying to say.

Were you also considered for the film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen”?

I was approached about being part of the film. But the truth is that for me, I just felt like I couldn’t do it. I had already given everything I could to that role and I had already left it at that point. I didn’t feel like I could do it justice. It was something that I really grappled with. I came to the realization that you can’t go home again.

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Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times

Once you started work on “West Side Story,” where did you begin?

Early in the rehearsal process, it was just Ansel [Elgort, who plays Tony] and I and handful of Jets, and we started to work on “Cool.” There wasn’t a script yet, for that first month of rehearsals, so it was mostly for them to get Ansel and me into shape — learning this choreo, then explaining the story and the context of that number.

Did you film that sequence on a soundstage?

That was a set in Sunset Park in Brooklyn over the East River. One of the Jets, Harrison Coll, who’s in that number, his father had passed away recently. We had been rehearsing that number for four or five months at this point, and when we finally finished, on that last day of shooting, Harrison brought his dad’s ashes and we went to the East River right there. We actually sang “Jet Song” and Harrison said a little something and thanked his dad and then he released his dad’s ashes into the East River. It was something that was transcendent and we really valued the experience.

“Jet Song” is one of Riff’s iconic numbers. What did that mean to you, particularly as it’s depicted in this version of the film?

Where we start with the Jets, they are on the brink of destruction. They are done but they just don’t realize it yet. They’re saying, “When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet” — on top of a mound of rubble.

Did you feel particularly bonded to the other actors who played your fellow Jets?

I felt it was my personal obligation that we become a tribe. After the first day of rehearsal, we all went out to the bar down the street. Sans Baby John [the young gang member, played by Patrick Higgins], because he’s not old enough. [Laughs.] And I said, “Look, this one’s ours. This is our story and this is our version. You guys are a part of that.” I handed out assignments; “Jet-tivities” is what I called them. And no matter what it was, we all had to do it. We did a whole bunch of shenanigans that summer.

Are there any you can safely discuss?

We went to upstate New York and bought a full arsenal of Nerf guns. There’s video of us setting up this relay race in a house, having to shoot all these red plastic Solo cups from different angles. We did LARPing. It’s brutal, man. It looks like something totally nerdy, but then you’re there and you’re getting tackled by someone and shot in the private areas by arrows. We played laser tag once. I wanted them to feel like they were a part of something bigger. That way, when the cameras rolled, they just were there.

Did you have the opportunity to confer with Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff in the original film?

He did come to set and hung out for a day. He told us anecdotes, what the experience was like for him. But in terms of approaching the work, I’m not Russ Tamblyn. Only Russ Tamblyn is Russ Tamblyn. I can’t try to emulate or mimic what he does. And I didn’t want to. I think it would have done a disservice to try to incorporate him. It would have been an insult to what he brought.

The new film’s release was delayed by a year because of the pandemic. How did you feel when you learned it was being postponed?

I actually was relieved. Steven and I had a phone conversation last year, around September, when they were deciding whether they were going to release the film. At the time, I said to him, if no one ever saw this movie, it wouldn’t change anything to me. The experience of making the movie was everything. I meant it, but I’m an idiot and I take it all back now. Because if we’re going to show it, you want people to see it. After I had seen the film at the New York premiere, I ran into Steven in the lobby. And I said to him, I got to relive the experience of making the movie. I think when people see this, we give them a taste of that. I think this movie is a real testament to why a theatrical experience is important.

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