Rachel Zegler’s Jersey Upbringing Prepared Her for Stardom

by newjerseyshores | Mar 10, 2023

It’s the simple things, like a Taylor ham, egg and cheese on an everything bagel, that Rachel Zegler missed most about New Jersey while she was away for nearly all of 2022 filming two movies. Oh, and the diners. Can’t forget the diners.

“Anywhere else in the world, if the menu is longer than three pages, you shouldn’t go there,” the 21-year-old Clifton native jokes. 

After celebrating the holidays with her family in her childhood home, Zegler is slowly settling into Eastern Standard Time in her new apartment in New York City. This March, her second film, DC Comics’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, premieres. In her superhero movie debut, Zegler plays Anthea, sister of Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu’s characters. The auditions were entirely over Zoom. Zegler didn’t even know what role she had read for until the director, David Sandberg, called to tell her she landed it.

“I fell in love with the idea [that]… you don’t really know if she’s good or bad,” Zegler says of the character. “Everybody already assumed she’s a villain. But you don’t know, and that’s what’s really fun about playing Anthea.”

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Zegler was filming the Shazam! sequel in Atlanta right before her big-screen debut, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, came out in December 2021. That was just the beginning for Zegler, as she won a Golden Globe for her star turn as María in West Side Story. Then 2022 called for six months in London filming Disney’s live-action Snow Whitein which she plays the title character—and a few more months in Poland for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in which Zegler plays Lucy Gray Baird. In between takes, she learned to play guitar for the part.

There have also been high-profile appearances at the Oscars and Grammys.

Zegler’s rise to stardom began in her home state. Just 16 years old at the time, she tried out for the iconic character of María in West Side Story through an open casting call. It took a year of callbacks before she landed the breakout role, which had her film scenes in Paterson.

Rachel Zegler in "West Side Story"

Zegler played María in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

When Spielberg rang, Zegler was a senior at Immaculate Conception High School in Lodi and about to play Fiona in the school’s musical production of Shrek. She had never had a professional performing job before.

When the casting news broke, tickets sold out quickly for the musical. Fans clamored for Zegler’s autograph, and the school added extra security due to heightened interest in its leading lady.

“The whole world knew what was happening. It really changed everything to suddenly have the world watching you in this tiny little school,” says Gregory Liosi, the school’s theater director and the artistic director of the Hackensack Performing Arts Center. He directed Zegler in Shrek and three other leading roles in high school musicals.

During those four years, people close to Zegler assumed she was Broadway bound. No one imagined Hollywood would come first. “We were all aware that she obviously had a future. After high school, she’d audition, get something on Broadway, and that would be her path,” Liosi says.

Even from an early age, Zegler had it, explains Kathleen Kellaigh, Zegler’s former director and the artistic director of ACT Studios in Clifton. “She naturally has that presence,” Kellaigh says. “She gets it innately. She’s born to that greatness. When you are in her presence, there is this energy that is palpable.”

Zegler was 12 years old when Kellaigh met her at an audition for the Theater League of Clifton’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Zegler’s mom, Gina, had seen an ad for auditions in the Clifton Journal and “thought it would be good for me because I had just started to sing out,” Zegler recalls. “I just started to use my voice in a powerful way, and my mom was really instrumental in making sure that I explored that aspect of my life.”

Rachel Zegler

Zegler was influenced by stage and screen legends Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera and Sutton Foster. Photo courtesy of Nathan Johnson

The production marked Zegler’s first foray into musical theater.

For the next few months during rehearsals, if anyone in the cast was missing, Zegler could step in, Kellaigh says. “She was not only holding her own against the adults, but leading the adults. Not deliberately; it wasn’t like she would take over. It was just by being who she was and taking the chances that she was willing to take.”

Growing up, Zegler was influenced by stage and screen legends Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera and Sutton Foster. It’s not lost on Zegler that she played two roles Foster originated: Fiona in Shrek and Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She even got an Instagram message from Foster raving about her West Side Story performance. “It was life changing to read that from somebody that you admire so much,” Zegler says. “My soul left my body.”

Singin’ in the Rain was Zegler’s favorite movie as a kid, and she loved 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac. But watching movie after movie was all for fun at the time—or so Zegler thought. “It wasn’t until after I started working in film that I realized how influenced I was,” she says.

Zegler’s favorite New Jersey celebrity is none other than Bruce Springsteen, who came to visit the set of West Side Story. When asked what her dream New Jersey performance venue would be, she immediately recites a Boss-centric family tale. “My dad stumbled in on Bruce Springsteen performing at the Columns down at Avon-by-the-Sea,” Zegler recalls. “Everybody’s just eating their Thursday prime rib special. I would do that. I think that’s fun.”

When college was approaching, some of Zegler’s theater directors felt she didn’t need to go. Kellaigh remembers telling Zegler’s mom, “Don’t worry about the college thing. This is something you need to understand about her. Her time is now.” Zegler was accepted into Montclair State University’s musical theater program for the fall of 2019. She deferred to shoot West Side Story. 

Zegler felt filming Shazam! was like freshman year of college. “Being on your own is such an interesting thing when you’re coming out of a pandemic,” she says. “It was like my real college experience…because I was living in the same space as so many people that I was working with and seeing at work every day.” 

Zegler doesn’t feel college will ever be off the table, but she is adamant that she will pick a different major if she ever attends. “Probably something that would service the world rather than myself,” she says. 

Zegler’s passion for other people helps her stand out as much as her acting chops. 

One year, for the school musical Beauty and the Beast, Zegler posed for pictures as part of a fundraiser. “The way she interacted with the children who came up to take a picture, without any training whatsoever, was spot on,” Liosi remembers. “She was so good at it, effervescent, and so kind to every single person that took a picture. I used to jokingly say that Disney made her in a lab because she was so perfect in that sort of Disney persona when she was Belle [in Beauty and the Beast] and [Ariel] in The Little Mermaid. Next year, she’s going to be on the big screen in Snow White. So I guess I was right. My joke came true.”

After filming four consecutive movies and an upcoming animated musical, Zegler is ready to check off her biggest dream: Broadway.

It’s “closer than everyone thinks,” she teased. “I’m bursting at the seams about it. So very soon.”

Leigh Scheps is an entertainment reporter from the Jersey Shore who has never met Bruce Springsteen.

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