Meet the Actor Appearing in Two New Versions of ‘West Side Story’

Carlos E. Gonzalez, a Cuban-born performer from Elizabeth, is enjoying several high-profile successes this year.

Carlos E. Gonzalez

Carlos E. Gonzalez, who came to America from his native Cuba at age 11, will be seen this year in two high-profile films and an important Broadway revival. Photo courtesy of Sean Turi

This is shaping up as a big year for actor Carlos E. Gonzalez.

The 32-year-old native of Cuba, who grew up in Elizabeth, will be seen in Broadway’s revival of West Side Storyopening February 20—and in director Steven Spielberg’s new film version of the musical, premiering later this year. He will also appear briefly in the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In The Heights, due in theaters this summer. “It’s really incredible,” says Gonzalez of the opportunities that have opened up for him.

Gonzalez came to America at age 11, when his mother won a visa lottery. The family eventually settled in Elizabeth, where Gonzalez enrolled in Halsey House, a public high school in Elizabeth that nurtured his passion for acting.

“The standout quality that Carlos showed at a very early age was his work ethic and discipline,” says his former high school teacher Sandra Toll. 

Gonzalez was offered a scholarship to study architecture at NJIT, but opted to pursue a life as a performer, his American dream. He entered Montclair State University, completing the BFA acting program in 2011. After touring with numerous shows, Gonzalez debuted on Broadway in 2015 in the Emilio and Gloria Estefan biographical jukebox musical, On Your Feet. 

Which brings us to Broadway’s new West Side Story. Gonzalez is cast as Pepe, a member of the Sharks, one of two youth gangs battling for turf in the tough Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. He is also the understudy for a lead character, Bernardo. “In a million years,” says Gonzalez, “I never would have thought [I would] cover a lead on a Broadway show.”

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Gonzalez says the revival, directed by Ivo van Hove, is a modernization of previous productions. The choreography is new, and at least one of the classic numbers—“I Feel Pretty”—has been dropped to keep the show to a single act. And while the original West Side Story was set in the 1950s, in the new version, characters brandish cellphones and cameras to project scenes on a screen. “It really feels like we are creating a new show,” says Gonzalez. “It’s very 2020.” 

He already had been picked for Broadway’s West Side Story when Gonzalez heard Spielberg was casting for a new film version. Unfortunately, Gonzalez missed the initial audition because he was in Cuba. A few months later, he got a second chance to audition and was cast as a new character, Chucho. “Life throws at you what you’re ready for,” says Gonzalez, philosophically. 

During the shooting, Gonzalez closely watched the director in action. “Being in the room [with Spielberg], you just learn so much,” says Gonzalez. “My brain [could not] process all the things happening in front of me.”

Because In The Heights was being shot at the same time as West Side Story, Gonzalez was only available for one day of shooting for Miranda’s movie. He describes his role as “the funniest, tiniest little cameo that you’ll ever see.”

Gonzalez credits his parents for his success. Every project, he says, is about “making them proud.” He remains mindful of his Cuban roots, going back often to perform, and to mentor local students. He also relishes visiting his parents in Elizabeth—and stopping by his former school to inspire students there.

“To really give back, it’s the most fulfilling thing,” says Gonzalez. “It feels like full circle for me.”

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