Rita Moreno Reflects on Her Iconic Career: 'You Have to Have a Sense of Humor or You're F----'

The legendary West Side Story star and EGOT opens up about past traumas, triumphs and her revealing new documentary Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It

Seven decades into a storied career that includes iconic performances, acclaim and EGOT status, Rita Moreno is happier than ever with no plans to slow down or retire. At 89, she's also now the subject of a revealing documentary, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.

"I'm still active and still working," she says. "I worry and stress a lot less now because I'm so grateful," she says. "I stop and smell the roses."

In addition to taking audiences through her most recognizable work in hit films like West Side Story (1961) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), along with her work on television in The Electric Company and Netflix's One Day at a Time, the film, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, touches on Moreno's past traumas: being raped by her agent early in her career, her volatile relationship with Marlon Brando which led to a suicide attempt in 1961, and the unhappiness she felt in her 45-year marriage to cardiologist Leonard Gordon, who died in 2010.

Moreno says she was "amazed" by the finished cut, including some of the personal stories she shared herself.

"I made a promise to myself that if I was going to do this, I was going to be as truthful as possible," she says. "And that promise was tested. There are things that I told that surprised me."

Rita Moreno West Side Story
Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Silver Screen Collection/Getty

"Everything is so much more complex than anyone realizes when they look at your life," she continues. "I've had adventures, and things have gone badly for me many times. But somehow, out of the ashes, I've learned to love me."

Born Rosita Dolores Alvario in Juncos, Puerto Rico, to Rosa Maria Marcano, a seamstress, and Francisco José "Paco" Alvario, a farmer, Moreno was 5 years old when she and her mother left their home for New York City in 1936. Though she was homesick and struggled to fit in, she began dance training at age six, booked her first professional gig dancing at a nightclub at age nine, and has been performing ever since.

She dropped Alvario from her name early in her career, taking her mother's second husband Edward Moreno's last name instead, "because nobody could pronounce 'Alvario' correctly," she wrote in her 2013 memoir.

"I've never had a legit job, a civilian job," says the actress. "I didn't have mentors. You really just kind of had to make it on your own, but I had a strangely fortuitous kind of a career, because things did drop in my lap when they did happen."

rita moreno
John Lamparski/Getty

Moreno's daughter Fernanda, 54, respectfully counters that statement, noting that while luck plays a huge part in Hollywood success, so do the countless hours and the amount of hard work her mother has put into her career.

"She's an incredibly unique person with incredible energy that not many people have," says Fernanda, a jewelry designer and owner of Nandiz Designs. "People always ask 'How does she do it?' And she just has natural exuberance and energy. She's just that person."

For much more on Rita Moreno and her incredible life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday

Moreno says that she thinks her success "has a great deal to do with resilience," because she has not always had the work she strived for, particularly early in her career when she played stereotypical accented "island and native girl" characters.

"I cherish being in Singin' in the Rain, because Gene Kelly put me in the part of a white movie star, Zelda Zanders, without even thinking twice," says Moreno. "And I thought, heartbreakingly, 'Wow. Now I don't have to play those native girls anymore.' And then MGM let me go after that, and it was back to the Pacific Islanders, and the Egyptians, and the American Indian girls. I've said this many times, but the character of Anita [in West Side Story] was the only time I had ever played a Hispanic, or any Latin character who had a sense of dignity about herself."

rita moreno

Moreno says spending years in therapy, which she began after her tumultuous relationship with Brando, helped her make sense of that particular pain and her path forward.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. "I found out this one important lesson, if you're not liked, you're not going to die from that. That's the biggest lesson I ever learned in my whole life."

Today Moreno's perception of her own success "shifts all the time," she says. "And I think it will always be that way, because there's nothing steady about it."

rita moreno

She loves spending time with Fernanda and her two grandsons, Cameron, 20, and Justin, 22.

"They are my heart and soul. Family is what keeps me alive and happy," she says. "Regrets are a waste of time. To waste precious time on them, especially as you get older, is truly obscene, when there's so much beauty and love and humor in this world."

Moreno is already thinking up themes for her 90th birthday party in December and has several acting gigs lined up, including a role in Steven Spielberg's reimagining of West Side Story, which hits theaters in December.

Although Moreno credits "good genes" for her longevity, Fernanda says her mother's natural way and ease with people is a major factor and makes her a delight to be around.

"She has the ability to connect with anybody," says Fernanda. "And when I say anybody, I mean someone who's sweeping the alley, someone who is President Bush, someone who's a street corner vendor. She has the unique ability to immediately connect on the same level with people and that's really rare."

Moreno says her real secret is simply to keep laughing.

"I love to be amused and I love to amuse. I love to make people laugh," she says. "And you have to have a sense of humor about yourself or you're f-----!"

Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It opens in theaters June 18.

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