Ariana DeBose remembers her first Tony Awards.
It was 2013, and the "West Side Story" star (and newly minted Oscar winner for best supporting actress) was there as a member of the casts of nominated musicals "Motown" and "Bring It On." She was waiting backstage to perform when she heard Judith Light's acceptance speech, in which she thanked theater ushers and box-office staff.
"I just was like, 'Wow, what a wonderful human being that thought to include those people in her moment of recognition,' " DeBose recalls. "I still hold on to that. Those memories are the ones that that keep me grounded."
Nine years later, DeBose, 31, is set to host the Tonys live from New York's Radio City Music Hall on Sunday (CBS, 8 EDT/5 PDT), where Michael R. Jackson's "A Strange Loop" leads the pack with 11 nominations, and major stars including Billy Crystal and Ruth Negga will vie for prizes. It's a coming home of sorts for the actress, who cut her teeth in the Broadway companies of "Hamilton," "Summer" and "A Bronx Tale," before breakthrough movie roles in "The Prom" and "West Side Story" as Anita (originated on screen by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film).
"I'm excited (to host). I'd like to vomit a little bit if I'm honest, but I think if you're not nervous, you're not ready," DeBose acknowledges, speaking over Zoom days before the ceremony. "I'm someone who's blessed with opportunity right now. I remember a time when opportunities were scarce, so I'm tickled pink that I get to do it."
Question: You shared on Instagram that you recently saw Hugh Jackman in "The Music Man." Given that he's hosted the Tonys before, did you go backstage afterward to get some tips?
Ariana DeBose: Oh, I wish I had. COVID is still very much a thing and I want to keep everyone safe. But I have reached out to a couple different people and gotten a few tidbits. I haven't spoken to Hugh yet, but maybe I'll ask him how I'm doing in the middle of the show so that he has to tell me I'm doing a good job. (Laughs.)
Q: What other Broadway shows or performances were especially memorable for you this season?
DeBose: Myles Frost in "MJ" (a bio-musical about Michael Jackson) is quite spectacular. But all the Michaels (who are played by different actors at different ages) are really beautiful. I realize the masses may have their feelings about the artist, but the show that is being put on at that theater is truly something to behold. That is a gorgeous dance show. I'm also a "Strange Loop" fan. I'm a "Six" fan. Like, come on – I want to be the seventh queen and I don't understand why they haven't asked me yet.
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Q: You hinted on Twitter that you'll be honoring the swings and understudies who helped keep Broadway afloat during the pandemic. Having been an understudy yourself, can you remember a time you had to step in at a moment's notice?
DeBose: I've been in situations where I didn't find out until three hours before, or midshow, or right before the show starts. That's happened to me many a time. While I cannot tell you exactly what we are doing on the show, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that because of my own personal experience, there's no way this evening is going to go by without us finding a respectful way to acknowledge the contributions by these individuals.
Q: You've spoken beautifully about your identity as a queer Afro-Latina, and ended your Oscar speech in March by saying there's a place for everyone. Why was it important for you to convey that message?
DeBose: We live in troubling times, and it's really important for folks who are blessed with positions like mine to remind those that no matter what the world tells you, you're enough. You couldn't be more enough if you tried! Unfortunately, in the United States right now, there are many entities who are trying to make us feel as if we don't have value. But the reality is, we do. We're all humans and that's the banner we need to unite under right now. That was my hope, just to try and remind people to keep going. It's hard. The road less traveled is difficult, but it can be done. And there is a place because if there wasn't, I wouldn't have been on that stage.
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Q: Where do you keep your Oscar now?
DeBose: It's on my mantle in a beautiful display with the other many incredible accolades that I received during awards season. I'm not one of those that's ready to be like, "Oh, I put my toilet paper on it" or "It's a doorstopper." With my journey, it has meant too much to even be in those rooms and for me to get to that place. So they are proudly displayed and I look at them in the mornings just to remind myself that it happened and that it's time to dream a bigger dream and to never stop challenging myself.
Q: You're joining the cast of "Westworld" for Season 4, premiering June 26 (HBO, 9 EDT/PDT). Series co-creator Lisa Joy recently teased that you'll be playing a roommate who may or may not have a crush on Evan Rachel Wood's character. Is there anything else you can spill?
DeBose: God, I wish I could. I can tell you I had a great time working on it. Evan and I are North Carolina natives, so that was really thrilling to share space with her and it's a beautiful show. It's a hard show to work on and changes on a dime. But I really like my clothes. I mean, clothes are half the character.
Q: Looking at all your upcoming projects, you've got a spy movie, a Marvel film and a queer rom-com, among many others. What's your ethos when it comes to choosing what's next?
DeBose: I believe in variety and I don't believe in doing the same thing twice. I move toward projects that I find interesting, but I also want to try and make work that I feel can have even a small impact. I really would love to do a play and I want to come back to Broadway. I'm just looking for the right thing.