Rosie Perez on Making Peace With Spike Lee, Bombing Her ‘Matrix’ Audition and Why Hollywood’s Latino Representation Still ‘Sucks’
Rosie Perez slides into a booth at an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan. She pushes up the sleeves on her wool sweater dress and settles in to talk about the state of Hollywood. And women in Hollywood. And Latinos in Hollywood. Or maybe that lack of cultural specificity in the homogeneous blob of film content that is created to appeal to the widest possible global audience. On this afternoon in early March, the Academy Awards are still dominating the conversation, and Perez, a supporting actress nominee for the 1993 drama “Fearless,” has some thoughts. “I think Brendan deserved the Oscar,” she says. “But I wouldn’t be mad if Colin had got it for ‘Banshees of Inisherin.’ He did something specific to his culture, right? How many other movies has he done that were specific to his culture?”
“I don’t know. Zero,” I answer.
“Thank you,” she says in acknowledgment of the rarity. “That’s what we’re asking for as Latinos. We want to do things that are specific to our culture, to our story. Yet the majority of [Colin’s] career had nothing to do with his culture, his nationality. Which is why we’ve been asking to have the same opportunities to step into and out of both arenas.”
As the Brooklyn-born actress mulls her lunch options, she lands on the Arctic char after the waiter assures her there will be no bones. But she doesn’t pause for long and picks right back up where she left off with her rapid-fire cadence.
“A few of us have come through, and I’m very grateful for that,” she says of her brethren, particularly Latinas. “But it’s just not enough. And when we do get our stories told, we have some executive who knows nothing about who we are as a people. And then they’re like, ‘Can you spice it up a little bit?’ You want to punch these people in the face. And then if it’s too real, they’re, ‘Could you pull it back, ’cause we don’t want the audience to feel offended.’ And people are getting sick of it. I think that’s the reason why ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ was such a big winner.”
As she dives into the dish set before her, she offers up a response to the prevailing message she has heard over and over again throughout her 34-year trailblazing career that began with a chance meeting with director Spike Lee and has included such highlights as “Do the Right Thing,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and, more recently, an Emmy-nominated turn in “The Flight Attendant”: “I’m sorry that I’m not happy when you’re asking me to be happy with the crumbs on the table.”
With that, she brushes some crumbs off her hands and digs in.
Digging in is something Perez has been doing for decades, beginning as a child determined to overcome stage fright. If that sounds like the origin story of a Disney kid with an overbearing momager, think again. Perez, one of 10 children, got her introduction to the performing arts at a Catholic convent where she resided in between stints at foster homes and an aunt’s house while her mother toggled in and out of jail.
“I always wanted to dance, and I always loved movies and wanted to act,” she explains. “It was the nuns in the convent who put me onstage. They taught me tap — and how to play baseball — in between confessions.”
And beatings. Perez says she was physically abused by the nuns as well as her mother during what she describes as a “bittersweet” adolescence.
“When people say, ‘Yes, but it made you who you are, and you’re stronger for it,’ they’re validating the abuse, giving credence, right? Imagine what I would have done without getting smacked, getting beaten, getting mentally abused. So it’s bullshit. And I think that people say that to make themselves feel better because it’s hard to hear.”
Still, she persisted. After graduating from Grover Cleveland High School in Queens (two years ahead of Salt-N-Pepa’s Cheryl James), she moved to Los Angeles, where cousin Sixto Ramos, a now familiar face on the TV procedural circuit, was making a go of it as an actor. Two other cousins were in the business, both having appeared in small roles on “Kojak.” As a student at Los Angeles City College, she landed a gig as a dancer on “Soul Train.”
“They didn’t pay the dancers,” she says. “They would give you a piece of chicken in a lunchbox. There was such immense talent on that show — everybody wanted to dance like them — and they should have been compensated properly. The dancers made that show.”
But her hip-hop moves opened doors. While dancing with friends at a club one night, she caught the eye of Lee. He was casting up his third feature film, “Do the Right Thing,” and handed her his business card.
“I didn’t understand who he was. And I didn’t care. I threw the card away,” Perez says. “My girlfriend Marian went back and got it. She always joked, ‘You owe your entire career to me.’ You know, I did audition for ‘Do the Right Thing.’ People think that Spike just discovered me and gave me the role. No, he made me work for it.”
The movie became a cultural phenomenon. Much has been made of Perez’s comments during a 2000 New York Times roundtable in which she expressed discomfort over a nude scene in the film. It’s a subject that she’s not eager to revisit.
“In our cancel culture, some people need to be canceled. And when I was telling the story, people were ready to cancel Spike Lee and cancel me for saying something. And I was like, ‘You know what? This is getting out of hand,’” she says. “Here’s the thing. It happened. We discussed it, we made up, we hugged it out, and we’re still friends to this day. And sometimes people need a chance to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ For a man of his stature to say ‘I’m sorry’ is huge. But that’s why I don’t like to talk about it — because people get too crazy.”
Perez is more eager to talk about the struggles that followed “Do the Right Thing.” The movie allowed her to find an agent and secure work that was exhilarating — like choreographing the Fly Girls on “In Living Color.” (As for a feud with Jennifer Lopez, Perez deadpans, “I don’t even want to get into that.”) Some of the early jobs were so clichéd, she can’t even remember her character. She played an illiterate drug dealer’s girlfriend on the series “21 Jump Street” and found an unlikely ally in her already famous co-star.
“My first scene, Johnny Depp whispered in my ear, ‘Oh, darling, you’re too good for this shit,’” she says, imitating his husky drawl. “Then he invited me to his trailer, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, Johnny Depp’s invited me to his trailer.’ He’s on the phone, and he goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, she’s amazing. Her name is Rosie Perez. Hang on. Hey, Rosie — over here. Say hello to my girlfriend, Winona Ryder.’ And I fell over laughing. After, we talked seriously, and he said, ‘I’m gonna tell people about you. You know, you’re right for the good stuff.’”
Though she has no idea if Depp ever did sing her praises around town, the encounter gave her the confidence to question the wisdom of her agent at the time, whom she declines to name.
“I don’t want her to be canceled, but she told me that if I dyed my hair blond and got a nose job, ‘I can get you more jobs. Because you’re not Black.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. Like, thank you, fired,’” she says. Then the reality of her circumstances set in. “I had nobody. I had no money.”
But she found another champion on the set of HBO’s “Criminal Justice” in co-star Jennifer Grey and spilled about the agent’s nose job suggestion.
“Jennifer and I clicked instantly,” Perez says. “I haven’t seen that woman in ages, but I just think she’s phenomenal. She’s like, ‘I cannot believe how racist this industry is.’ She picks up the phone and calls Jane Berliner at CAA and says, ‘You need to represent this actress.’”
Berliner, now a manager, signed Perez and helped her book two pivotal roles: the first in Ron Shelton’s “White Men Can’t Jump” as Woody Harrelson’s girlfriend, a role written for a white woman.
“It was just a magical summer,” she says, lingering on the memory of playing opposite Harrelson and their co-star Wesley Snipes. “And when you’re scrolling on your TV to see what you want to watch, and March Madness comes up, and then there’s ‘White Men Can’t Jump,’ you can’t help but watch.” She breaks into a wide grin. “Yeah,” she says, “you see the smile on my face right now. After all these years …”
The film set the stage for Peter Weir’s “Fearless,” another project that saw Perez playing against type. “The funny thing about ‘Fearless’ was it was basically a true story, and the character I played was Asian in real life,” she says. Still, the studio wanted to cast a white woman to star opposite Jeff Bridges. But Weir “didn’t have the same Americanized racism in his body. He wanted me right away. But the studio actually said, ‘We’re worried about the interracial aspect of it.’”
Regardless, Weir stood his ground, as did Bridges, whom she calls “simply amazing.” The role of the grieving mother landed her an Oscar nomination. But then nothing really changed. “Nobody saw the movie in America. It lasted only a couple of weeks in the theater. It was considered a flop,” she says.
The offers, after that, rarely aligned with Perez’s talent level. By her own admission, sometimes she was to blame. She auditioned for the female lead in “The Matrix,” a role that went to Carrie-Anne Moss. “I was horrible. As I was walking out, I was like, ‘I know I didn’t get the job. I really sucked,’ and the Wachowskis were like, ‘No,’ and the casting director was trying not to laugh,” she says. “And then finally I looked at her and I go, ‘I really sucked,’ and she just burst out laughing. We all were laughing. I just gave the Wachowskis a hug and I said, ‘Well, good luck with this.’”
Over the years, Perez’s career has spanned various genres and mediums. There were lumps, when she worked with at least two directors who were “100 percent assholes, and they know who they are.” I push for more details on their identity, and she pivots to my meal. “How is the cavatelli?” she asks and insists that I try her smoked carrots with capers and olives. “These are unbelievable, right? I’m dead serious,” she says between bites.
While I’m regrouping, she moves on to some of the geniuses she’s collaborated with, like Michel Gondry on “Human Nature.” (“He’s like, ‘Rosie, you’re a little bit fat,’” she says, doing her best French accent. “I didn’t care. I love him.”) And perhaps most impressive, she stayed in the studio-movie game, playing dirty cops in “Pineapple Express” and “Birds of Prey,” and moved back and forth between the stage (including Larry David’s Broadway effort “Fish in the Dark”) and TV (notably starring in George C. Wolfe’s “Lackawanna Blues”).
Television provided a whole new area of exploration, but she suffered a neck injury while doing a one-off episode of “Law & Order: SVU” that kept her from reteaming with Wolfe for the John Guare play “A Free Man of Color.” “It was supposed to star Jeffrey Wright, me and Mos Def. We had workshopped it for a year,” she says. “So I do that TV show, go back to rehearsals, and they tell me, ‘Sorry, for insurance reasons, you can’t continue.’ It was heartbreaking.”
She remains close friends with Wolfe, who calls her “very smart, effortlessly funny and fueled by an intense desire to be truthful. She can’t fake it, won’t fake it.”
And, perhaps most famously, she endured a disastrous stint on “The View,” during a chaotic year that followed Barbara Walters’ retirement and featured infighting between Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell.
For the first time during the conversation, Perez clams up. “I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she offers cryptically. “Let’s just say that what I thought I was there for was supposed to be one kind of a thing, which excited me, and then when I got there, that’s not what it was.”
While Perez stays mum about facing any discrimination on the show, others have been more than willing to talk about it. At the time, Latino leaders demanded ABC apologize to Perez after anonymous executives made disparaging comments about her in a Variety story that suggested she couldn’t read a teleprompter. Perez never received the apology. But perhaps a comeuppance did finally take place. In 2020, ABC executive Barbara Fedida, who was the top dog on the show during Perez’s brief tenure, was fired for making racially insensitive comments about Robin Roberts.
When I ask her thoughts about the Fedida ouster, Perez looks straight at me, smiles and shakes her head. “Not going there.”
Perez would rather talk about anything else. Like her allergy to insect bites. She lifts up her skirt under the table and shows me a pair of discolored bumps on her knee. “See! Weird, right?” she says. Or some of her more recent opportunities, like HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” playing a member of the airplane crew who becomes entangled in all kinds of intrigue. As with “Birds of Prey,” the series apparently won’t continue, despite a cult following.
But as one project ends, another begins. For Perez, that means tackling a hard-charging assistant U.S. attorney on Showtime’s “Your Honor,” a role that finds her frequently sparring on screen with series star Bryan Cranston. It’s a part that “challenged my technique and my craft” like nothing before, she says. Mainly because Cranston offered her the job two days before it started.
“She said, ‘That’s way too much pressure and not enough time to get into a character,’” Cranston says. “We threw her to the wolves, and she just stood up and conquered it. She just smashed the hell out of it, and it was like, ‘Wow.’ And from that point on, it got easier because she had the time. She’s such a veteran and has done some really remarkable work. And I think she just knows herself. She knows what she’s capable of and what she needs to do it.”
Now, at 58, Perez is feeling content as she considers her past, present and future. She’s been happily married to visual artist Eric Haze for 10 years. Naturally, they live in Brooklyn and spend their downtime watching old movies and indulging in plenty of fighting: boxing for her, UFC for him. (She spends a good 20 minutes schooling me on the former, ticking off a list of newcomers, champs and legends and how they use the space of the ring like a chessboard.) One of her most gratifying moments was learning that Muhammad Ali was a fan of hers.
“Just tears,” she says, describing the moment Ali’s widow, Lonnie, relayed that fact to her.
Careerwise, things haven’t changed from her beginnings. Remarkably, she is still being offered “crack addict roles. Do you believe to this day?” But she laughs and insists that she’s game so long as “the crack addict has an actual storyline.” She pauses and adds, “I see these actors just get destroyed by negative feedback. I say, ‘There’s things that you should never let people take away from you. If you felt like you did a good job, own it.’”
She adds, “What makes me feel powerful as a woman is coming to grips with my own self-worth — understanding my own self-worth — and not apologizing for it, not compromising it, and letting that knowledge just shine through effortlessly.”
Styling: Stephanie Tricola/Honey Artists; Makeup: Karen Dupiche; Hair: Johnny Lavoy/Eufora International; Look 1 (Black dress with gold sleeves): Dress: Vampire’s Wife; Look 2 (Black dress with low cut neckline): Dress: Dolce & Gabanna; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman; Look 3 (Black suit, zeated with sequin skirt): Blazer: Christian Dior; Skirt: SPRWMN; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman