In 1988, Rosie Perez was 24 and working as a choreographer when she got into an argument with a stranger at the night club. It turns out it was film director Spike Lee.
Perez recalls Lee telling her that he’d been looking for someone who could yell at him in exactly that way — and then he cast her as his girlfriend in Do the right thing.
Do the right thing was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1990, but despite the film’s success, Perez couldn’t get an agent or a manager to take her seriously as an actor — in part, she says, because of her New York Puerto Rican accent.
“There’s lots of people who have accents, but when you are a person of color and you have an accent — especially if you’re Latino — it really works against you,” she says. “People always say, ‘Oh, why is everything about race?’ Because everything’s about race. It’s as simple as that.”
But Perez pushed on — something she’s done her whole life — and was cast in White Men Can’t Jump and Peter Weir’s fearless, which earned her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. She’s currently co-starring in the HBO Max dark comedy series The Flight Attendant — a role she very nearly passed up.
“I don’t like traveling and I have a fear of flying,” she says. But then she met with series creator and co-star Kaley Cuoco and they clicked immediately.
“It was so irritating how charming [Cuoco] what!” Perez says. “I’m trying to play it cool, but inside [I was] like, dammit, I know I’m going to say yes now. Thank you. I did.”
On early in her career being offered roles as sex workers
Here’s the thing: When you’re of color and you get offered a role as a prostitute, you have no back story, you have not a great storyline. You’re just a prostitute. … But when white women get roles of prostitutes, they get nominated [for awards], because they have a full arc, a full story, and then they’re the lead and it’s all about them. If you think about Leaving Las Vegasif you think about pretty woman, those weren’t the prostitute roles that I was being offered. Not by a long shot! …
I am not afraid of playing certain characters. I’m not afraid of playing the good and bad and ugly of my nationality, of my race. I’m not. I am opposed to playing the negative stereotypes that are limiting and help to foster that horrible narrative over and over again. That’s when I put my foot down.
On becoming a ward of New York state at age of 3
I was basically governed by the Catholic Church, inside a Catholic home for displaced, unwanted or orphaned children. And it was in a convent in upstate New York, in Peekskill. And my mother had given me away when I was a week old. I was a product of an affair. And she gave me away to my biological father’s sister, my aunt. … I used to call her mommy. I thought she was my mother. And my mother came back, out of nowhere, when I was 3, turning 4 and just said, “I’m taking the baby,” and just ripped me out of my aunt’s arms. And my cousins told me that [my aunt] fell to her knees and went into cardiac arrest. She survived, but went into cardiac arrest. And my mother took me from my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, where I was a happy, spoiled child, despite the poverty we were living in. I didn’t know we were poor because it was a happy home. And she took me directly to the convent in Peekskill, and gave me to the nuns.
On being abused by nuns at the convent
There was one very sadistic nun who used to beat the crap out of me on the regular because I had a strong will and a strong spirit. I would say practically every day, “I don’t belong here!” And it was like, smack! smack! smack! “Get on your knees. Pray to Jesus for forgiveness!” … It was just really, really too much. And because of those formative earlier years with my aunt, who always told me I was special, always told me I was loved, I had a different sensibility than the majority of the kids there.
On how she persevered through her traumatic childhood
I always knew I was special. And some people would say that’s arrogant and it’s not. It really isn’t. I felt that from all the good people that were in my life, especially this one nun, Sister Margaret Francis. She was a nun who left the order. … She was so instrumental in my life. She said, “Put your head down, study hard and get out, because you can make it.” And I never forgot that. So it kept pushing me and pushing me and pushing me. And I had blinders on and everything was going well in my life, and then I hit a wall. With all the success that I was having, I hit a wall because finally all the pain from my past that I pushed down, that I had convinced myself I was above, that I was better than the pain, that I was better than what had happened to me, which just came crashing in like, No, honey. You’re not past your past. It’s in you, and it’s informing everything about you.
On being a SoulTrain dancer
I showed up in sneakers and tight jeans and they told me, “Oh, no, you have to wear something else. You can’t wear that.” And I said, “Why?” “Well, the girls don’t wear that.” And then I looked at all the other girls and they’re in high heels and spandex pants and spandex outfits and stuff like that. … And I went and I got one of my hoochie mama-looking dresses and some high heels. …
I quickly picked up how to dance in high heels. And me and my college buddies, the girls that came with me, we thought it was a hoot. We thought it was a joke. We didn’t really understand the magnitude it would have, that millions of people were watching us. So I didn’t get it. I really didn’t get it. I just thought it was funny. It was silly. We were having a good time and then the phone rings and my father calls. “Why are you dressed like that? Why are you dancing like that? All my friends are calling. I feel so disrespected!” And so I was only on SoulTrain for eight months, and I quit after that phone call for my father.
On filming the opening dance sequence for Do the right thing
I have to give the credit to Spike. We had a different choreographed routine for the opening, and Spike just kept saying it’s not working. The opening song for Do the right thing was supposed to be “Cool Jerk” … and he came back with “Fight the Power” by Chuck D and Public Enemy. And I listened to it and I started screaming, “Oh my god! This is it! This is it!” … And right on the spot, I just started choreographing it. Right on the spot, and it just all came out and the choreographer started helping me with the structure as well. We really did a good job together and we literally had maybe two days to pull it together. And we shot that opening scene for eight hours straight.
On her father’s reaction to her nudity in Do the right thing
He almost had a heart attack, literally. They had to rush him to the hospital. …. He invited the entire town … in Puerto Rico, and when [the nudity part] came up, they said he stood up and grabbed his heart… and he fell down in his chair. And they called the ambulance. Very Puerto Rican, very telenovela scene. other [they] rushed him to the hospital. And he was OK. And I called him and … I said, “I’ll never do it again.” He said, “No, no, no. You’re a grown up. It’s your life. But please, baby, next time give me a warning, OK? Say you’re doing an ‘artistic’ film.”… I thought he would be so ashamed to walk around town with me. On the contrary. He was walking around town with me, holding my hand, and in his other hand he had an 8 x 10 glossy of me.
On feeling uncomfortable while filming the nudity in Do the right thing
I mean, in fairness to Spike, I did agree to the nudity. … [There] was supposed to be more nudity and we negotiated down to what you saw on screen. But at the time … when it came to my breasts, I just felt exploited. I had thoughts of my father swirling around in my head, and I just started crying. other [cinematographer] Ernest Dickerson yelled, “Cut!” And Spike was very angry. And Ernest Dickerson … God bless him, because he goes, “Stop, this is enough, Spike. We got it. This isn’t right.”
I got up and [costume designer] Ruth Carter put a robe around me, and she gave me the biggest hug. And Spike was so confused. He goes, “But you knew what I was doing. You agreed to it.” And I said, “Yeah, but it was just too much.” … It was upsetting. And the thing is, we didn’t have a big fight over it. We had a conversation. I’d give him that credit. And he said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.” And I said, “It’s OK.” And we finished the day.
I am forever grateful [to Spike]. People always think, like, “Why are you disrespecting Spike Lee?” I’m not disrespecting Spike Lee. I’m telling you the truth of what had happened. And things can happen. And you don’t need to cancel him. He and I worked it out. Hey apologized. We hugged it out. And we’re still friends to this day.
On finding love and stability in her husband
I have a wonderful husband. he gets me he loves me Hey supports me. He’s my biggest fan. I’m his biggest fan. He’s an amazing artist and graphic designer. Everything that I wanted — everyone thinks it’s the fame and the fortune; it’s not — it was love and stability. And I have that. And I feel very, very blessed. I feel so blessed that I told my husband, “If things slowed down in my career, I’m good. I’m good. Because I have all of this.” It’s priceless. And it’s the only thing that I really would daydream about when I was younger.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.