Story by Sarah Mosqueda
Interview by Tawanah Reeves-Ligon
With her distinct accent and trademark personality, Rosie Perez has made a career of taking up space. But the Puerto Rican-American actor, choreographer and activist said she wants to see the media industry make more room for Latinx in entertainment.
“It has gotten better, but I think it has only gotten a little bit better,” Perez said in a recent phone interview with Hispanic Network Magazine, “There are still very few Latino or Latina names. There are still very few just regular stories about us. There are still very few writers and directors. It has gotten better, but we still need so much more, and we still need to go much, much further.”
Brooklyn-born Perez began her career at the age of 19, when she appeared as a dancer on Soul Train. As a student at Los Angeles City College, she went to dance clubs to relieve stress, and her moves got the attention of a Soul Train talent scout. She went on to choreograph music videos for Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown, Diana Ross and LL Cool J. Perez also served as choreographer for the Fly Girls, a dance group featured on the Fox sketch comedy show, In Living Color. Although she wasn’t a professional dancer, she also caught the attention of director Spike Lee at a dance club called Funky Reggae. Lee hired Perez for her first major movie role, starring opposite of him, in Do the Right Thing.
Perez notes that finding and supporting black and brown talent is one of the simplest ways individuals in those communities can make space for each other.
“Find them and support them, it is as simple as that,” said Perez, “And look for the ones that have the talent and the ability [who maybe] don’t understand they do. Look at what Spike Lee did for me. And we are still friends to this day. He is a great support.”
Perez’s role in the ever relevant Do the Right Thing launched a movie career that has included a major role in the comedy White Men Can’t Jump with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson and an Oscar-nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1993’s Fearless. In 2020, she took on the role of Gotham City Police detective, Renee Montoya, in DC Films’ Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.) In 2021, she appeared in the family comedy, Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Perez has also used her platform for activism. Perez’s mother passed away from AIDS in 1999, and she has dedicated efforts to eradicating the disease since. In 2010, then President Barack Obama appointed her to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA).
“Approximately 36 million are living with AIDS and the numbers in the black and brown community are still high, and there is still not a cure,” Perez noted.
Perez has also been an advocate for Puerto Rico, delivering hurricane aid and using her voice to speak out about the island’s needs.
Most recently she has graced the small screen with a supporting role on HBOMax’s dramatic comedy, The Flight Attendant, with Kaley Cuoco.
“We are filming season two, and I love Kaley Cuoco,” Perez said, “I love everyone on the show.”
Perez also stars in the upcoming bilingual thriller Now and Then, from AppleTV. Perez was cast along side Marina de Tavira, José María Yazpik, Maribel Verdú, Manolo Cardona and Željko Ivanek for the show, which explores the lives of a group of best friends from college and the trouble they face when a celebratory weekend ends with one of them dead. The series comes from Bambú Producciones and creators Ramón Campos, Teresa Fernández-Valdés and Gema R. Neira. Shot in Madrid, Spain and in Miami, Perez said the project is a prime example for what can be created when Latinx are in the room.
“I walked on set, and the entire crew was Spanish,” said Perez, “I was blown away. And then when we shot in Miami for the Miami scenes, the majority of the crew were Latino. And it gave me such a great feeling. How many projects exist like that?”
Being in the room is the way Perez said she sees more multicultural and inclusive projects like Now and Then making their way to the screen.
“I think that it’s all about being in the room where initial decisions are made. If we are not in those rooms, progress is still going to continue at a snail’s pace,” said Perez, “And the room I am talking about is filled with studio executives. I am talking about production companies. I am talking about the writer’s guild…Any room that will constitute a green light for a project to be made, we are not in those room enough. And I think that is the first step.”
But Perez said the responsibility for putting diverse voices in the room lies with the entertainment industry.
“The change has to start with them, not with us…It is an embarrassment upon them that they are still at a loss, and they need guidance from us,” said Perez, “It is about access, and it is about opportunity. Any time they offer a drop in the bucket, they think, ‘Oh that’s great; we are making strides.’ And that drop in the bucket just dries up.”
Which is why Perez said she is thrilled to be a part of the bilingual series.
“This is a splash in the bucket. This is when change begins,” said Perez of Now and Then.
Perez is also a mental health advocate and has pushed the industry to make room for those with mental health issues.
“If I had a broken arm, and I was going to go and do a movie, you would tell production, ‘She has a broken arm,’” said Perez, “And it is the same thing. With a broken arm you have limitations. It is the same thing with mental illness.”
In 2014, Perez wrote a memoir titled, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, in which she opened up about the post-traumatic stress disorder she has as the result of childhood trauma, when she became a ward of the state and lived in foster care until she was 12.
“I have PTSD, and I suffer from clinical depression and panic attacks,” Perez said.
While she was diagnosed in her 20s, Perez said it wasn’t until her 40s that she began to be more open about her struggles.
“I got exhausted explaining my feelings. I was hurt by the judgement from it. I was tired of it, and it was effecting my work.”
Perez said she began to take a proactive approach, by asking her management team to support her by communicating her needs to prospective jobs.
“And I have to tell you, my career and my work has improved substantially because of it.”
Perez said being up front about the limitations her mental health issues cause has helped create a more accommodating work environment.
“I will tell you, ‘I am having a panic attack. I need a minute.’ I know how to modify that panic attack, so we can move forward,” Perez said, “I am not asking you to be my doctor, but if we make it a team effort, things will go smoothly.”
Perez also said therapy has helped her take responsibility for her mental health.
“I, as the person who has the issues, also need to be accountable,” said Perez, “When I am having that panic attack or getting depressed, I have been in therapy enough to know I need to do A, B and C. And I need to be an adult about this and do it.”
Perez said this doesn’t mean getting special treatment in the work place, but rather compassionate treatment.
“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me,” said Perez, “I want you to work with me.”
Perez hopes that by being honest about mental health issues, the stigma often associated with them will deplete.
“I hope there will be a time when everyone can come out of their mental health closet and when you walk to in to your job, there is not the whispers — or the tone [of a conversation] wouldn’t change,” said Perez, “I hope that happens one day.”
Perez said one activity she finds particularly therapeutic is boxing.
“Punching something really makes me feel good,” laughs Perez, “I don’t punch people, and I don’t like to get hit, let’s be clear. But punching something really is a great feeling.”
Perez’s love for boxing began years ago, she said, as a result of her Puerto Rican culture.
“Growing up, it seemed like every Puerto Rican person was watching boxing or baseball. For a short time, I was into both.”
She learned to box as a means of defending herself, and she said her confidence grew with each jab.
“Once I learned how to box, I was able to assert myself and certain walls started to come down,” said Perez, “I am not fearful anymore. I can defend myself.”
Perez said she finds watching boxing matches inspiring.
“I know the fighters, and I see their rise through the ranks. Then in four or five years, they finally have a championship fight; it inspires me,” Perez said, “It tells me if you do the work, you will have results.”
Perez admits that even when the boxer she is rooting for loses, she finds inspiration.
“Even when they lose, it helps my mental health in a weird way, because I know how they are feeling,” said Perez, “They just lost on a world stage. That is hard to deal with. And then you see them months later in another fight, and it blows my mind. You just got humiliated in the ring, and I am watching you in another fight, trying to get your belt back? Go on with your bad self!”
The strength that exists in that vulnerability is something Perez relates to her mental health journey.
“I just want to be honest with people, so they don’t feel when they look at me like ‘she is so strong, what is wrong with me?’” said Perez, “I am not strong. I just got help. I am doing the work, and the work gives me the strength.”