A Force of Nature

Rosie Perez has been largely out of the limelight in recent years. No, she didn’t retire or become unpopular with directors. She did however, seriously injure her neck while filming a scene for a 2009 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Now she’s back, with a stage turn earlier this year that dazzled many reviewers and several intriguing new movies on the horizon. Despite surgeries that helped, she’s still being physically cautious—no running across a field in Port Washington in high heels, as one film director requested of her a few months ago.

By all accounts, Perez hasn’t lost the sparkle that made her a breakout star in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989 (her movie debut), won her an Oscar nomination for the 1993 film Fearless and led to key roles in films like White Men Can’t Jump and Pineapple Express. She’s also made her mark as a choreographer (Do the Right Thing, TV’s In Living Color), producer, writer and activist. Critics continue to hail her abilities.

When she appeared in Close Up Space at the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this year, The New York Times called her “a feisty comic actress” with a “natural zest and wonderfully distinctive voice.” Bloomberg News proclaimed that she and her costar David Hyde Pierce were “a match made in comedy heaven, he the dour fussbudget, she the force of nature who will not be deterred.”

Though she has spent time in Puerto Rico, Perez is a native of Brooklyn—born there in 1964 and still a resident. She visits Long Island frequently with her boyfriend, and also spent a couple of weeks in Port Washington this fall acting in Gods Behaving Badly, a goofy-sounding movie to be released later this year: Christopher Walken plays Zeus, Sharon Stone is Aphrodite and Perez is Persephone, the goddess of spring, all of them Greek gods living in modern-day New York.

Last summer, she traveled to Pittsburgh for Won’t Back Down, a movie about two mothers who team up to make a difference at a local school, scheduled for a fall release.

During a lively interview, she laughed often as she talked about kind encounters with neighbors, driving to Mastic Beach in the slow lane, caring for her dog Sammy Samowitz, visiting Puerto Rico to help investigate human rights violations, getting naked on stage and film and mending a long-standing rift with Spike Lee. She spoke about the lingering problems related to her injury, but declined to discuss the lawsuit she filed against the Law & Order producers. Perez prefers to stay upbeat, she insists: “I stop and smell the roses every day.”

How did you get your role as a famous author in Close Up Space?
They asked me. I said yes, and then I went in and read with David Hyde Pierce, and the deal was done. I know people from Manhattan Theatre Club because I’d done Reckless, Craig Lucas’ play, with them [in 2004 on Broadway].

You played an author. Do you write?
Yes, I do. I have a book deal now. I’d rather wait to talk about it when the time is right.

And you did an episode of Nurse Jackie?
I just finished filming that. I played a woman who comes into the ER room with a broken hand. She’s pregnant, and it seems she doesn’t care that she’s pregnant. You find out there’s a deeper story underneath it all. It’s a very complex role, and I liked it a lot. It didn’t involve a lot of physicality, which is still a concern.

Are you expected to ever recover entirely?
It depends upon the individual, they say. My positive outlook is speeding my recovery. The biggest surprise out of this whole thing has been the support of my neighbors, asking me how I’m doing, rooting for my recovery. I did not expect that at all. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over 20 years, and you say hello every morning, you exchange pleasantries. When this happened, all of a sudden a stronger connection was introduced. And I was really moved by it. This one neighbor, I just broke down in tears. I was having a very, very tough day. She stopped me in the street and my cheery disposition wasn’t intact. She grabbed my hand and said, “I’m praying for you every single day.” And I cried. It was happy tears, though. I said, “You made my day. Thank you very, very much. This is the best medicine I’ve had all week.”

Where is your neighborhood?
I live in Brooklyn. They have double decker buses now going into my neighborhood. Brooklyn has become popular. Because of the economic downturn, the middle class is being pushed out of the city to the outer boroughs and to Long Island. I feel the people who have moved to Long Island are the people from the boroughs who are getting sick of the people being pushed out of Manhattan. It’s kind of a domino effect. If your neighborhood is getting overcrowded, Long Island becomes very enticing.

Do you have a place on Long Island?
I used to have a place in East Hampton. I let it go, and I regret it to this day. I was young and I didn’t understand property value and the priceless value of this quiet. But my boyfriend’s mom has a place out in Mastic Beach. It’s just so quiet, and people don’t care who you are, they’re just living their lives. That’s how Brooklyn used to be, and I like that. But the reason I haven’t chosen to live out there is that I’m a terrible, terrible traveler. Being in a car going back and forth for me would be a nightmare. And I’m one of those irritating people who follow all the traffic rules. I’m on the LIE going 40. I stay in the slow lane. It’s angst. All I do when I hear the honking is turn on the music a little bit louder.

Rosie Perez at the Urban Arts Partnership
You’ve been working on films, including Gods Behaving Badly and Still I Rise?
Still I Rise is now called Steel Town [more recently Won’t Back Down]. I felt I had a little bit of ring rust, as they say in the boxing world, because I hadn’t worked for a while, since my operation and accident. There were little things that you don’t think about, like that I had to wear heels in one shot and as soon as the camera was off I had to put on flat shoes. But it was wonderful to be in the company of Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter. It was a great way to go back to work.

What about Gods Behaving Badly?
I play John Turturro’s wife. I’m the goddess of spring and he is the god of the underworld, Hades. This is my third movie with John. There was another issue with high heels—“Okay, you’re going to run in high heels across the field!” We were in Port Washington on Long Island. I said, “Uh, I don’t think so.” The director [Marc Turtletaub] was just so cool, and John was so supportive. Our home was a big fat mansion out there. Edie Falco is in that as well.

Are you friends with her?
I wouldn’t say that we hang out, but I would love to call her my friend. From the first moment that I met that woman I was like, “Okay, she’s a real chick. She’s down to earth. She’s straight from the hip.” If you don’t understand me, I may come off as being really brash, but it’s just the Brooklyn in me. And she got that immediately. Before the movie, we mostly saw each other at charity events. She and I would be the ones sitting alone at a table, while everybody’s schmoozing and networking. That’s why I love her.

I read that you have a twin sister. Is that true?
No. I have a sister, Carmen, and someone else told her about the twin story, and she told me, and we had a good laugh about it.

Is she older or younger?
I promised her we would never get into [this]. It’s an inside joke for our family. But she and I are very very very close. She’s a chef. She a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and she had a really wonderful career. Now she devotes her time to the Times Square Church, where she helps to prepare the menu for homeless people every single day.

Is her last name also Perez?
She uses the family last name, Serrano. I have my mother’s last name. It’s very complicated. [Her father Ismael Serrano was a merchant seaman who had an affair with her mother while she was married.] I grew up with my father as well, but he passed away three years ago. My mother has passed, too.

Do you have any brothers?
My mother has nine other children. On my father’s side, I have my sister and my brother. Our father was our best friend. My sister and brother have a lot of moxie, just like I do, and it comes from my father.

Did you do any of your growing up in Puerto Rico?
We spent the winter breaks and the summer breaks down there. Whenever we had vacation, we were down there. Then when I got older and I wasn’t consigned to a school schedule, I was down there a lot. I still go. My father and my aunt, his sister, they’re the reason for my accent.

Rosie Perez at the Urban Arts PartnershipYou’ve been involved in Puerto Rican pride matters, including directing a documentary. Are you doing anything now?
I went down to Puerto Rico with the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] to investigate abuses by the police department in Puerto Rico [last May]. There are a lot of human rights violations allegations. I went down with the head of the ACLU and with members of the staff, and we spoke with the police down there, and with the president of the University of Puerto Rico. We also met with some elected officials, and it was very tense. As a result of the visit, there’s an official investigation now by the Justice Department [which issued a report accusing the police of “profound” violations].

Did I just hear a dog barking?
Yes, that’s my dog, Sammy Samowitz. He was part of my previous marriage, when I was married to Seth Zvi Rosenfeld. So for a short time period of time I was Rosie Rosenfeld, when we rescued Sammy. We consider him a Puerto Rican Jewish dog.

Do you have any favorites among all the things you’ve done?
I would have to say I enjoyed 95 percent of everything I’ve done so far. Even if you have a difficult time on a shoot, that doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy the part. For example, Fearless [playing a plane crash victim grieving the death of her infant] was a very challenging process. I still enjoyed it. White Men Can’t Jump [as Woody Harrelson’s girlfriend] was sheer fun, from start to end. And I had a great time in Reckless and The Ritz [both on Broadway]. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, that was hard, taking my clothes off every day [on Broadway in 2003, as a waitress in bed with a short order cook in the opening scene]. Everyone thinks I’m such an exhibitionist. But it was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to show the breasts again.” And when your family comes to see you, I was just, like, mortified. But I loved doing the play.

Have you done nudity in films?
Coming out of the gate, with Do the Right Thing, then in White Men Can’t Jump, then in The Take [2007] with John Leguizamo. I had just recovered from cracking my hip and I had put on a lot of weight. I asked John, “Do you really want me to go naked?” He said, “It’s great. You’ll look like a real woman who just had two kids.” I went, “Oh, God.” When you work with somebody like John Leguizamo, somebody you trust, you kind of let go and get really into it. It felt safe to take risks.

How do you do that? Do they clear out the set when you’re filming the nude scene?
Usually everyone is really respectful and professional and they make it as comfortable as possible. If you’re not comfortable, you become self-conscious, and if you become self-conscious—I know it. When you’re watching somebody and they’re arching their back or sucking in their stomach or going for an angle that’s more flattering for them, I really hate that, because it takes me out of the moment of the storytelling. I don’t want to gyp the paying audience. I grew up hard knocks, so I appreciate people who work hard and give it their all. That’s what I want to do. The environment has to be 100 percent for me to give 100 percent, and respect is the main factor.

How was it on your very first movie, Do the Right Thing?
That was not a respectful environment. It took a long time for Spike and me to come to terms with that. This is the first time I’ve actually said it, but Spike and I have made up and we are on good terms now. And that feels good, because this is the person who started my career. I learned from that, you’ve always got to be careful what you say and not say it. I was very young and very angry. My father was hurt. Being Daddy’s girl, that’s where my reaction was coming from. Now that I’m a grown woman, I was able to let go.

What exactly did you say to him?
I said that I felt it was very disrespectful. I didn’t understand what was being asked of me, and it was rushed and there were people around. I said, “Whoa, I’m a college student, what is going on? This was too much for me.” I felt it was very gratuitous.

How did you make up with him?
I just walked up to him and he was with his lovely wife. It was a New Year’s party [several years ago] and I said, “It’s a new year, it’s a new time, and I just want to say, hi, can we start all over?” He shook my hand and we’ve been cool ever since.

What plans do you have for the future?
I want to continue being part of the entertainment industry. I want to continue with my charity, Urban Arts Partnership. I’ve been with them for 20 years. It’s an arts education charity. The website is urbanarts.org—and people can donate there, even if it’s only a dollar. We service over sixty public schools, and we’re expanding to Los Angeles now. And I also want to continue to have a good time in life. I stop and smell the roses every day. I went to a We Are Family Foundation event [in October]. I was the host. It was the 10-year gala celebration, and everybody was in sheer elation. And this woman sits down next to me, and she was so bitter, complaining about her life. I’m looking at her—there are diamonds in her ears and a diamond necklace around her neck. Let’s just say, she’s not part of the Wall Street occupation. She asked, “And how are you?” And I said, “Life is great.” Enough, lady. Humbleness is the quickest way to happiness, in my opinion. I hope to continue to be a happy old fart.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.