TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the Emmy- and Oscar-nominated actor Rosie Perez. She started her performing career as a dancer. When she was 19, she was dancing at a club with her friends when a talent scout from "Soul Train" noticed her and invited her to dance on the show. She brought her style of hip-hop dancing to "Soul Train" at a time before hip-hop had entered the mainstream. She went on to be the choreographer for The Fly Girls, the dancers on the sketch comedy show "In Living Color." She choreographed music videos for Bobby Brown, Diana Ross and L.L. Cool J.
In 1988, when she was 24, Perez went to a nightclub and ended up getting in an argument with Spike Lee. He told her, I've been looking for somebody who can yell at me in exactly that way, and he cast her as his girlfriend in "Do The Right Thing." Despite the success of the movie, Rosie Perez couldn't get an agent or a manager to take her seriously as an actress. But she pushed on, something she's done her whole life, and was cast in "White Men Can't Jump" and Peter Weir's film "Fearless," which earned her a best supporting actress nomination.
Perez had a rough childhood. She had nine siblings. Her mother was intermittently jailed throughout her childhood and was diagnosed later in life as schizophrenic. When Perez was 3 years old, she was transferred to a Catholic foster home run by nuns and was considered a ward of the state of New York until age 12.
Rosie Perez currently stars in the HBO Max series, "The Flight Attendant," which is in its second season. Later this month, you can see her in the Apple TV+ series "Now And Then" as a police detective.
Rosie Perez, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you on the show. It seems like things are going so well in your career now - like, two new series. Like, do you feel in a great place professionally now?
ROSIE PEREZ: Yes, I do. It's wonderful. It's all about just keep pushing and keep going, as you stated earlier. You know, if you really want something, you just have to keep at it. And, you know, there's been highs. There's been lows. There's been mostly highs, thank God. But right now it's really high, and I'm very, very happy.
GROSS: You were reluctant to take the role on "The Flight Attendant." I mean, it's a great role. It's a popular series. Why were you going to decline?
PEREZ: Because I don't like traveling, and I have a fear of flying. So it's the two things combined that, you know - at this point in my career - it's 30 years plus - I was like, if I don't have to travel for work, I'd rather not. And although I really loved the script - I thought it was so weird and strange and funny and dark - I was like, oh, my God, this is amazing. But I really didn't want to get on a plane and travel all over the world for five months. And so, you know, Kaley Cuoco insisted on meeting me, and I didn't want to meet with her.
GROSS: She's the producer and star.
PEREZ: Yes. And they said - my manager Tarik Kanafani just kept insisting, just pushing me and pushing me. And he kept saying, I think it'd be a mistake if you turn this one down. So I said, OK, fine. I met with Kaley. And it was so irritating how charming...
PEREZ: ...She was.
GROSS: Isn't that terrible? Yeah.
PEREZ: Yeah. And so, I mean, we clicked immediately - inside - you know, I'm trying to play it cool. But inside, I was like, damn it. Gosh.
PEREZ: I know I'm going to say yes now. So yeah. So thankfully I did.
GROSS: So, you know, you have two new series. One of them is "The Flight Attendant." And you have another series starting May 20 in which you play a police detective. When you were first getting started in acting, you got a lot of roles - role offers as prostitutes. Does it feel good to be playing the detective and not the prostitute?
PEREZ: (Laughter) Yes. And, you know, it's very interesting because here's the thing. When you're of color and you get off a role as a prostitute, you have no backstory. You have not a great storyline. You're just a prostitute. You're just some ho, right? And - but if you look at how when white women get roles of prostitutes, they get nominated, you know, 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 Vegas," if you think about "Pretty Woman" - you know, those weren't the prostitute roles that I was being offered, you know?..
PEREZ: ...Not by a long shot.
GROSS: You were, like, a sex worker on the street getting arrested.
PEREZ: Yeah. I mean, I didn't take those roles. There was one role I took, "Criminal Justice" on HBO. And I played a drug addict, but I was the supporting lead. And the whole story circled around me and Forest Whitaker's characters. And I said yes to it because it was a story about a human being. And my agent at the time didn't understand, well, why would you take that and not take this? I go, why are you in this business? You don't get it.
PEREZ: (Laughter) You know, it was so crazy. It was so crazy to me that they just couldn't comprehend. They couldn't see past the bigotry in the situation. You know, it was just like, oh, my gosh. It was insane.
GROSS: Do you think having a kind of New York Puerto-Rican accent ever stood in your way of getting roles?
PEREZ: One hundred percent. Of course it did. You think about somebody like Billy Crystal. He has a New York accent - never hindered him, you know? There's lots of people who have accents, you know. But when you, once again, are person of color and you have an accent, especially if you're, you know, Latino, it really works against you. And people - you know, they always say, oh, why is everything about race? - because everything's about race.
PEREZ: Yeah. So it's as simple as that, you know? And I'm not - I am not afraid of playing certain characters, you know? I'm not afraid of playing the good and bad and ugly of my nationality, of my race. I am 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. And there's a big, big difference, you know?
GROSS: Let's go back to the very beginning. You spent, you know, your formative years from - was, like, age 3 to age 12 in a group foster home and in foster care. I know it's a complicated story, but how did you end up in foster care?
PEREZ: Well, I wasn't in foster care initially. And most people don't understand the difference. You are a ward of the state. And that means what it literally means. And 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 Dominga Otero. Everybody called her Minguita. I called her Tia. Well, 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 she fell to her knees and went into cardiac arrest. She survived, but she 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.
GROSS: How could she do that, take you from a home in which you were loved, you know, with your aunt and bring you to a group home?
PEREZ: It wasn't a group home. It was a Catholic home. It's like an orphanage, if you will.
GROSS: But why would she do that?
PEREZ: That's a very good question. That's the question that I've been dealing with all my life that I had to learn to kind of let go because I'm not going to get the answers. The only closest thing that comes to mind for some type of answer is a result of her mental illness. It just did not make any sense. And the other thing that I could think of that I was telling my father - I said maybe she was jealous. Maybe she had some type of yearning for me. You know, I don't know. I really don't know. And no one knows. But she did not want my aunt to have me.
GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosie Perez. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EASY LIFE'S "NIGHTMARES (OFFICIAL INSTRUMENTAL)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosie Perez. She's now starring in "The Flight Attendant," which is in its second season, and she's about to star, starting May 20, in a new series on Apple TV+ called "Now And Then," in which she plays a police detective.
How old were you and how old was your mother when she was actually diagnosed with, you know, a mental health disorder, schizophrenia?
PEREZ: I don't know. But I do remember - I don't know what age I was. I was maybe around 10 or 11, I think, when a social worker, Mrs. Sanchez (ph), told me that my mother had mental illness. And I just looked at her. And she says, OK, now you're going to go to the psychiatrist, Dr. Tizbi (ph), who was on staff at the convent, and he will explain it further. And I'm like, what? This is a lot for a kid to take in, you know what I mean? And what also people don't understand - in the Catholic home, on weekends, you were able to get visits from your relatives or you were able to go home for what they called home visits. And my aunt had petitioned for me always to go home, and my mother would deny it a lot of the time.
So there - most of the time, I would go take the train down back to New York and the subways to Brooklyn with my aunt to - back to my house, my aunt's home. And once in a blue moon, I would go to my mother's home. But there were weekends where she would just deny it, and so my aunt would trek all the way upstate to see me. So there wasn't - there was hardly - I wouldn't say every, but there was hardly a weekend where I didn't see her, my aunt. And it was very seldom when I saw my mother because they would say, oh, you can't go home to your aunt this weekend because your mother's coming up for a visit. And we would sit there and wait for hours. And most of the time, she would never come. And it just - you know, all these things turned me into an introverted, you know, angry little girl.
GROSS: I can't imagine what it's like to not only have your mother reject you but take you out of a home where you're loved, put you in a - you know, a Catholic home for girls as an orphan when you had both a mother and a loving aunt, and your mother would prevent you from seeing the aunt. I can't imagine how that made you feel about your ability to be loved.
PEREZ: It was horrible. It was really horrible. And on top of that, my half brothers and sisters - my mother's other children - were in the home as well. And there was the girls dormitory and the boys dormitory, and we were kept very, very separate except for playtime and eating. And the other girls in the dormitory would say, you have half sisters, but they say that you're not really their sister. And I was like, what? So it was just so confusing. And my aunt would have to fill me in. And the counselors there too - there were some wonderful counselors there, I would have to say.
There was one very sadistic nun who used to beat the crap out of me on a regular because I had a strong will and a strong spirit, you know, because 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. I'm like, what? It's like, I'm 5, you know? It's just - and it was just too much. 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 a majority of the kids there. And there was only a few that fell into the same tribe as I in that we were like, we don't belong here.
GROSS: You know, what was your image of Jesus since Jesus was kind of like a punitive figure for the nuns that used to beat you?
PEREZ: Well, I was very confused about Jesus because, on one hand, I really loved going to church. I loved the whole pomp and circumstance of it all. I loved singing the songs. I can recite the whole mass to you to this day, you know, because I would just escape in a weird way. But I never really fully bought it. And I remember getting such a beating one day when we were studying in the chapel - because the convent, of course, had its own chapel - the 12 steps of Jesus Christ and the saints. And I raised my hand, and I said, Sister Panada (ph)? What? That's how she...
PEREZ: She couldn't stand me, and it was mutual, the hatred. And I said, only Jesus and God can forgive us? Yes. And Jesus died for our sins. Yes. What's your point? I go, so why do we need all these other men? And I was pointing to the saints - smack, smack, smack.
PEREZ: I was like, what? What did I say? Yeah. And so I was really confused. I was really confused. And then it was like, if I didn't have enough penance, I would get beat by Sister Panada, literally. You know, you go into confessional, you would say your sins, and the priest would give you how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers. And then you would go back into the pews, and you kneel, and you say everything. And when I would be finished earlier than the other kids, she would grab me by the ear. And she goes, you go back there in that confessional and tell them the truth. And I go, I did. No, you did not. You should be on your knees for a longer period of time. So then I started making up sins because I was too afraid of getting more beatings from Sister Panada. And so in my mind, I'm like, how is this right? How is this religion right? This doesn't make any sense.
GROSS: I want to jump ahead to when you were 19. You were studying biochemistry at Los Angeles City College, and you were dancing at a club one night with your girlfriends when a talent scout from "Soul Train" saw you and asked you to be a dancer on the show. So I want to talk about dancing on "Soul Train." What kind of dancing were you doing, and how did that compare to the other dancers on Soul Train?
PEREZ: Well, first of all, I showed up in sneakers and tight jeans, and they told me, oh, no, you have to get - 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. I went, oh, gosh, got it. And I went, and I got one of my hoochie-mama-looking dresses...
PEREZ: ...And some high heels. And I didn't really know how to dance in high heels. And I just started shaking my ass, and they were loving it. And when they would yell cut and we would go to a commercial break, I would take off the shoes, and they would be playing music to keep the liveliness going. And I started doing hip-hop, and some of the "Soul Train" dancers were like, oh, my God, that's that New York stuff. Like, could you teach us? I'm like, sure, you know, teaching them and stuff. And I remember Don Cornelius getting so angry, so angry because he hated hip-hop, and he says, do not do that on my set. And I said, why? Same little girl with Sister Panada.
PEREZ: And he goes, because I said so. And I went, all righty, Mr. King. And I went, Don King. And he didn't like that joke at all. He didn't like that joke at all, you know. But 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 of my friends are calling. I feel so disrespected. And so I was only on "Soul Train" for eight months, and I quit after that phone call from my father.
GROSS: Because of that? Because of that phone call?
PEREZ: Yeah. I didn't want to hurt him. I didn't - it's a different world in Puerto Rico, you know what I mean? I am not Rosie Perez in Puerto Rico. I'm Rosa Marie, the daughter of Ismael Serrano. That's who I am, you know what I mean? And so for him to say that to me - and my father is not judgmental. My father - God rest his soul - was a very, very kind, funny man. For him to say that was really big, and so I did it for him. I didn't feel pressured by him at all, you know. But I did that for him because I loved him and I respected him. So I didn't want to hurt him.
GROSS: But it was such an opportunity that you were giving up.
PEREZ: I didn't see it as a opportunity. I saw it as fun because I thought I was going to be a marine biologist. I thought that this was just a sidetrack, you know, just a fun thing to do, like going to the nightclubs. I didn't see it as that.
GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosie Perez, and she's now starring in the HBO Max series "The Flight Attendant," which is in its second season. And later this month, you can see her in the Apple TV+ limited series "Now And Then." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT THE POWER")
PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) 1989, the number, another summer. Get down. Sound of the funky drummer, music hitting your heart 'cause I know you got soul. Brothers and sisters - listen, if you're missing, y'all, swinging while I'm singing, hey, giving what you're getting, knowing what I knowing while the Black band's sweating and the rhythm rhymes rolling, got to give us what we want, got to give us what we need, hey. Our freedom of speech is freedom of death. We've got to fight the powers that be. Fight the power. Fight the power. Fight the power. Fight the power. Fight the power. Fight the power. Fight the power.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Rosie Perez. She's now co-starring in the series "The Flight Attendant" on HBO Max and in the new series "Now And Then," which premieres May 20 on Apple TV+. After being raised as a ward of the state of New York and in foster care, she's had quite a career. She co-starred with Spike Lee in his film "Do The Right Thing" and danced to Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" in the opening credit sequence of the film. She co-starred in "Fearless" and "White Men Can't Jump," and she was the choreographer for the Fly Girls on the sketch comedy show "In Living Color." She got started performing as a dancer on "Soul Train."
Did the "Soul Train" dancers get paid?
PEREZ: No. Nobody did.
GROSS: Did you see that as exploitation or opportunity?
PEREZ: Exploitation. Exploitation because me and my girlfriends, you know, we're all college students, and I would say maybe 95% of the dancers there were not. And, you know, we kept saying, shouldn't we be getting paid? And we just started questioning it all. And I remember one of the producers goes, your payment is your lunch. I go, this two-piece Kentucky Fried Chicken box. It was like, are you serious, you know? But I think because we were doing it for fun, we were like, OK, oh, well, you know. And it broke my heart, you know, because a lot of the people there were not doing it just for fun. They were doing it to advance their careers, and that's wrong. It's wrong, you know, and so, yeah.
But I didn't see it as a stepping stone until I met Louil Silas Jr. of MCA Records, and he's the one that asked me - he saw me dancing on the side during commercial breaks, doing hip-hop routines with this dancer on "Soul Train." His name was Ricky. His name is Ricky. We're still friends, and we were having a good time. And he said that's that New York stuff. I said, yeah, I'm from Brooklyn. And he said, can you teach that to my new artist? He's going solo. I go, who is he? And he says, it's a secret. I said, well, I'm not a choreographer, sir, I'm a college student. And he says, I'll pay you $1,600 a day. I said, I'll be there Monday, and that's how my choreography career started.
GROSS: So you started doing choreography, and then Spike Lee cast you in "Do The Right Thing." That was - I'm trying to get my chronology straight. That was before "In Living Color," right?
GROSS: Right. So let's talk about Spike Lee casting you in "Do The Right Thing." And you have that amazing opening episode in which you're dancing to "Fight The Power." So Spike Lee saw you at a club, and it's not just your dancing that impressed him. I'm not sure he even saw you dance. It was your way of arguing.
PEREZ: Yeah, it was my arguing.
GROSS: So you were arguing over a butt contest. Now, I'd never - honestly, I confess, I hadn't heard of a butt contest before. Does - is it what it sounds like, where guys sit around judging women's butts?
PEREZ: Yes. It was a promotional thing because he was promoting "School Daze," and one of the theme songs was "Doing The Butt" (ph). And then I climbed on top of a speaker, and I was mocking it. I was like, is this what you want? And I was bending over, and I was telling the women, don't degrade yourselves. You deserve better. Don't do this. And then security guards came, and I went, I'm sorry.
PEREZ: I'm so full of crap. And then, while I was getting down, Spike couldn't stop laughing at me. And then I got really angry, and I said, what's so effing funny? And he laughed again. And I just went off, and he couldn't stop laughing. And I was like, who is this little man?
GROSS: You didn't know who he was.
PEREZ: I did not know who he was. He didn't look like Mars Blackmon from "She's Gotta Have It." He didn't look like that, you know? And so I really did not recognize him. But my girlfriend, Marian Wade, who went to the club with me, recognized him. And she kept telling me, shut up, that's Spike Lee. I go, who?
PEREZ: And that's when he goes, you're an actress. I said, no, I'm not an actress. He goes, oh, yes, you are. And, you know, he told his business producer - Monty Ross, I believe his name was - to give me a card. Then he asked me to audition for "Do The Right Thing," and Robi Reed, the casting director, called him even before I was leaving the casting session and said, this is your girl.
GROSS: What a great story. So you did that iconic dance at the beginning of "Do The Right Thing." You know, and I watched it again recently, and it's such a dance of strength and power. You know, in part of it, you're wearing boxing gloves, like, pink boxing gloves, and I know you loved watching boxing as a kid, and I think maybe you still do. And that sense of, like, this is about strength and power is so evident in your dancing. Like, a lot of dancing is all about, like, I'm so sexy. And I'm not saying that your dancing isn't sexy but just that it conveys a whole lot of strength.
PEREZ: Oh, well, thank you. 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 because it was - the opening song for "Do The Right Thing" was supposed to be "Cool Jerk." (Singing) Cool jerk, dun, dun, dun, dun, da, dun, dun - that's what was the original song. 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 I said, I got 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. And 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, one...
GROSS: Eight hours.
PEREZ: ...One break for lunch. Yes. And I...
GROSS: You must have been exhausted afterwards.
PEREZ: ...I was exhausted. I was tired. There was times where I was crying. I developed tennis elbow from throwing those horrible punches I was throwing because I was so tired. And the very last take I said, I'm not doing it again. I'm done. I'm going home. This is abuse. Spike was laughing. He was like, don't worry. We got it. We got it.
GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosie Perez. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "DECEMBER 4TH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosie Perez. She's now starring in "The Flight Attendant," which is in its second season, on HBO. Max. And she stars in the new series "Now And Then," in which she plays a police detective. It premieres May 20 on Apple TV+. When we left off, we were talking about the dance she choreographed and performed for the opening credit sequence of Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing."
That was a movie that it felt like everybody saw it. And, like, it was one of those, like, you have to see the movie, and you have to have an opinion about it. Is it true that the Obamas saw it on their first date?
PEREZ: Yes, it's true. When I met Barack Obama, was at the Hispanic Caucus in D.C. I was getting an award. And they asked me to introduce Barack Obama - Senator then Barack Obama and John McCain. John McCain did not show up at the last minute. And I said, oh, ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to tell you that John McCain didn't show up. But don't worry, Barack Obama got the memo. And he is here. And everybody went crazy. And then there was a long line. I mean, people rushed to the stage to see then-Senator Barack Obama like if he was Michael Jackson, like if he was Bruce Springsteen. Like, he was a rock star already. And there was this long line to meet him. And I cut the line (laughter). And I go, hello, Senator. And he goes, Rosie Perez. And I said, you know who I am? And he says, yeah, my wife and I, that was our first date. We saw "Do The Right Thing." I went, oh, my God. You saw me naked?
PEREZ: And he laughed so hard. And I'm flushed with embarrassment.
GROSS: But, you know, OK, so you were embarrassed because he saw you naked. You do have that one nude scene where it's a very hot day. And you're basically saying, it's too hot to make love. And so Spike Lee's character puts ice cubes on your naked body and runs them across your body. Did your father see the film? I mean, if he was upset at you dancing on "Soul Train," I can't imagine how he'd feel about "Do The Right Thing."
PEREZ: He almost had a heart attack, literally. They had to rush him to the hospital. It was so bad...
GROSS: Are you serious?
PEREZ: Yes, I'm serious. You can ask my sister, Carmen. This is the God's truth. He invited the entire town of Aguadilla...
GROSS: Oh, no.
PEREZ: ...In Puerto Rico.
PEREZ: And when the part came up, they said he stood up and grabbed his heart. Like, you know how "Sanford And Son" - he would say, Elizabeth.
GROSS: Oh, no.
PEREZ: He grabbed his heart, going, my baby, my baby. And he fell down in his chair. And they called the ambulance - very Puerto Rican, very telenovela scene - and rushed him to the hospital. And he was OK. And I called him. And he goes, oh, my God. 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.
PEREZ: We both started laughing. And I said, OK. And I said, you got it. And then I flew down there to be with him. And, you know, oh - and 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 a 8 by 10 glossy of me.
GROSS: Oh, that's great. But you had your own problems with that nude scene.
GROSS: And this was before - protocol surrounding, like, nude scenes and sex scenes on set have really changed in recent years. But this was long before that.
PEREZ: Yeah. I mean, in fairness to Spike, I did agree to the nudity. He had to ask permission. My father couldn't make it to New York. And I was like, thank God, because I didn't want to tell him. But my brother-in-law, my sister's then-husband, said, I'll talk to him. And I'm going, oh, my gosh. And my brother-in-law - God rest his soul - very scary guy. And he sat down. And Spike had to ask him. And we negotiated 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 was done, in the middle of it, I was fine with all the other body parts. And when it came to my breasts, I just felt exploited. And I had thoughts of my father swirling around in my head. And I just started crying. And Ernest Dickerson yelled, cut. And Spike was very angry. And Ernest Dickerson was like - God bless him because he said - he goes, stop. This is enough, Spike. We got it. This isn't right.
GROSS: He was the cinematographer on the film.
PEREZ: He was the cinematographer. And I got up. And Ruth Carter put a rope 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 just too much. It was just too much. I remember saying that to him. And it was upsetting. And the thing is, is that we didn't have a big fight over it. We had a conversation. I give him that credit. And he went - and he said, I'm sorry. I didn't realize. And I said, it's OK. And we finished the day.
GROSS: How come you needed family permission? Were you under age?
PEREZ: No, I'm Puerto Rican.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you just wanted your family permission?
PEREZ: I thought it was the right thing to do.
GROSS: Well, it gave you your start as an actress.
PEREZ: Yes, it did. And I am forever grateful. And Spike and I - and people always think, like, you know, 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, you know? And he apologized. We hugged it out. And we're still friends to this day.
GROSS: And you worked with him on the reboot of "Do The Right Thing" for TV.
PEREZ: Exactly, you know? We stayed friends all these years. I'm very grateful to Spike.
GROSS: All right. Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosie Perez. And you could see her in Season 2 of "The Flight Attendant" on HBO Max. And later this month, you could see her in a new series on Apple TV+, which is called "Now And Then." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAINT SINNA AND CREEBO LODI SONG, "REAL FLOW")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosie Perez. She's in two series now. One of them is Season 2 of "The Flight Attendant" on HBO Max, and the other is a new series on Apple TV+ that starts later this month called "Now And Then." And as you probably know, she was in "Do The Right Thing," in "Fearless," in "White Men Can't Jump." And she started her performing career in "Soul Train" and "In Living Color" with The Fly Girls.
You know, in your first acting role in "Do The Right Thing," you were cast in that role because Spike saw something in your own personality that would translate perfectly to the role that he had written - you know, talking back, kind of combative, strong-willed person who was also, like, very attractive and could dance great.
GROSS: But in 1993, in the film "Fearless," you played a very different kind of character. You're in a plane crash holding your infant baby, and you're told before the plane crashes, you know, like, just, like, hold tight. And, you know, the baby kind of falls out of your arms and doesn't survive the crash, and you are so damaged after that. You are so depressed and wounded and overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and despair. Was that a whole new thing for you to kind of tap into that as an actor?
PEREZ: No, that was the easiest thing for me to do as an actor. And I was surprised how easy it was. And what allowed me to do it so well was the confidence that the director, Peter Weir, had in me. I felt it from the first moment I shook his hand. And God rest his soul, Howard Feuer, the casting director, was the one that fought for me to get an audition with Peter Weir because it was originally for a white woman even though the original character - the real-life character was Asian. How about that?
And everything that had happened to me as a child helped inform my performance in "Fearless." Of everything that you stated just earlier, of the loss, the despair - you know, of all these things - the guilt, the everything, I mean, the shame - all these things of trying to figure out, was it my fault? It's not my fault. You know, it's just, you know, what has happened to me. You know, and all this whirlwind of offense just was so easy for me to channel through Carla, the character that I was playing.
GROSS: You know, you're talking about channeling all these emotions, including guilt. I mean, the character feels guilt because her infant died, and she thinks, like, I just didn't hold my baby tight enough. It's all my fault. But you were feeling guilt as a child. Did you think that you were in the Catholic home basically for orphans because you were unlovable, because you did something wrong? Did you feel guilty for being there, that it was your fault?
PEREZ: Yes. Yes. My mother used to tell me I was ugly all the time, told me I looked like my ugly father all the time. She would tell me, nobody wants you. She would tell me all of these things. And so I thought it was my fault, that I was there because I am my father's child. I am not her husband's child - her and her husband's child. I am my father's child. I am a product of an affair, a horrible thing, a sin.
GROSS: You were a product of an affair. Your mother had you in an extramarital relationship...
GROSS: ...With your father.
GROSS: Rosie, I don't know, like, how you survived your childhood and managed to have such a successful career and such an interesting life.
PEREZ: I always - like I said, I always knew I was special. And some people would say that's arrogant, and it's not. It really isn't. It's just - I felt that from all the good people in - that were in my life, especially this one nun, Sister Margaret Frances (ph). She said - and she was a nun who left the order. Can you believe that scandal? I love it. And she told me - when she was leaving the order, I was so depressed because 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. 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, I was better than what had happened to me, just came crashing in like, no, honey, no. You're not past your past. It's in you, and it's informing everything about you.
GROSS: When did that happen?
PEREZ: That happened when I met Eve Ensler, when I did "The Vagina Monologues." And she takes me - she goes, oh, we're doing this women's writing program up at Bedford Correctional Facility. And I said, why does that sound so familiar? And we're on the train, and I'm starting to have an anxiety attack and a panic attack. And this is part of my reason why I hate traveling. It's the trips back and forth from the home to Brooklyn, the home to Brooklyn - cannot stand traveling. And being on that metro line was bringing all that back. And I started hyperventilating. And she says, what? And then I said, oh, my God. And she said, what? And we got off the train and we're driving up to the correctional system. My mother was here. And she said, what? I went, I have to go home. And I started screaming in the parking lot. And she always saw me as a cool, calm, collected young chick, you know? And I couldn't stop screaming.
GROSS: So your mother had been imprisoned there.
PEREZ: Yeah, and I totally forgot about it. And I had one of those PTSD flash memories. And it was Eve Ensler, on the way back - held my hand the whole - I didn't utter a word on the way back. And Eve said, I want you to go to this doctor tomorrow. I said, I don't need a doctor. She goes, you need a doctor. You need to speak to somebody. And she goes, or else you're going to fall apart. And I went home and my first husband at the time - I told him - I said, she's ridiculous. You know, she's just crazy. She thinks everyone has trauma just because she has trauma. And he's just looking at me. And I go, what? He goes, I think you should go. And I just start screaming again. I'm fine. I'm fine. What's everybody's problem? Look at me. I'm fine. Look at my life. (Laughter) It's just such denial.
And it took me a while. It took me a while. And everything just - I fell into the deepest depression. And then Seth, who's my ex-husband - he said, I will hold your hand and I'll take you to this doctor. I think you should go. And it was difficult. Many, many years where - her name is Dr. Susan Graham (ph) on Ninth Street in Manhattan. She changed my life. And after couple of years with her, she said to me, I think you're - she goes, you're so smart and you're so quick, but you've outgrown me, and I think you need a higher degree of therapy. I went, what? She goes, and possible medication. I go, who the F do you think you are? She goes, my point. And I go, oh, my God.
PEREZ: And she said, I'm sending you to a psychiatrist. I go, psychiatrist? And I got really quiet. And she says, you're not mentally ill like your mom. Don't worry. And I went to Dr. Catharine Fedeli, and I've been with Dr. Catharine Fedeli for 14 years.
GROSS: You grew up with your family being taken away from you. Your mother put you in the Catholic home for girls. Your aunt, who loved you, was not allowed to raise you because your mother wouldn't let her. But, you know, you're married. You're in a stable relationship. Do you feel like you have something that you always wanted when you were young but couldn't have?
PEREZ: Terry, I cannot believe you said that. Absolutely, yes. Of all the difficult things you've asked me during this interview, this is - you've got me. Yes. Yes. I have a wonderful husband. He gets me. He loves me. He supports me. He's my biggest fan. I'm his biggest fan. He's an amazing artist and graphic designer and, you know, 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, you know, if things slow 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.
GROSS: Oh, I'm so glad you found that and that you have it. Rosie Perez, it's really just been wonderful to talk with you. I'm so grateful to you. Thank you so much.
PEREZ: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me. This has been an honor and a pleasure and I hate that you got me emotional here (laughter). But it's all good. And I appreciate the time we've had together.
GROSS: Me, too.
Rosie Perez co-stars in "The Flight Attendant," which is in Season 2 on HBO Max, and co-stars in the new series "Now & Then," which premieres May 20, on Apple TV+.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be writer, director and actor Stephen Merchant. He co-created the British comedy series "The Office" with Ricky Gervais and the show "Extras." Now he has a new series, a comedy thriller called "The Outlaws" about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. It co-stars Christopher Walken. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATURAL SPIRITUAL ORCHESTRA'S "WE LOVE ROLL CALL Y-ALL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATURAL SPIRITUAL ORCHESTRA'S "WE LOVE ROLL CALL Y-ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.