Rosie Perez apologises for sounding a little hoarse – it’s partly because of a cold, but mainly because she spent Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, screaming for Amanda Serrano during her historic bout against Katie Taylor. “I shouldn’a went to the fights, but I went to the fights,” she mutters in that unmistakeable Brooklyn accent. But how could she have missed the biggest women’s boxing match in history? “On one hand, it’s gonna go down in the history books as one of the best fights ever, and that’s saying a lot. And on the other hand, I was really upset that Amanda didn’t get the win.”
Perez is no casual fan. Moviegoers know her as a distinctive, expressive actor, veteran of everything from 1989’s Do the Right Thing to the current HBO hit The Flight Attendant. But, in other circles, Perez is better known as “the first lady of boxing”. Around New York, she is often to be found ringside, not just at the big title fights but the lower-tier prospect matches. All the promoters know her, and many of the boxers, too – including Serrano, a fellow Puerto Rican from the same neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn.
While Perez boxes and trains regularly, she doesn’t fight. “I learned how to box because I used to get beat up a lot. And I was scrappy. I would always fight back all the time, even though I would lose,” she says. “I was that idiot that, like, after I’ve been pummeled to the ground, I would get back up and be like, ‘Is that all you got?'”
The first time most people saw Perez, she was boxing and dancing through the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It set the tone for the movie, and possibly for Perez’s own career. She has fought against incredible odds to get where she is, and she has punched her way through a few Hollywood barriers, too.
It was dancing that got her started. Lee spotted her at a Los Angeles nightclub, where he was holding an unsavory-sounding “butt contest” to see which Black woman had the biggest butt. Perez disrupted the proceedings by dancing on a speaker. Lee gave her his card and said, “Tonight is fate,” to which she responded, “You wish!” She thought he was hitting on her, but he was sizing her up for the role of Tina, the girlfriend of Lee’s character in Do the Right Thing. The part was originally written for a Black actor but Perez (who has been identified by others as “Afro-Latino” but rejects such distinctions and only describes herself as “Latina”) made it her own with her brassy, no bullshit attitude. She has spoken of her unhappiness with Lee over the movie’s nude scenes (for which she has since forgiven him), but he was right about the “fate” part.
Yet, Perez still had a fight on her hands to establish herself in a film industry that had little interest in Latina actors. “I understood, right off the bat, the racism and stuff like that,” she says. “And so I just made sure I had representation.” Jennifer Grey, who co-starred with her on her next movie, Criminal Justice, introduced her to her agency, CAA. “I remember first meeting with them and I said, ‘Get me in the room where you get all the white girls in,’ and their mouths just dropped,” she laughs. “I said, ‘If I don’t get the role then that’s on me. But if you don’t get me in the room, then that’s on you.’”
They got her in the room, and she got the roles, many of which were written with white actors in mind. Like Gloria, Woody Harrelson’s trivia-loving girlfriend in 1992’s basketball-hustle classic White Men Can’t Jump. She, Harrelson and Wesley Snipes reunited at this year’s Academy Awards, where they shambolically presented the best cinematographer Oscar. Harrelson and Snipes admitted they had just done a bong hit in the car. “I wasn’t pissed off at them; I was more like, geez guys, really? You couldn’t wait till nach?” Was it like that on set back in the day? “No comments.”
The role that finally showed Perez’s range was also originally written as a white character, Carla in Peter Weir’s 1993 film drama Fearless. The movie was not a hit but Perez’s raw, emotional performance, as a plane-crash survivor who loses her baby, earned her an Oscar nomination. She later revealed she had been drawing on a lifetime’s experience of depression, loss, betrayal and undiagnosed PTSD.
If you were to make a film based on Perez’s childhood, it would seem excessively dramatic. She was initially brought up by her aunt, who believed she was her mother. Her birth mother and father were married to other people, and virtually abandoned Perez as a baby. Her mother returned when she was three, only to place her in a strict Catholic convent school in upstate New York, along with several of her half-siblings. After that, Perez moved between group foster homes, seeing her parents intermittently. Her mother (who had paranoid schizophrenia) and some of the nuns physically abused her, and she was sexually abused by her half-brother. In 1999, her mother died of an AIDS-related illness.
At least the nuns taught her dancing, she says, although they might not have approved of how she applied those skills. She began studying biochemistry, but was often found to be in nightclubs “in a tight-ass hoochie-mama minidress and a gang of makeup” as she put it in her 2014 memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life. A producer for the TV show Soul Train spotted her and hired her as a regular dancer. Then, one day a music executive asked her to choreograph his new solo artist. “I said, ‘I’m not a choreographer,'” Perez recalls. “He said: ‘I’ll pay you $1,600 a day,’ and I said, ‘I’ll be there Monday’. And that’s how it began. I made it up on the fly.” The new solo artist was Bobby Brown.
Suddenly, Perez had a career as a choreographer, touring with early hip-hop acts including LL Cool J and Heavy D & the Boyz, and later becoming the in-house choreographer on the seminal 90s show In Living Color, drilling the show’s famous Fly Girls (including Jennifer Lopez).
“It was exciting, it was hard, it was depressing,” Perez remembers.
“Because being a female in the music business then was very difficult. The misogyny was very, very high. All these men were just – excuse my French – fucking everything that walked. And they were patted on the back. God forbid if you were caught kissing a guy; your career what done. But then every guy was hitting on you. It was non stop. Even if you got a job, if you didn’t flirt with the manager, the producer, the record company person, or didn’t sleep with them, it would be very difficult for you to secure employment.” Perez refused to play that game, she says, “but people still thought: ‘You probably slept with them.’ Or they would label you a bitch.” She singles out a few good guys – LL Cool J, Heavy D, De La Soul, Tupac Shakur – “but there wasn’t a lot of them.”
She also had her share of unwanted advances and uncomfortable casting meetings in hotel rooms. “I let the feeling be present in the room, like, ‘Don’t fucking try it on me. It’s not gonna happen.’”
Perez chronicled her early life in honest detail in her memoir. A stunt had gone wrong during filming of a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, which put her out of action for more than a year. People had long been urging her to write her life story, she says, “but I was still not ready. I was still hiding – and when I broke my neck, I was presented with the truth, every single freaking day, sitting in bed and not being able to move, and having a nurse having to take me to the bathroom, and being so exposed . I just opened up my laptop and I started writing.”
Perez is now more in demand than ever, perhaps fueled in part by her ever-growing status as a Latina trailblazer. Where once she had to fight to get into the room, people are now fighting to get her into the room.
Her new Apple+ show, Now and Then, for example, is a twisty mystery thriller focused on a group of Hispanic-Americans in Miami who share a dark secret from their student days. The story switches between Spanish and English, and timelines 20 years apart; the cast is a Who’s Who of Spanish and Hispanic stars. The show only came about, says Perez, because Apple hired a female Cuban executive. “That’s why representation matters.”
It was a similar story with The Flight Attendant, now in its second season. When Perez was offered the part of Megan, the co-worker and best friend of Kaley Cuoco’s hot-mess heroine, she turned it down, she says. “I really liked it a lot but I hate flying, and travelling. I hate it all.”
What changed her mind? “Kaley,” she says. “She’s so freakin’ charming I can’t stand it, and I fell for her charms immediately.” But Perez made it a condition that the writers take into account her character’s situation as a middle-aged, menopausal woman. “I wanted her to have the feeling like when you get older and you walk down the streets, and the guys don’t look at your tits any more,” she says. “And you just feel invisible.”
Personally, she feels the opposite. “When I started noticing that I wasn’t getting the same attention as when I was younger, it made me laugh, it didn’t depress me.” Now 57, she is self-deprecatingly frank about getting older. When she learned she was going to be playing both her older and younger selves in Now and Then, she says, “I said, ‘Darling, do you see these jowls around my face?’ I have no fillers going on. Maybe a little Botox. I know, actresses don’t want to admit it but they all do it, you know?” She is giggling like a child now. “Oh my God, my publicist probably won’t want me to say this, but I’m gonna say it. I said, ‘What are you going to do about my neck?’ And they go, ‘We got the secret.’” The makeup department had a special neck-rejuvenating “device”, she says. “A lot of the Spanish actresses do it.”
Perez enjoys her success but she has never really enjoyed celebrity: “It was difficult for me being in the entertainment industry because I was so seen, I at the so seen.”
She still suffers from anxiety and depression, although therapy has helped: “Now it’s manageable. I’m able to get out of my way and enjoy the work. It better be after $400 an hour!” She is happy being at home. “I still kind of live a simple life. Just my friends, my family, my husband, my cats. I have a beautiful house and I have a humungous back yard, which is unheard of in New York. I’m fine not leaving my house for maybe like a week.” If the promised Taylor-Serrano rematch happens in Dublin, though, she’ll be there.
“That’s another reason why I like boxing so much,” she adds, “because it takes so much tenacity and discipline to become a champion. You have to train every single day of your life. Even when you’re not training, you’re training. You have to watch what you eat, you have to watch your sleep, you have to watch everything. And that’s who I was as a child. I always felt like I was doing time. And I wanted to make the time work for me.”
Against impossible odds, Perez has won the title fight of her own life, and much of it seems to come down to determination and self-discipline. “You know, people think that just because you’re born into a certain circumstance, that you are that, and I was never that, even as a child,” she says. “I was always thinking, ‘I don’t belong here.’ That’s part of it. The other part is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. I just really got lucky.”