February is a big month for Rosie Perez. The actress, 55, currently stars as a badass among badasses in Birds of Prey, and in a few weeks she’ll be seen alongside Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck in Netflix’s The Last Thing He Wanted. You can congratulate her on the busy time, just don’t dare suggest that this is one of the biggest moments of her career.
“That’s ridiculous,” says Perez, snapping back at the suggestion. “You’re talking about a 30-year plus career.”
And quite the run it’s been. She’s danced on Soul Train, choreographed music videos for Janet Jackson and Diana Ross, starred in memorable films like Do the Right Thing and White Men Can’t Jump, earned an Oscar nomination, and co-hosted The View.
Now, she’s entering the comic and superhero world as the overlooked, alcoholic Gotham City Det. Renee Montoya. “Everything is bland about her,” says Perez. “The pressure that I had was to deliver a good performance, because my role is kind of played straight, whereas everyone else is a bit flashy.”
But being the straight-woman next to the colorfully crazed Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) wasn’t the only challenge for Perez, who not only had to keep up with her younger costars during the many fight sequences, but had to do so with a torn meniscus disc, which occurred on the first day of training. “It was excruciating,” she shares. “So, even though we had fun, it was very, very hard to work through an injury like that. I requested a physical therapist be on set, so in-between takes I’m getting massaged out and realigned. I remember Margot and Mary [Elizabeth Winstead] came over one day and the physical therapist was working on me and I’m screaming in pain and Margot goes, ‘Do you want to sit out?’ And I’m like, ‘No! And miss all the fun?'”
In addition to the chance to “kick ass,” Perez was intrigued by the “unapologetic” nature of director Cathy Yan’s film and the fact that it was “not a heavy-handed statement of empowerment.” With a female director, female writer, and a group of female leads, Birds of Prey is still an outlier in Hollywood, especially the superhero world, but Perez doesn’t want people thinking this was the start of the movement.
“This isn’t the first project I’ve been a part of where there was a female producer or a female writer or a female director or a female lead,” she says. “The difference is this is the first film in that category with a big budget, major studio backing, major marketing push behind, major belief behind it. This narrative of late that a female cast and females in front of the camera and behind the camera is a novelty or a new thing is false. Women have been doing this since the beginning of cinema, it’s just right now that there’s a major spotlight on it, which is a welcomed spotlight and a beautiful thing. But I don’t want people to forget or discredit or discount all of the triumphs and struggles that other women in the film business have done or continue to do, because it’s a great disservice.”
And Perez knows all about both triumphs and struggles in this industry. Despite all of the accolades accrued over her long career, she recently told The New York Times of her career: “It could have been — and could — be better. So I’m going to keep fighting.” EW asked the actress to elaborate on why she feels that way.
“When you’re of color and you don’t want to pass and be whitewashed, you pay the price,” says Perez. “You’re not privy to certain roles because of the racism, whether it’s over or subtle, and the roles that are offered continuously…like, I get offers all the time, they’re insulting and they further this negativity that I don’t want to be a part of. And so it takes a lot of strength within oneself to say no. To say no to projects that you know are going to be commercially viable and successful. To say no to a big payday. It takes a lot to have belief in yourself and belief in the long game and faith that it’s going to come. If you just keep doing good work, they’re still going to come for you, and they’re still going to offer you the good stuff. Because, let’s say when people write a love story, why does it predominately always have to be a white person? And then if they say, “Well, we would have to change it,” and I say, “Why? Why do you have to change it? They didn’t change White Men Can’t Jump. They didn’t change Fearless. Why?” And they just can’t think past that.
She continues: “That said, the opportunities that I have been presented with over 30 years in this really tough industry have been outstanding. Therefore, I’m really humbled and grateful for the career that I’ve had and that I’m having. Most women of color don’t get the opportunities that I’ve gotten and there’s only a handful of us and most women of color over a certain age truly don’t get the opportunities that I’ve gotten and the opportunities that are still coming. So that is what humbles me.”
As Perez mentions, she wasn’t what writer-director Ron Shelton initially envisioned for the character of Gloria in White Men Can’t Jump. Shelton previously revealed to EW that the role was written as a white, upper-class Southern woman. “You can’t invent that,” he recalled of watching Perez become the fiery Gloria. “That’s original.” And the film itself is still an original, with White Men Can’t Jump sticking in the pop culture lexicon, even 28 years after its release.
“Wesley [Snipes] knew from day one,” says Perez of her costar. “Day one on the set he goes, ‘You all know this is going to be big, right? This is going to be one of those films that never goes away.’ Woody [Harrelson] and I looked at him and looked at each other like, ‘Really?’ [Laughs] And by the end of the film, when we saw the first cut, I went over to Wesley and I said, ‘I think you’re right.'”
Speaking of being right, Perez points to March Madness as a time when she annually hears even more about White Men Can’t Jump, but it was another recent tournament that brought Gloria to mind. While basketball was at the center of the 1992 film, Gloria scored the biggest win of all when she appeared on Jeopardy!. So, how does Perez think her character would have done on the game show’s recent “Greatest of All Time” special?
Without hesitation, she declares, “Gloria would have blown everybody away.”
Birds of Prey is in theaters now.