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Puerto Rico Profile: Rosie Perez

April 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"I have a novelty voice," Rosie Perez admitted recently as she prepared for a performance of "References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot," the Off-Broadway play in which she currently stars.

Indeed, her voice is what first strikes anyone who has seen one of her movies, television shows, or stage productions. She does not speak in the flat, measured tones of Hollywood. Instead, she belts out her lines with an accent and attitude that belong unmistakably to Brooklyn.

Yet despite what she might say about her distinct voice, Rosie Perez is anything but a "novelty." As an actor in films like "White Men Can’t Jump" and "Do the Right Thing," her comic talents are matched by her ability to invest real emotional depth in a character. As a dancer and choreographer, she has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Diana Ross and Jennifer Lopez. As an activist, she has been a passionate and articulate advocate for AIDS education and numerous other causes.

Surprisingly, considering her multiple talents and her oversized personality, Perez never had a strong desire to be a performer. "Acting was never my ambition," she has said. "As a little kid growing up in Brooklyn, I was very introverted."

Rosa Maria Perez was raised by her aunt, a native of Puerto Rico. It was not, according to Perez, a privileged upbringing. However, her aunt, who passed away recently, had a great influence on Perez’ life. "My aunt had five children of her own, and we all lived together in four rooms," Perez told The New Yorker. "I loved getting into bed with my aunt and listening to her tell me things. She taught me who I am."

After graduating from high school, Rosie Perez left New York for California, not to pursue fame and fortune but with the more practical goal of a career in marine biology. While she studied at Los Angeles City College, however, her visits to dance clubs in L.A. began to attract attention.

First, she was recruited to be a dancer on the TV show "Soul Train." Then, in 1988, she met film director Spike Lee in L.A.’s Funky Reggae club. He was impressed by her dance moves and her no-nonsense personality, and he cast her in his next film, "Do the Right Thing."

"Do the Right Thing" is considered by many film critics to be Spike Lee’s masterpiece. The movie opens on Rosie Perez, in boxing gloves, performing an explosive, sensual, and even violent dance to the Public Enemy song "Fight the Power." Suddenly, the plans to be a marine biologist went out the window, and Rosie Perez was a movie star.

Over the next several years, Perez had major roles in movies like "White Men Can’t Jump" (1992) "Untamed Heart" (1993) and "It Could Happen to You" (1994). In addition to these mainstream Hollywood projects, she flexed her acting muscles in independent films like Jim Jarmusch’s "Night on Earth" (1992) and Peter Weir’s "Fearless" (1993). In "Fearless," Perez plays a woman who has just survived a plane crash, and who blames herself that her young son was killed in the accident. Her husband, played by the Oscar-winning Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro, is unable to help her accept her loss. Ultimately, she seeks the friendship of another survivor to come to terms with her son’s death. Perez’ performance in "Fearless" is powerful and affecting, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination.

As her acting career took flight, Perez also began to work professionally as a choreographer. In 1990, she designed the dances for the Fly Girls, one of whom was a young Jennifer Lopez, on the TV show "In Living Color." Perez has also been the choreographer for singers Diana Ross and Bobby Brown and rapper LL Cool J.

Rosie Perez has also used the visibility that comes with movie stardom to draw attention to a number of social issues. She is an ardent proponent of AIDS research and education, and she has protested against the Navy’s training in Vieques and NATO’s 1999 military action in Kosovo.

Her interest in politics and activism, and especially in women’s rights issues, eventually led to the latest step in her career, theatrical performance. Her first stage appearance was a brief stint in "Vagina Monologues," a serious Off-Broadway hit based on interviews with real women about their bodies. Later she participated in a series of readings of "Borrowed Light," based on the writings of women in prison.

"I’ve secretly wanted to perform on stage, but I’ve never verbalized it to anyone," Perez said recently. In fact, she has cited as a major inspiration the experience of watching the Broadway musical "The Wiz" in school. Nevertheless, it took the prodding of "Vagina Monologues" author Eve Ensler to convince Perez to face a live audience. "The first time I met Eve," Perez told, "she looked at me and smiled and said, ‘You want to be on stage, don’t you?’ I said ‘Oh no no.’ And she said, ‘You’re going to be on stage. You will.’"

Rosie Perez’ nascent theatrical career received a big boost when she was asked to take a lead role in "References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot" at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, the same theater that nurtured a young Raul Julia in the 1960s. Perez accepted the role of Gabriela, the unhappy wife of a Gulf War veteran.

The play, written by Puerto Rican playwright Jose Rivera, opened in New York on April 11. The New York Times found Perez’ major theater debut a "promising" one, noting that the transferal of her film acting skills to the stage was "fascinating to watch - and successful enough to root her on."

It remains to be seen whether Rosie Perez will continue to work in theater, whether she will focus more on movies, or indeed whether she will return to her study of marine biology. What is certain is that her voice, as an actor and as an activist, will not soon fade away.

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