photo credit: Joella Marano
Rosie Maria Perez was born on September 6, 1964 in Bushwick, Brooklyn where she was raised in a Catholic orphanage after being abandoned by her mom and taken from her aunt. She made a most memorable screen debut as Spike Lee’s girlfriend, Tina, in Do the Right Thing, and later landed an Oscar-nomination for a nonpareil performance in Fearless. Her many other credits include White Men Can't Jump, Won’t Back Down, and The Counselor.
Rosie serves as the Artistic Chair of Urban Arts Partnership and sits on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Here, she talks about her career and her autobiography, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life.
Rosie Perez: Absolutely, Kam.
KW: I really enjoyed the book!
RP: Oh, you’re one of the few journalists who actually read it before speaking to me. That’s wonderful!
KW: What inspired you to write your autobiography?
RP: I didn’t really know at first. I kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” because I’m such a private person. Then, one day, the head of programming at my charity, the Urban Arts Partnership, said she was excited that I was writing it, and she hoped I’d be giving copies to the students. My first reaction was “No,” since the subject-matter was really heavy, and because of some of the language I was using. But she then reminded me that I’d already shared my stories with them, and I almost burst into tears. I realized, “Oh my God! That’s why I’m writing it.” Those students had been the first people, outside of my inner circle, to hear my story. It happened when I participated in one of our programs called Life Stories, where we encourage the kids to open up and share so they can understand their lives. One day, I was challenged to share my story with them. That‘s where finding the inspiration and strength to write this book began.
KW: I found it very moving, especially since I had no idea about any of
it. I just thought of you as that bubbly, talented, attractive actress I’d
seen in movies and on talk shows.
RP: And I am that person, but I’m also this one. And the reason I decided to share with the students was because I saw them come into the Academy so burdened by life every day. When you are a low-income, poverty-stricken, Title 1 kid, you have so much to endure just waking up. So, you may have a bad attitude or a chip on your shoulder before you even get to school. You may arrive so anxious, angry, hungry or apathetic that you may say to yourself, “Why should I pay attention in class?” You might be beaten-up on the way to school, because you live in a bad neighborhood. Still, I had to inform them, especially the seniors, that they didn’t have the luxury of bringing all that baggage into the world which they would be stepping into as adults. I’d say, “You need to come to terms with it, or let it go. One or the other. And if you can do both, then you’re golden.” If you are unable to get past that baggage, the opportunities that should be yours will not be yours.
KW: Well, I applaud you for overcoming so many obstacles. After all, the odds of making it in Hollywood are long enough for someone coming from a privileged background.
RP: I hear you, since the odds were supposedly great. But you know what? I knew I was going to be successful from day one. From day one. That’s why it throws me whenever someone says it was such a fluke that I was successful.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
RP: I would say tenacity and perseverance. You have to be like a dog with a bone. You can’t just let it go. And number one is belief. You have to believe in yourself. You need to have the audacity to be great.
KW: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you'd like to star in?
RP: Wow! No one’s ever asked me that question. I wouldn’t try it, but the only one that popped into my head is A Woman Under the Influence, the John Cassavetes film starring his wife Gena Rowlands. Her depiction of mental illness frightened me. Her performance shocked me, because it was so simple.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
RP: No, I can’t think of anything, although that question is probably out there.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
RP: Me! I see me, and the reality of me gets clearer as I get older, and I’m loving it.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
RP: The crib, the peach bedspread, and the French doors at my aunt’s house when I was 2.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
RP: Pollo guisado, it’s a Puerto Rican-style chicken stew.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
RP: Oh, I don’t have a favorite.
KW: The Mike Pittman question: What was your best career decision?
RP: To go to college.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
RP: “White Girls” by Hilton Als. Blown away!
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
RP: To be honest, “Drunk in Love” by Beyonce.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
RP: That my husband [Erik Haze] and I will be in premium health until we take our last breaths, so that we could enjoy every single second of our lives together.
KW: The Jamie Foxx question: If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend the time?
RP: With my husband and my family. It wouldn’t matter what we were doing. We’d probably be telling each other how much we appreciate each other while watching boxing and eating a good meal. Of course, it would turn into a party.
KW: The Kerry Washington question: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
RP: A horse.
KW: The Anthony Anderson question: If you could have a superpower, which one would you choose?
RP: I have no idea.
KW: The Anthony Mackie question: Is there anything that you promised yourself you’d do if you became famous, that you still haven’t done yet?
RP: Yes, to go back to school and get a degree.
KW: What was it like to skyrocket to fame?
RP: It was both difficult and wonderful. It was quite difficult for me because, being raised in a home, I’d come to hate being pointed at whenever we went out in public in a group. It’s still uncomfortable for me to be stared at, although I’ve learned to deal with it better. It makes me self-conscious.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person we see on the red carpet?
RP: I’m more guarded and shy on the carpet. At home, I’m the silliest cornball who talks way too much and wants to be quiet and left alone at the same time. And I love to entertain, but in a small, intimate way. But I feel like I can be myself on Craig Ferguson’s show. I have so much fun on his couch, because he’s an idiot. That man cracks me up. I think there’s a kinship in our silliness. I dance like he does in my living room all the time.
KW: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
RP: You might think it was being abandoned by mother. But no, it was being taken away from my aunt at the age of 3, because I was self-aware by then and I knew what was going on. That was my biggest heartbreak, and it informed a lot. I didn’t want it to be my whole story as an adult. So, I’ve learned to heal that heartbreak and move on.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
RP: About an hour ago during a meeting at my charity. I laugh a lot. It’s disgusting how much I laugh during the day.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
RP: [LOL] I don’t know that I would encourage anyone to follow in my footsteps.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
RP: As someone that gave back, because the people I remember the most in my life are the ones that gave.
KW: Thanks again for being so forthcoming and so generous with your time, Rosie, and best of luck with both the book and your career.
RP: Thank you, Kam. I really, really appreciate it.
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