Like the character she portrayed in the film “The 24 Hour Woman,” Rosie Perez seems to be everywhere these days. Her book is out, she just joined ABC’s “The View,” and she is preparing for another role on Broadway. She has also been on an important mission to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues, particularly in the Latino community.
The funny thing is Perez, 50, never set out to be an entertaiment icon.
“I thought I was going to be either a political scientist or a marine biologist, that's what I went to college for. I thought I was going to be the female Jacques Cousteau, which is completely unrealistic because my hair would become a issue,” said Perez, laughing. “Going underwater everyday? I would have to go to the beauty parlor afterwards… So it wasn't in the cards for me.”
Instead, Spike Lee discovered Perez in a Los Angeles nightclub and cast in her in a breakout role in “Do The Right Thing” (1989). She went on to choreograph Fox’s “In Living Color,” which brought hip-hop into the mainstream, and then received an Oscar nomination for “Fearless” (1993). Now she is the first Latina to serve as a regular co-host on “The View.”
Perez credits the late Raul Julia as one of her early sources of inspiration. “He was the one that said ‘Don't worry about the accent, that's their problem,’ and I like your activist heart, keep it going.”
In fact, Perez has lent her support to numerous causes, including immigration reform, marriage equality, AIDS awareness, and promoting arts education in public schools through the Urban Arts Partnership.
Her activism, however, has its limits; Perez said she has zero interest in entering politics. “Are you kidding? I would be the worst politician on earth! I’ve worked on myself and I’ve made great strides, but that temper is still there,” she said. “When it comes to social issues, political issues, I get very emotional, as you can see on “The View.” …Being diplomatic, I can do on a certain level, but not full time. I would be a tabloid sensation.”
Perez is currently teaming with the nonprofit group Women Empowered for the “Women Rise Above It” campaign, which offers free online matchups for mentors and mentees. “Sometimes life does stink and we need help. We need a shoulder to cry on, we need someone to just hear us,” she said. “We need someone to guide us and inspire us. And the women who have made it, they have this need to pay it forward.”
“In this male-dominated world, women have the power to change things," said Perez. "But I always believe that the change first has to start at home, within. And this platform is offering help and assistance in doing that.”
In her memoir, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life,” Perez detailed her at-times grim childhood, which included physical, mental and sexual abuse. She believes that there is still a stigma surrounding mental health care, especially among Latinos. “Our community is suffering because of that prejudice,” she said. “It is not part of our culture, it is not part of what was told to us when we were growing up. Nowadays (other) people take their kids to a child psychiatrist in a hot second; for us, no.”
She points out that, sometimes, there is no substitute for professional help. “If you are diabetic you go to the doctor and you get your insulin, because you can’t make it everyday without it. Literally. And for me, that's what seeking professional help did for me.”
Perez is thrilled to be returning to Broadway after earlier stints in shows like “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and “The Ritz.” Yet she is sworn to secrecy about her new play, “Fish In The Dark.” “I’m not supposed to talk about the plot!” she exclaimed. She offered only that the show, written by and starring Larry David, is “going to be great, fantastic” and that it opens in early March.
Perez said that it is an honor that so many of her fans feel as though they know her.
“It's a great compliment that they do think I’m one of the family, a family member. They’re the ones who really keep my career going so I am also very, very appreciative.” She admits that the pressures of fame can be daunting. “But you just have to take pause and you gotta take the moment and say to your fans, thank you. And the way you say thank you is by taking a selfie with them, shaking their hand, giving them a hug. Or just saying thank you, thank you for appreciating my work.”
Despite her whirlwind professional life, Perez has come to cherish the time spent with family and friends. “I’m happy as a clam when I’m sitting at home in my pajamas, my husband on one side... and a few other family members and friends sprinkled throughout (the house), watching a boxing match, eating some delicious food, fattening food. It has to be fattening. That is bliss to me. It’s as simple as that for me.”