Rosie Perez: 'I Refused The Limitations That Were Set Upon Me'
Actress Rosie Perez first broke into show business in the 1980s as a dancer on Soul Train. She then became a choreographer for the likes of Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown and LL Cool J.
Perez made her film debut in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, followed by White Men Can't Jump. She earned an Oscar nomination for the 1993 film Fearless.
Before her career took off, Perez suffered a very difficult childhood. Her mentally ill mother left her to be raised in a convent at age 8. Years of abuse followed.
Perez shares her personal story in a new memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair).
On overcoming her tough childhood
For some reason, I always thought I was special. And for some reason, I always thought that I had a purpose in life — that I was supposed to contribute to the world. And I just refused to accept the status quo. I refused to accept a slap in the face by a nun. I refused to accept being punched in the head by my mother repeatedly. I just refused all these things. I refused the limitations that were set upon me because I was a girl of color, because I had an accent, because I was poor. Because I felt like I have an agenda to accomplish, and I can't do it with all of this that I'm experiencing. So therefore, I have to stay focused.
On why she never spoke out before
I didn't want to tell because when I was a child, and kids would find out, I was judged. I was limited. I was thought of [as] less than. I was treated subpar. And I didn't want that to come into my adult life. I wanted to walk into a room and have a fair chance, a fair shot. In the real world if I was to come in and [say], "Oh yeah nuns were this, and yeah, I got beaten, and my mother beat me, and she was mentally ill, and I was abandoned," all of a sudden people [would] look at you in a certain way and pity you. And it's already difficult for a woman of color in the entertainment industry to achieve any type of success. So I felt if they knew this information, they would pigeonhole me that much more.
On her early dancing days
[Perez's aunt] said even as a little girl, I would stand up in the crib and scream at 3:30, because that's when my cousins would come home, demanding that they put on "I'm A Soul Man" by Sam & Dave. And I would hold onto the crib with one hand and do the hitchhiker with my thumb with the other hand. And when I would get tired, I would stick my thumb in my mouth and just suck until I caught my breath and then go back to dancing.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are a fan of edgy, urban, cutting-edge entertainment like the comedy show "In Living Color" or entertainers like LL Cool J and Bobby Brown or Spike Lee's groundbreaking film "Do the Right Thing," then you have seen her dance and choreography work and you certainly remember that voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DO THE RIGHT THING")
ROSIE PEREZ: (as Tina) You must be buggin'.
SPIKE LEE: (as Mookie) I'll see you tomorrow.
PEREZ: (as Tina) Yeah, right. And my name is Boo Boo the Fool.
LEE: (as Mookie) So no nasty, huh?
PEREZ: (as Tina) No.
LEE: (as Mookie) OK, let's do something else then.
PEREZ: (as Tina) What?
LEE: (as Mookie) Trust me.
PEREZ: (as Tina) Trust you? Mookie, the last time I trusted you, we ended up with a son.
MARTIN: We are talking about none other than Rosie Perez. And you might already know that she was a breakout star on "Soul Train," has been a choreographer for the artists I mentioned and has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy. But what you might not know is what a hard climb it was to get there. She talks about all of this in a moving new memoir called "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair)." And Rosie Perez is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
PEREZ: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure. And I love your show.
MARTIN: Oh, thank you so much.
PEREZ: I listen all the time.
MARTIN: Thank you. I think we should get the one thing everybody wants to know out of the way up front which is how come you do have such great hair?
PEREZ: I have great hair because I take a lot of vitamins. And leaving your hair alone and letting it in its natural state and learning to love it...
PEREZ: ...In its natural state. And then you could blow dry it and be Farah Rivera (ph) all day long, all you want. And, you know - and sometimes I get a little help from my friends to make the hair look a little thicker. You know what I'm saying?
MARTIN: Oh, oh, oh. So you're going to drop some knowledge there on that. OK, well, we'll keep that between us girls, so. Not joking, I mean, the book is both wonderful to read, particularly if people are fans of your work, but also hard to read because you reveal some really difficult and painful experiences that you had. I just wanted to ask what inspired you to write this book now?
PEREZ: You know, I really didn't know for quite some time why I was writing the book. And it was a perpetual anxiety attack, the whole process. And it wasn't until I was about to have a board meeting with my charity Urban Arts Partnership. We have a program called life stories where we encourage our students to write out their own personal journey, their history. And one of the students said, well, Ms. Perez, what's your personal story?
And I was silent. And I went uuh because I had never shared it with anybody, you know, in the public. And at that very moment I felt like such a hypocrite. And so I stepped up to the plate, and I said, well, this is my story. And then I realized, you know, the reason why I mentor these kids, the reason why I ask them to tell their stories is because a lot of the time when you are from poverty or if you had a difficult childhood or had any type of child abuse inflicted upon you , whether it be mental, emotional, physical, it carries into your adult life. When I started to write the book, I felt like I had to be completely honest, not just for myself but for those kids.
MARTIN: Let's back up a minute because at this point a lot of people aren't going to know what we're talking about here.
MARTIN: I think a lot of your fans would be surprised to find out that your mother was mentally ill. You found this out later. You weren't even being raised by her. At a certain point, you were being raised by an aunt who you thought was your mother. And then your mother shows up one day, for reasons that you're still not clear on, and then took you to live at a group home.
PEREZ: It wasn't a group home, it was a convent.
MARTIN: A convent home.
PEREZ: The group home came later.
MARTIN: Group home came later. Sorry for that. I'm sorry for that.
PEREZ: That's OK.
MARTIN: But each of these stages there were trials, which lasted for a really long time. The level of violence that you experienced - I can't - we don't have time to even go through all the things that you experienced just in the early stages of your childhood. And I guess, you know, so the first thing I want to ask is what do you think was the key to your surviving just that part of it?
PEREZ: For some reason, I always thought I was special. And for some reason, I always thought that I had a purpose in life, that I was supposed to contribute to the world. And I just refused to accept the status quo. I refused to accept a slap in the face by a nun. I refused to accept being punched in the head by my mother repeatedly. I just refused all these things.
I refused the limitations that were set upon me because I was a girl of color, because I had an accent, because I was poor because I felt like I have an agenda to accomplish, and I can't do it with all of this that I'm experiencing. So, therefore, I have to stay focused. And people don't understand that a child, especially a child of child abuse, we get everything that's going on 'cause we are forced into an adult set, a mindset. We don't have the casualness of a childhood. We're always thinking of survival. And I think that that's what got me through.
MARTIN: There are just too many stories to recount of the kind of the casual day-to-day violence that you experienced. But is there one story that stands out for you that you would be comfortable sharing?
PEREZ: Well, I think it was when - the most horrific one and the most triumphant one was when I was being beaten by one of the nuns, Sister Renata, and I talked back, which is just horrible that a child dare talk back. And she started slapping me, and I slapped her back. And I don't know what came over me. But in writing the book, I realized, wow, I was really strong as a kid. I had such gumption and such tenacity, what nerve. And I think it's because I listened to my inner soul as a child. You know, I was like, you cannot break my spirit because I have so much more to do.
MARTIN: Why do you think you never told anybody about this for so long? I mean, you say in the book that you didn't even tell your father about this for years. I mean, it was almost toward the end of his life. You didn't even tell your beloved aunt about some of the things that were going on with you. Why do you think that is?
PEREZ: Well, I didn't tell my aunt or my father because I didn't want to hurt them. As an adult, I didn't want to tell because when I was a child and kids would find out, I was judged. I was limited. I was thought of less than. I was treated subpar. And I didn't want that to come into my adult life. I wanted to walk in the room and have a fair chance, a fair shot. In the real world, if I was to come in and - oh, yeah, nuns were this. And, yeah, I got beaten. And my mother beat me, and she was mentally ill. And I was abandoned. And all of a sudden people look at you in a certain way and pity you. And it's already difficult for a woman of color in the entertainment industry to achieve any type of success. So I felt if they knew this information, they would pigeonhole me that much more.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the dancer, choreographer, actress, activist Rosie Perez. She's just published a new memoir. It's called "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life." How did the dancing start?
PEREZ: It started with the nuns. They saw something in me. All the nuns were not evil and demonic. You know, there was some really caring nuns that had a real spiritual quest to make the world a better place. And they told me you need to be in tap, you need to be in this type of dance and that type of dance. And I was like, oh, OK. And, you know, in the home, in the convent, if a nun told you to do something, you did it. And I enjoyed doing it, but I never ever thought that it would become a career.
But even as a child, I remember telling my aunt - and I state this in the book - I said, I remember dancing to this song. And she went, oh, my goodness. I can't believe you remember that. You were less than one. And she said when I was a little girl, I would stand up in the crib and scream at 3:30 because that's when my cousins would come home demanding that they put on "I'm a Soul Man" by Sam & Dave. And I would hold on to the crib with one hand and do the hitchhiker with my thumb with the other hand.
And when I would get tired, I would stick my thumb in my mouth and just suck until I caught my breath and then go back to dancing. So, you know - and they said when they would lie me down to sleep, if they played music, I would fall asleep, but I would - but they said my legs would be moving. So it was just in me. It was something that was in me. And when I would go out to the clubs, I would get noticed. And I don't - I was not the best dancer at all. But I had the best spirit. I enjoy dancing so much and that just wreaked out of my pours. And that's why I got noticed by the "Soul Train" talent scout and...
MARTIN: Oh, yeah. We have to hear that story. I mean, that's one of the interesting things about your career is that it's this really amazing combination of kind of luck and opportunity and hard work. So tell me about "Soul Train."
PEREZ: Yeah, with "Soul Train" it was the first time I was on television. And I just couldn't believe it. I was having a ball on "Soul Train." And I was so, initially, intimidated by all the "Soul Train" regulars, you know, dancers. I always watched them on television. So I would mimic some of the girls because I didn't know what to do. I was here doing a New York style dance - house slash hip-hop style dance, and they were just pumping and humping and gyrating. And so I followed suit. And I honestly didn't understand how sexual my moves were. But I have to say it was fun. It was so much fun. I had a ball on "Soul Train." Are you kidding me?
MARTIN: Well, people - it's so funny, though. You really describe an amazing story about, like, the atmosphere there. Do you mind telling the story about the time you threw the chicken at Don Cornelius?
PEREZ: Oh, that - you know, it's so humiliating. You know, in the book...
MARTIN: I don't know. I thought it was funny.
PEREZ: You know, it is funny. It is funny. But you know what?
MARTIN: Don Cornelius being the legendary host of "Soul Train." Yeah.
PEREZ: Yes, yes. And he wanted me to sign a record deal. There were some legal issues at hand that I wanted to address. And when he didn't want to address them, I said, OK, I'm out. So he was very angry with me. And...
MARTIN: Well, you just wanted to show the contract to a lawyer, right?
PEREZ: Yes, I just wanted to show it to a lawyer.
MARTIN: And yeah, and he didn't - he was not feeling that. And so...
PEREZ: No, and I'm no one's fool.
MARTIN: ...A confrontation ensued. Yeah. Exactly.
PEREZ: Yeah. And so a confrontation ensued because unbeknownst to me, he got wind of Louil Silus Jr., who was an executive over at MCA Records, had come to "Soul Train" the week before, saw me dancing off camera hip-hop and asked me to teach that to a new recording artist that was going solo. And that person happened to be Bobby Brown. So Don Cornelius was very angry. And he kept wanting me to go down the "Soul Train" line just, you know, pumping my body. And I didn't want to. And it just got heated, Don got physical, and I got physical back. And he's a very tall, strong man. And the only way I could defend myself was to grab something and throw it at him.
And the only thing that I could grab was the two-piece Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner that they provided us as payment. And a greasy chicken wing hit him in the forehead. And I was mortified. I was asked to leave. I left. I sat in my car crying like how could I do that? Why did I behave like that? I'm a jerk. Oh, I can't believe this. This is Don Cornelius. And it was horrific. It was horrible. And that's what I mean is that, you know, those weapons served me well against Sister Renata, but they did not serve me well in that instant.
MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I don't know. It seems like he got the point. But, well...
PEREZ: Oh, my goodness. You can't - no, God rest his soul. But you're not supposed to hit Don Cornelius with a chicken wing in his forehead. I'm sorry, you just don't. You don't do that.
MARTIN: I'll let the audience be the judge of whether or not, you know. Nor are you supposed to take 40 percent out of a young lady's earnings who is just trying to break into acting. Just thought I'd mention that. Anyway, you have some really amazing stories about your time in show business. It's interesting because I think, in some ways, it confirms what a lot of people think that in a way it's kind of - it's really tough on young women. On the other hand, you seem to have gotten a lot of respect for standing up for yourself. I mean, you insisted on being paid fairly for your choreography work. You always brought people with you when you could. You know what I mean? And by that, I mean giving other people credit like some of the street kids who you met, people you met at the clubs when you wanted to, you know, use their moves. You'd kind of bring them with you. You'd try to get other people hired there. I was just wondering where you kind of got your vision for how to conduct yourself.
PEREZ: Well, I think part of it is being in a home where a lot of kids weren't provided with certain opportunities. And I always felt that wasn't fair. You know, when you're not treated fairly, you could go one of two ways. And I decided to go this way of, you know, like you said, sticking up for myself but also sticking up for other people because I understand how much it hurts to be left behind. I understand how much it hurts not to be purveyed to certain opportunities. And I never wanted anyone to feel that.
MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, you talk a lot in the book about how you sometimes - OK, maybe often - came off as moody and kind of tough and remote. And you don't seem that way at all now. I mean, you just seem like - and I'm just wondering, what do you think that was? Was that a - to use a technical phrase here - like a defense mechanism? Like you didn't want to get too close to people because you couldn't trust them? What do you think that was - that baggage you were talking about that you carried forward with you? What do you think that was?
PEREZ: Yes. It was a defense mechanism. I didn't want anyone to hurt me I didn't want to get close to anyone else. Also part of the defense was I was so used to people judging me and limiting me because of their judgment, I didn't want that to occur. But also I was very, very shy. I didn't have the courage to be my authentic self, which is what you see today - just silly, goofy, intelligent, wonderful, smart, sexy. Holla. And, you know, I just - but I didn't have that courage at that time of my life, but I didn't understand that. I thought I was being courageous. I thought I was being strong by putting that armor on. And that armor, like I said, served me well in the home, at my mother's house, what have you. But in my adult life, it just didn't process correctly, and people misunderstood who I was. And I was so baffled by it.
MARTIN: We've talked a lot about some really serious things, but I do wish I could convey to people just how funny the book is and all. But I know that's going to be a surprise to some people 'cause our conversation's been so serious. But the book is hilarious.
PEREZ: Oh, my god, I'm hysterical.
MARTIN: Well, as you say in the book many times, God bless America, three times.
PEREZ: That's right.
MARTIN: All right. Rosie Perez is author of the new memoir "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair)."
PEREZ: With great hair, darling.
MARTIN: With great hair, that's right. She joined us from our studios in New York. Rosie Perez, thanks so much for joining us.
PEREZ: Thank you for having me. This was such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.