Rosie Perez has carved a place for herself in our cultural lexicon – rising through the ranks to earn Oscar and Emmy nominations, to steal screen time from comedy legends like Woody Harrelson, to partner with auteur directors like Spike Lee, and to rewrite the narrative of what Latinas look like on-screen.
She’s still doing that – fighting for more variations of different cultures to truly be seen – and her latest project, HBO Max’s dark, campy, murder-mystery The Flight Attendant is just another example of that. In it, she plays Megan, a friend, and co-worker of star Kaley Cuoco’s Cassie. While Cassie spirals – alcoholism and waking up next to a dead man can spark a mental breakdown in even the best of us – Megan tries to help her friend while managing secrets of her own.
We chatted with Perez about her busy year, contracting COVID while filming her new show, and being brave enough to speak up for what’s right.
How are things in New York right now?
We’re doing the best that we can. Hopefully, people will continue to wear their masks and social distance. It’s tough, but we’re tough, so it’s okay.
I think it’s so funny when there are media reports of people “fleeing the city.”
Real New Yorkers don’t leave.
There was a great COVID flight, I’ll tell you that much. Everybody was asking me, ‘Are you leaving?’ I went, ‘No.’ Been there, done that. It’s not the first emergency type of situation that New York has had to deal with.
You’re one of the famous New Yorkers picked by the MTA to record new announcements for subway riders directing them to mask up. Have you heard yourself on the train yet?
No. If you don’t have to take the train, then you don’t take the train. I’ve had so many of my relatives and close friends send me recordings. I remember my girlfriend, Sony, she was on a bus and I get a text from her saying, “Is this your f*cking voice? I know it’s you.” And I fell out laughing. I called her right back I said, “Sony, it’s me.” She goes, “I knew it!” And she screams on the bus, “It is Rosie Perez!” I was like, “Okay, embarrassing. I’m hanging up now.”
It’s weird to think Birds of Prey landed in theaters this year…
It does blow my mind. There were a lot of blessings, but there’s a lot of hardships. It’s weird, even during the pandemic, I didn’t stop working. I directed an independent film at my house. Ten shorts of people dealing with COVID. That was incredibly hard. And then, I was on the spinoff of Big Mouth. That’s called Human Resources, it’s Nick Kroll’s animated adult series. Very foul, very obscene. I told them, “Thank God, I’m blessed enough to have a walk-in freaking closet in New York.” How many New Yorkers have walk-in freaking closets? And they’re out in LA. They go, “Really?” I go, “Oh, you pampered little thing.” But I turned it into a recording booth, which was weird. All I could do was take all the comforters in the house and nail them all around. I’m sitting on the floor with headphones and looking at my laptop and speaking into a mic that they sent over. And I go, “This is bizarre.” So bizarre, but a blessing. It’s a blessing.
Did COVID interrupt filming for The Flight Attendant too?
We had two and a half more episodes to do. We got shut down in the middle of episode six. I had told everybody, “We’re going to get shut down.” I had contracted COVID when we flew to Bangkok. And at that time, they were saying it’s a new respiratory tract infection. It’s a virus that’s going around. We don’t really know what it is and what it does, but it attacks the respiratory system first and then travels to other parts of your body. And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was terrifying. I remember my manager was with me, and I said, “Tarik, don’t let me die in Bangkok.” And he goes, “Oh my God, you’re scaring me.” And the head of the ICU says, “You should be scared, sir. This is serious. We’re going to have to put her in a separate room.” Because it was new. [This] was in December.
I remember the doctor saying to me, “The mask that you have on, the mask that I have on, every time you go outside, every time you meet someone wear that mask — not just for you, but to protect them too.” And I haven’t forgotten it. But anyway, we got shut down and it was tough because it was a good gig for a lot of hard-working people. Every single month everyone was asking, “Are we going back? Are we going back? What’s going to happen to the show?” The only person who remained steadfast was Kaley. She kept saying, “Just relax, Rose. We’re going to go back. I know HBO believes in this, just relax.” And then, I said, “You know what, my birthday is coming up, and I always take a week to celebrate.” And I said, “I’m going to do it the last week of August, into the first week of September.” And she said, “I think you should hold off on that because I think we might go back.” And that’s exactly when we went back.
Was that difficult for you, to come back after having COVID?
I was very nervous, but when I got on set, everything was run so efficiently. I was like, “This looks like the movie, Contagion.” It was bizarre. Standing in line for the COVID test, having hair and makeup with the goggles and the face masks, and then the face shields and the blue emergency room gowns. They took every precaution possible. They were really professional about it, real champs, and put everyone at ease. But it was hard. On my last day, I was so emotional. I turned and I looked and Kaley was crying and she hugged the back of me and we were not supposed to do that. And I just turned around and I hugged her. We were both so emotional, I said, ‘Thank you, Kaley. Thank you for convincing me to do this show. I cannot believe how much fun and how much satisfaction I got from this. Thank you.”
Did it make getting back into the headspace of your character more challenging?
I would say that it was easy to be Megan again. [It’s about] maintenance, keeping a humongous secret and living a double life, and nobody knows about it, except her. I told the director, “I know how to hide my anxieties very well.” I said, “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, and I want to bring that to Megan.” So, the anxiety that COVID brought all of us, it was so easy to slip right back into Megan, because it was later on in the series too, when everything becomes heightened. So, it was easy. What wasn’t easy? Waiting for the COVID results. Every single day, you go to work, we had to get tested — even the days we weren’t working. So, that was stressful.
You don’t like to travel.
I detest flying.
Has this show helped with that?
You wouldn’t make a good flight attendant then?
No. Are you kidding? I would be the worst flight attendant on this planet. That’s initially why I turned the offer down, simply because of the travel. I just hate it. I hate everything about it. I remember the first time I traveled abroad ever; I was a choreographer. It was my first flight to Heathrow airport, and I got pulled over and had to get body checked. They thought I was a fucking mule, carrying drugs.
I’m sorry, what?
It was like, “Hello, check your racism.” Here’s this Puerto Rican kid from Bushwick, wearing overalls and combat boots in first class. At that time, that wasn’t the norm. So they thought, ‘She must be a mule,’ which is so stupid. If I were a mule, I would be in coach, trying to play it off, trying not to be noticed. So, it’s not just flying. It’s everything because that, going through security and having to be put in a room with drug task enforcement, telling me to take off my clothes — I never got over it. To this day, every time I’m going through customs, I go, “They’re going to pull me over.” And then my manager, Tarik, is freaking Lebanese and Palestinian. I’m like, “Why the hell did I bring you? They’re going to pull us both over!” (Laughs)
It’s good that you can laugh about it now, but that same prejudice is something you’ve been dealing with in Hollywood your whole career. Did you have to fight to make sure you weren’t typecast?
After Do The Right Thing — because that was a predominantly all-black crew — you step out of that and you get into the real Hollywood and you’re like, “Holy crap.” And from day one, I was like, “There’s a lot of racism going on here.” And everyone was telling me to be quiet, specifically the Latino community. And I was like, “No, I’m not going to be quiet. Why aren’t you upset?”
I remember, they took me out for lunch, saying, “Don’t rock the boat. A lot of people worked hard for what we have now.” I said, “What we have now, are you kidding me? There are maybe three or four of us that are doing well, not having stupid roles being thrown at us. No, I’m not satisfied.” It hurt me in the beginning, to be quite honest. It turned a lot of people off because I was holding up a mirror and they didn’t like what they saw. So they just wanted to push me aside. And I just kept fighting for it. When I saw the change – the first one was Raul Julia. He came up to me, and he’s a God, right?
And he said, “F*** them.” I went, “Excuse me, sir?” He said, “F*** them. I didn’t lose my accent. Don’t lose your accent. F*** them. They need to change, not you. I love what you’re doing. I see what you’re doing, keep going.” And I remember, I just fell into tears. He was the first one, the first one.
And then a couple of years later, here’s this hot, young, rising star, Salma Hayek. She came up to me, she goes, “Hello. I always wanted to meet you. You opened the doors for us.” And I went, “Who?” And she said, “You!” It didn’t even dawn on me. I remember just looking at her and she was with Edward Norton and he goes, “Are you okay?” And I shake my head and she goes, “Why? What you do is so amazing. It gave me courage.” And I said, “Wow. I will never forget this moment. Thank you so much.”
That had to feel good.
I’ve been fighting and I’m still fighting. The fight has changed because I have changed. I do it in a much more mature way, but the fire hasn’t dampened a bit. Things are changing and that’s fantastic. But you know what, there have been ages of this. I’ve seen it before. In the nineties, they got the Latino explosion, and then it went away. You know what I mean? It comes and it goes, but I hope this time it sticks. I really do. The Flight Attendant is fantastic for it, because the level of respect that they offered to everybody on set was immense, with a diverse cast and a diverse crew. This is a good sign, but it’s not enough, to be honest. It’s still not enough. It’s still not equal. I won’t stop fighting until it is. I paid the price, yes, but the ones before me paid even a greater price, and it will continue.
What does “equal” look like to you?
When we get the same opportunities that everybody else gets because that’s what discrimination means — when the playing field is not equal because of somebody’s stupidity, someone’s bigotry. I have an arts-integrated charity for K-12. I developed a model for our charity and I said, “What separates a privileged child from an underprivileged child is opportunity.” That’s it. You give a kid that opportunity, they will rise to the occasion every time. I’ve seen it. It’s the same thing with Hollywood. If we get equal opportunity, we get the starring roles and not just roles about poor downtrodden, ‘I’m struggling because I’m of color’ bullshit.
Those stories are necessary, and I’m not taking away any of that because there are people who have those lives. We can’t say their lives don’t matter because they do. But that’s not the totality of who we are. We’re human beings, that happened to be Latino, that happened to be African-American, that happened to be Asian American. We’re not just one thing. We don’t have just one story to tell. In my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have certain opportunities. But, honey-child, let me tell you, I fought for every single thing I’ve gotten. I’ve turned down a heck of a lot of work, and it’s hard. I want to be honest in that way because if someone, who’s younger than me happens to read this, I want them to know, it does hurt. You’re not weird. You’re not weak. It’s not any of that, because a slap in the face stings every single time, regardless of who’s delivering it.
Speaking of representation, would you be down for a Birds of Prey sequel?
I mean, if it happens, sure. When you said that, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Oh my God, I have to lose weight and get in shape again.” Hopefully, there won’t be any ageist type of jokes in it as well. Having me called “grandma.” That was the only thing, I was like, “Really guys? Really?” I was like, “Would you have the nerve to say that to Helen Mirren, in her 50 million action movies?”
It is what it is, but you have to take the chance, be brave enough to call it out and be ready for the consequences. I have been and I will be.
‘The Flight Attendant’ is now available to stream via HBO and HBO Max.