Born Rosa María, you know her best as Rosie Perez. The Nuyorican actress is close to celebrating three decades in this business. And she’s truly done it all. After her auspicious debut in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Perez has worked on the big screen (earning an Oscar and a Golden Globe nomination in the process), on TV (doing the requisite Law & Order episode as well as co-hosting The View), and even on Broadway (appearing in Terrence McNally’s The Ritz and Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, among others). And while her chops as an actress are undeniable, she’s also a vocal activist. She’s advocated tirelessly for Puerto Rican rights, HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as education services in the New York City area.
With her recent role in NBC’s Rise putting her back in the spotlight, we wanted to pay tribute to one of the best Latina actresses of her generation. You may wish to reduce her to a tut-tutting New Yawker with an attitude, but the following five performances show her range, showing she can hold her own against the likes of Javier Bardem, John Leguizamo, Jeff Bridges and Woody Harrelson whether in a tear-jerking drama or in an explosive B-movie.
There is no better introduction to the red hot world of Do The Right Thing than its opening credits. This Spike Lee joint opens with Rosie Perez (in her film screen debut) dancing on the street to “Fight the Power.” There’s anger in her energy and the explosive moves she makes as the credits roll exemplify the kinetic energy of this then-controversial but instantly iconic film. Starring Lee himself as Mookie (and we dare you to not hear that name in Perez’s signature voice), the film tracks one scorching summer day in a Brooklyn neighborhood that slowly sees racial tensions boil over between its older Italian-American population and its newer African-American one.
Written and directed by written and directed by Ron Shelton, White Men Can’t Jump is a sports comedy about a white guy (Woody Harrelson) who scouts basketball courts to lure people into betting they can’t beat him. Because, you know, he looks like Woody Harrelson. Of course, Harrelson’s Billy is a former pro player who meets his match in Wesley Snipes’ Sidney. Together they keep one-upping one another and betting (and losing) money to one another, all while Billy’s Jeopardy-obsessed girlfriend (that’d be Rosie Perez) wavers over continuing to support Billy’s hustling habits. Needless to say, if they’re to make it big they’ll have to team up even if, as Sidney, remarks, “white men can’t jump.”
Better known for her wise-cracking, no-nonsense characters, Rosie Perez showed a more vulnerable side in Peter Weir’s Fearless. The uplifting drama follows Max (Jeff Bridges), a man who survives a plane crash and believes himself invincible afterwards. Thinking him delusional, an airline-contracted psychiatrist recommends he connect with another survivor of the crash: Perez’s Carla. Where the crash emboldened Max, it crippled Carla as she suffers from survivor’s guilt after losing her baby boy. The two create an unlikely bond that’ll force them to reassess their respective lives. For her portrayal of Carla, Perez earned her sole Oscar nomination to date.
This movie has everything: Javier Bardem with a horrible haircut, Rosie Perez handling guns, scenes so graphic and sexual that the U.S. never got to see an uncensored version, a plot that hinges on a kidnapping and some rapes. It truly is a late 90s B-movie in all its gore and glory. The best part, of course, is seeing Bardem and Perez play bonkers psychotic criminals wanting to get away with their reckless behavior.
The Take centers on Felix (John Leguizamo), an armored truck driver living in Boyle Heights who miraculously survives being shot in the head during a robbery. As he experiences post-traumatic stress and bouts of memory loss that feel all too convenient to the FBI officers set on solving the crime that left him in tatters, Felix opts to try and find the person responsible (Tyrese Gibson’s Adell) by himself. Throughout, he’s helped by his doting wife, Marina (Rosie Perez), who’s there to nurse him back to health, and be the nurturing rock he needs her to be. Her role earned Perez an Independent Spirit Award nomination.