How an On-Set Injury Helped Rosie Perez Play a Resilient Queer Latina Detective in ‘Birds of Prey’

'Birds of Prey.' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Flawed and tenacious, Gotham detective Renee Montoya is willing to do whatever it takes to bring the bad guys down. Even if it means throwing her ex-girlfriend under the bus. Montoya’s moral ambiguity and the challenge of being a grounded presence while surrounded by loud personalities enticed Oscar-nominated, Nuyorican actress Rosie Perez to join Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. A sequel to Suicide Squad centered on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the film follows a squad of diverse women, each with their own selfish motivations.

“She’s been passed over, underestimated, and outed. She just keeps checking off all these boxes and yet she still shows up everyday and does her job,” Perez tells Remezcla about her character in the latest DC production. Although some will be quick to judge Montoya as “too angry” or “a bitch,” Perez believes many women will relate to her, just as deeply as she did following a physical injury.

On the first day of training before principal photography started filming in Los Angeles, Perez tore her meniscus disk and was taken to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I thought that was it. I thought I was going to be out of the film,” she says. But she pushed through. “Every single day I was in excruciating pain,” she explains. “And all I could do for it was physical therapy in between takes, after shooting, and on my days off.”

Channeling her character’s resilience Perez turned her ache into dramatic fuel. “I was discovering slowly who Renee Montoya was and the biggest part of her is that no matter what she still shows up to work. And I was like, ‘I got to still show up. I still got to do this.’”

‘Birds of Prey.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
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Furthermore, Perez appreciated that even if Montoya is unequivocally Latina and her sexual orientation is briefly mentioned early on, the writers didn’t focus on those characteristics. They are simply parts of a complex whole. “I don’t wake up everyday and shout out to the world, ‘Hey I’m Puerto Rican!’ I just am,” she said. “It’s great when our nationality or ethnicity is celebrated in film, but we are human beings first and foremost.”

What’s remarkable about superhero flicks like Birds of Prey, Perez believes, is that people in them are not defined by the same racial or gender-based struggles that affect our reality. “This is an alternate universe where you just are. Imagine how beautiful that would be in our world today if we didn’t have to wave the flag, if we didn’t have to fight for our rights, if we didn’t have to make it a point and demand our seat at the table. Imagine if that was the case,” she notes.

However, the renowned actress wants audiences to know that, even if the movie doesn’t reflect deeply on it, part of Montoya’s anger comes from the betrayal and hurt of being outed as a lesbian within Gotham’s male-dominated police force. Montoya, who’s been overlooked and misunderstood, has fought for every opportunity, not unlike Perez herself.

Nothing in her career has come easy. She’s long valued her dignity, and that of people of color and women in general, far more than a good paycheck. “It’s not like I’m sitting at home and nobody calls. If I could tell you the offers I get — even to this day! You have to say ‘no. I can’t do them.’ I’d rather say ‘no’ and be able to wake up in the morning and look at myself instead of saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that,’” she explains.

Perez knows that the industry remains heavily sexist, racist, and ageist, but that doesn’t change her conviction to consider the impact of every job she takes. “As a woman of color, as a woman of a certain age, it’s tough as hell out here, especially if you choose not to change how you look and you choose not to play a certain game. You pay the price for that and you have to be secure in yourself to accept the consequences for that,” Perez adds. “The price is worth it because hopefully it’s going to be easier for other young women who are coming after me. They are not going to get offered roles that are insulting, negative, or that perpetuate horrendous, outdated stereotypes.”

She knows, though, that powerful decision-makers are who should primarily be held accountable for what gets produced. “It’s hard, but I’m not alone. There are a lot of people of color, men and women — even when it comes to gender issues — that are saying no. It’s sad, but we just all band together and keep picking the projects that allow us to do good work and allow us to change the narrative things are going to continue to get better.”.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) hits theaters on February 7, 2020.