This summer, New Yorkers riding the subway heard a familiar voice: Actor Rosie Perez, speaking in English and Spanish, encouraging them to wear a mask.
Perez told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg that she and Chris Rock were both contacted by Governor Cuomo's office.
"We did not know that we were going to be asked to do the MTA campaign," she said. "We were just asked to come to his press conference, remember he was having his daily-held press conferences? And I remember Chris backstage, he goes, 'This is big, this is big,' and I go, 'Yeah!'"
A New York City icon usually recognized everywhere she goes, Perez confessed she also enjoys the anonymity a mask provides. However, her distinctive voice instantly gives her away.
In her most recent role, Perez stars alongside Kaley Cuoco in HBO Max's The Flight Attendant.
Her acting career began when she met Spike Lee at a club. Perez was pulled offstage for interrupting what she calls a "butt contest." The two got to talking over the incident, and he cast her in his film Do The Right Thing. She would go on to appear in later films like White Men Can't Jump and 2020's Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
She explained how she pushed to land roles that were not initially written for a Puerto-Rican actor like her. "People don't really understand, just on a day-to-day basis what people of color have to go through just to get a fair shot in life."
Perez has been referred to as "The First Lady of Boxing," as a huge and vocal fan of the sport. She played a game about the greatest there ever was, Muhammad Ali. And guess what? It was a total knock-out.
How she worked her way into roles that were not "her type":
When I initially got into the business, I had a rep that kept telling me I would never get a shot at those roles, so I fired her. And Jennifer Grey, the actress, wonderful person, when I told her that story, she called up CAA [Creative Artists Agency] and said, "You need to rep this girl." And I said, "Listen, I only want you to sign me if you're gonna get me the Jessica Lange roles." You know? And my last rep told me, "Well, you're no Jessica Lange," and I go, "Not yet, honey! I haven't had the opportunity! She was a model, I was a dancer, what? I was a college kid, what? What's the difference? The color of my skin? This is ridiculous." And they said, "We got you." And I said, "You get me in the room, I will do the rest. And if I don't get the role, that's on me." And they got me into those rooms. That's how things change.
On being a woman of color in entertainment:
It was hard, to be quite honest. There was a lot of times I didn't get the roles, there was a lot of times where I had to say no to specific offers. I was like, "I don't want to do that, I don't want to do that." And there were a lot of times where I just needed work. And you go out on the streets and people go, "Oh, why aren't you doing more movies?" and I go, "Oh, it's a long story, honey." I said, "But don't you worry, I'm not giving up. This is only the tenth round and I got two more rounds to go and I'm gonna win the belt. Don't worry about that." And you just have to have that belief in yourself and keep going, if this is really what you want to do. You just gotta keep going.
Why she's glad she changed her mind about The Flight Attendant:
When they offered me this role, I first said no, and my manager goes "Why?" and I said, "I hate flying. I don't wanna travel." And then he goes, "All right." So he goes back and he tells them, and then he called me right back and he said, "Kaley Cuoco said she wants to meet you, she's not taking that for a final answer." I said, "Really? Miss Thang? Okay, sure I'll meet with her, she ain't gonna change my mind." And I'm so glad I did it, we had such a grand time, the entire cast and crew, we all got along. Working twelve-hour days, and then we're in Italy and everybody ended up at the bar at the hotel. We hung out all the time, you know, because we really, really were all happy that we were on this fantastic project and that we liked each other and that we all respected the work.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She is an actor known for her roles in "Do The Right Thing," "White Men Can't Jump" and was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in "Fearless." Her new show, "The Flight Attendant," is on HBO Max. It's Rosie Perez. Hello, Rosie.
ROSIE PEREZ: Hello.
EISENBERG: Rosie, I heard your voice because I know this summer you and Chris Rock were recruited by the MTA to record public service announcements for all of us riders to encourage people to wear a mask while riding on the bus or subway.
PEREZ: That's correct. Yes. Governor Cuomo's office called us both. And we did not know that we were going to be asked to do the MTA campaign. We were just asked to come to his press conference. Remember, he was having the daily press conferences.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Absolutely.
PEREZ: And, you know, I remember Chris backstage, he goes, this is big. This is big. And I go, yeah.
PEREZ: And I was like, we're doing our civic duty here on a national stage - actually, a worldwide stage. And then about a week or two later, his senior top adviser, Mimi Reisner, called me and said, would you do this? And would you do it in Spanish? And I said, OK. My Spanish isn't great. I sound like a Nuyorican. And she goes, well, that's why we're asking. I said, oh, OK. And I said, are you sure you want to use my voice to have, you know, the riders hear it every single day, every eight minutes? She goes, yes.
PEREZ: I said, OK. All right, I'm in. And so we went forward. And it was a huge honor. It was like - you know, talk about civic duty. It was a really huge honor, so...
EISENBERG: Yeah. And I was just thinking about now, when you walk around the streets with a mask on, everyone's a little bit more anonymous. Do you like a little bit more anonymity walking around?
PEREZ: You know, I love people who recognize me and tell me that they like my work. I love it. I really do. But I've got to tell you, I'm loving this mask thing.
PEREZ: I could keep it up, I'll tell you. You know, the only problem is as soon as I talk, everyone takes a double look like, hmm?
PEREZ: You know, and so - once I tried this British accent, which I was horrible at. And - but you know, I could get away with it.
EISENBERG: And you could get through.
PEREZ: And then the cashier at the grocery store goes, OK, Miss Perez, whatever.
PEREZ: All right.
EISENBERG: All right. I got it. I got it. So, you know, just reaching back, you made your film debut in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing." And, like, back when - the '80s, when you meet Spike Lee, you're - first of all, you meet in Los Angeles which - there's two people that, you know, you say New York, and everyone goes, Rosie Perez, Spike Lee, New York. But yet you meet in Los Angeles. Why were you in Los Angeles?
PEREZ: I was in Los Angeles because I was going to college. I was a biochem major. I decided that I wanted to transfer all my credits and move back home to New York and try to get into Stony Brook. And the night before I was leaving, I went to a nightclub and got into an argument with Spike Lee. And the rest is history.
EISENBERG: Wow. And so when you're at the club, you were pulled offstage after interrupting a butt contest, which...
PEREZ: That's correct.
EISENBERG: ...I'm assuming a butt contest is exactly what I think it is.
PEREZ: Yes, it is (laughter).
EISENBERG: It's a competition of butts, yes. And you were interrupting it because...
PEREZ: I was mocking it because I found it ridiculous.
PEREZ: And I found it so insulting. So I bent over. I said, is this what you want, fellas?
PEREZ: And Spike Lee started laughing at me. And it kind of angered me to the point where I started telling him off. And he kept laughing even more. And he said, this is fate. And I said, oh, honey, you wish.
PEREZ: And he goes, no, you don't know what I mean. You don't know what I mean.
EISENBERG: And - right, and then he's like, you should play my girlfriend (laughter).
PEREZ: Yes, exactly (laughter).
COULTON: I've been looking for somebody who can yell at me in exactly that way.
COULTON: Glad I found you.
EISENBERG: Now, you know, obviously, that was a great role. You've done so many great roles. And I - you've said in interviews that when you were going out for roles like in "White Men Can't Jump" and "Fearless" that, you know, these were roles that weren't actually looking for whatever was considered your type, right? You were told that they were intended for white women and not for you. But then you went in and not only got the job but made those roles pretty iconic. So how did you convince them that you should go out for these roles?
PEREZ: Well, when I initially got into the business, I had a rep that kept telling me I wasn't - I would never get a shot at those roles. So I fired her.
EISENBERG: Good idea.
PEREZ: And Jennifer Grey, the actress, wonderful person, when I told her that story, she called up CAA and said, you need to rep this girl. And I said, listen; I only want you to sign me if you're going to get me the Jessica Lange roles, you know? And my last rep told me, well, you're no Jessica Lange. And I go, not yet, honey. I haven't had the opportunity, you know? I was like, you know, she was a model. I was a dancer. What? I was a college kid. What? What's the difference, the color of my skin? This is ridiculous.
PEREZ: And they said, we got you. And I said, you get me in the room. I will do the rest. And if I don't get the role, then that's on me. And they got me into those rooms.
PEREZ: And that's how things change. People don't really understand but - just on a regular day-to-day basis what people of color have to go through just to get a fair shot in life, you know? It was hard, to be quite honest. You know, there was a lot of times I didn't get the roles. There was a lot of times where I had to say no to specific offers. You know, I was like, I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that. And there were a lot of times where I just didn't work. And you go out on the streets, and people go, oh, why aren't you doing more movies? And I go, oh, it's a long story, honey. I said, but don't you worry. I'm not giving up, you know? This is only, like, the tenth round, and I got two more rounds to go. And I'm going to win the belt, so don't worry about that. And I just had - you know, you just have to have that belief in yourself and keep going if this is really what you want to do, you know? You just got to keep going.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And keep telling everyone to put what they think aside because there's another possibility.
EISENBERG: You know? So - and you're in a new show on HBO Max, "The Flight Attendant." So the show is a murder mystery and a comedy. You play Megan, a first-class flight attendant who is the co-worker of the main character, a 30-ish, like, party girl, Cassie, played by Kaley Cuoco. And she's trying to piece together the events of a drunken night that have led to her waking up beside a dead body. First question - are you the murderer?
PEREZ: I am not privy to talk about anything in that vein.
EISENBERG: I know. I know. I know. I know. I know.
PEREZ: The funny thing is that when they offered me this role, I first said no. And my manager Tar (ph) goes, why? I said, I hate flying.
PEREZ: I don't want to travel, you know? And then he goes, all right. So he goes back, and he tells them. And then he said - he called me right back. He said, Kaley Cuoco said she wants to meet you. She's not taking that for your final answer. I said, really, miss thing? OK, sure. I'll meet with her. She ain't going to change my mind.
PEREZ: And I'm so glad I did it. We had such a grand time. The entire cast and crew, we all got along.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
PEREZ: Working 12-hour days - and then we're, like, in Italy, and everybody ended up at the bar at the hotel. We hung out all the time, you know, because we really, really were all happy that we were on this fantastic project and that we liked each other and that we all respected the work.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that sounds - I mean, there's so many things you said in there that I want so badly - drink at a hotel bar with you guys.
EISENBERG: You love boxing.
EISENBERG: And so you grew up watching matches on television.
PEREZ: Yes. Yes.
PEREZ: And back then, it was ABC "Wide World Of Sports."
PEREZ: They had boxing every - almost every day, but - night. Excuse me. But specifically on Friday nights and the weekends, when Howard Cosell - and I used to do that. I was such a dork. I'm a nerd. That's why I love this show. You guys are so dorky and nerdy. I just - you know, I relate.
EISENBERG: So because you are known as the first lady of boxing, we have an amazing game for you. Are you...
PEREZ: Oh, God.
EISENBERG: Rosie, are you up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
PEREZ: This is not kind, you know? I mean, they call me the first lady of boxing, and you are setting me up to have my first lady of boxing card revoked. But go ahead.
EISENBERG: All right. It's about the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali.
PEREZ: No pressure.
EISENBERG: So it's fine. We're going to give you a Muhammad Ali quote. As you know, he said a bazillion amazing things. He's very quotable. And you are just going to finish the quote. I'll give you three possibilities, and you just tell me which one is the one you think it is.
EISENBERG: OK, you know this one. Float like a butterfly. Sting like - A, sting like a murder hornet; B, sting like a bee; or C, Sting is my favorite musician?
PEREZ: Sting like a bee.
EISENBERG: Yeah. That is correct.
COULTON: Sting is my favorite musician.
PEREZ: Oh, my God. The murder hornets - I saw it on the news. I said, honey, oh, my God. There's murder hornets. He goes, Rose, really? And I said, no, really. He didn't believe me.
COULTON: All right. Here's another one for you. I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning and, A, thrown thunder in jail; B, lived to tell the tale; or C, tangoed with a snail?
PEREZ: Lived to tell the tale - A.
COULTON: A, thrown thunder in jail - that is correct.
PEREZ: Oh, my God.
COULTON: Muhammad Ali actually said that before a George Foreman fight. Let's hear a clip of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MUHAMMAD ALI: I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That's bad.
EISENBERG: It is interesting that Muhammad Ali - I guess, you know, he wasn't that interested, but if Muhammad Ali came out with a grill to compete with George Foreman's grill...
EISENBERG: ...I think his would have won.
EISENBERG: I'm just saying.
COULTON: Muhammad Ali's slightly better grill.
PEREZ: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.
PEREZ: I met George Foreman in Hawaii. And we're at this hotel, and they had this brunch buffet. And I said, oh, my God, champ, how are you doing? My name is Rosie Perez. How are you doing? He goes, how are you doing, darling? I know you. You the "White Man Can't Jump" girl. I said, yes, I am. And he goes, come meet my son George and my other son George and my other son George. I said, you named all your kids George? He goes, it's a great name.
PEREZ: I was like, I love you. I love you.
EISENBERG: That's right. That's right. Well, OK, let's see if you get this one. The quote is, if you ever dream of beating me, dot, dot, dot. What's the end of it? Is it A, I'll be your worst nightmare in the ring? Is it B, you better wake up and apologize? Or is it C, I'll beat you like an Italian meringue in the showstopper round of the "Great British Bake Off?"
PEREZ: I love that show.
EISENBERG: Me, too. I love it.
PEREZ: Oh, my God.
EISENBERG: Makes me feel very calm.
PEREZ: What is her name - Mary Perry?
EISENBERG: Mary Berry, yeah. Mary Berry.
PEREZ: Mary Berry, Mary Berry - I love Mary Berry.
PEREZ: I'm sorry. What was the question (laughter)?
EISENBERG: So it's either - if you dream of beating me, is it A, I'll be your worst nightmare in the ring; B, you better wake up and apologize; or, C, I'll beat you like an Italian meringue in the showstopper round of "The Great British Bake Off" (laughter).
COULTON: I feel like it's not that one.
PEREZ: Is it B?
EISENBERG: Well, let's have Muhammad Ali himself tell us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALI: If he dreamed it, he better wake up and apologize.
EISENBERG: The best quotes.
PEREZ: Well, that's...
COULTON: I mean, he was so funny.
PEREZ: Yeah. I had the privilege of meeting Muhammad Ali.
COULTON: Oh, really?
PEREZ: Yeah. It wasn't under a great circumstance, but I'll take it. But he was amazing. I was in the middle of a fight of almost beating this woman up.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK.
PEREZ: But that's another story.
PEREZ: And he put his hand on me, and I thought it was security. And I turned around, and I said, get your hand - oh, my God, it's the champ. No, no, no, I wasn't supposed to meet you like this. Oh, my God, I'm humiliated.
PEREZ: And he went shh - and he lowered his hand, like calm down. I calmed down in an instant.
PEREZ: And his wife, Lonnie, she put her hand on - she goes, it's all right. It's all right, Rosie. I go, you know who I am? And they said yes. And the champ knows who you are. And I said, oh my God. And they said, you want to come sit with us? And this is right before they were going to try to throw me out, by the way.
PEREZ: And I said no. And she goes, you don't want to come sit with the champ? I said, I'm too humiliated. I said, I wasn't supposed to meet you like this. And he whispered something in my ear which I won't repeat.
PEREZ: It was private. And I bawled like a little girl. And he held me in his arms, and he hugged me. And he wiped my tears, and he says, come sit with us. And years later, after he passed - God rest his soul - I saw his wife again, and she goes, you remember me? I said, do I remember you? Oh, my God.
PEREZ: And I said, that was the most humiliating night ever. She goes, we loved it.
PEREZ: And she was - and I said, what? She goes, you were so fierce. You - and so fearless. And you really did have a sense of self and a sense of dignity, like a real champion. And I started bawling all over again.
COULTON: That's the craziest story I have ever heard. That's so amazing.
EISENBERG: So wait - amazing. OK.
PEREZ: It was amazing. But it wasn't a good look for me. But it was a great memory to be had.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Well, I guess - right. I guess depending on what side you were on, obviously. Lonnie was like, we thought it was great.
PEREZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: But from a different perspective - from a different perspective.
COULTON: All right. Well, here is another quote.
PEREZ: Oh, God. We're still playing.
COULTON: I know. You tried to distract us with a beautiful story, but it didn't work.
EISENBERG: We're on to you. We're on to you.
PEREZ: All right. OK. All right, go ahead. Go ahead.
COULTON: OK. I'm so fast that last night - and does it finish, A, I turned off the light and was in bed before the room was dark; B, I had my pajamas on before I could even say, it's cozy time...
COULTON: ...Or, C, I finished counting all the sheep?
COULTON: All right, let's listen and see if you got that right.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALI: Fast. Last night I cut the light off in my bedroom, hit the switch, was in the bed before the room was dark - fast.
COULTON: That is right. I turned off the light, was in bed before the room was dark. That's right.
EISENBERG: Normally, I don't like speed in the bedroom, but I like that quote. All right...
COULTON: All right, this is the very last one. So we're almost there.
PEREZ: OK, OK.
COULTON: The quote begins - there are no pleasures in a fight. Does it end, A, but I like to pretend that there are; B, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win; or, C, but it's nice to share a meal with your opponent afterwards? (Laughter) I can't even get through it - that one's so silly.
PEREZ: That has to be B.
COULTON: That is correct.
EISENBERG: Yes. You got them all. You clearly know your Muhammad Ali.
EISENBERG: You know your Muhammad Ali.
COULTON: And you were so nervous.
EISENBERG: Rosie Perez stars in the new HBO Max series "The Flight Attendant," and the first five episodes are available now. Rosie, I mean, I can't even tell you - thank you so much for joining us.
PEREZ: Thank you for having me. I listen to your show all the time. So it was a pleasure.
EISENBERG: Oh, that's amazing and also the promo that we will be using for the rest of our days.
COULTON: Yes, promo for everything. Promo for everything from now on.
EISENBERG: And that's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles are written by our staff, along with Jonathan Baylis, Camilla Franklin, Ruth Morrison and senior writer Eric Feinstein, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel and our boss' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: Hey. You're still listening. Fantastic. So since you're still here, why not pop over to Apple Podcasts and write us a review? We'd love to hear from you, and it also helps others find out about our show. For information about new episodes, bonus videos and more, follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Thanks.
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EISENBERG: Next time on ASK ME ANOTHER, former NFL football player and current actor Nnamdi Asomugha stops by to chat about his new film "Sylves Love." Plus, comedian Ray Ellen and actor Richard Kind face off in a music parody game that combines songs by jam bands with - you guessed it - kinds of fruit that make good jams. So join me on NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER - the answer to life's funnier questions.
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