Handbook For an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair)
The Crown Publishing Group, 2014
When you talk to Rosie Perez over the phone, as I did for this interview, you can feel her in pensive thought. The pint-sized Brooklyn native’s personality is large and generous, her voice infused with that trademark accent. And the familiarity of that voice lent a casual friendliness to our conversation.
Many people may feel they know Perez, given her widespread success. What they may not know, however, is that she had a troubled childhood, which she eloquently discusses in her 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’s mother, who suffered from schizophrenia, caused her anxiety early on. “Even when she acted normal—something that many mentally ill people can do, despite what you see in the movies—I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the insanity to hit,” Perez writes. “And when it hit, it hit hard and fast, leaving deep emotional and physical scars.” When her mother abandoned her, Perez’s aunt raised her. Then, one day when Perez was three, her mother re-appeared to take her back—only she didn’t. Instead, she sent her young daughter to live at St. Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children, the seat of much of Perez’s trauma.
Determined not only to survive, but to triumph, Perez pressed on. In fact, one of the counselors at the home told her something that gave her hope. “‘The world is waiting for you to arrive. Are you ready?’” she recalled him saying. “When a counselor tells you something like that—an adult that inspires you and someone who you respect—you listen. I knew that I was preparing myself for the world. And I felt in my childhood, I was just doing time.”
Perez was indeed ready. And she has skillfully woven her hard-earned magic into the tough fabric of Hollywood. The former Soul Train dancer enjoyed a fruitful choreography career working for LL Cool J, Diana Ross, and Bobby Brown before being hired by Keenen Ivory Wayans to choreograph for the Fly Girls on In Living Color. She made her foray into acting when fellow Brooklyn native Spike Lee discovered her dancing onstage in an L.A. nightclub. Her film debut, in Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), launched a career that spans more than 20 films, including White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Fearless (1993) (which earned her both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations), and Pineapple Express (2008). We spoke about her success, her book, her life as a choreographer, and her hometown—Brooklyn.
Lathleen Ade-Brown (Rail): I love your book title. Were you reluctant to have a long title like that, since it’s not traditional?
Rosie Perez: I’m not traditional in a lot of ways [laughs]. But so far it has got people talking about it, since it’s so damn long!
Rail: There are a lot of actresses and dancers who train for years and never meet or cross paths with a Spike Lee.
Perez: I believe I am very lucky and very fortunate. And I also believe that if you are not prepared, luck will not come your way. I have learned for myself that I have prepared for things that I should not have been preparing for. There was a different preparation that was needed and I learned that along the way. Okay, I was trying to go here but I was really supposed to go this way. Yet, veering off, I needed that to be able to see the correct path.
When Neo was presented with the two pills by Morpheus, if he wasn’t somewhat prepared or involved or had something special about him from the beginning—could he have chosen correctly, or would he even have been in that room?
Rail: Very true, a lot of young people consider their circumstances a product of pure luck. But the real question is, are you prepared to meet luck?
Perez: Exactly. Where was I discovered for Soul Train? I was in a nightclub having fun—doing what I love to do, but it was directly after my science lab. So if I wasn’t in college and I wasn’t taking night courses, would I have been in that same place at that same time? Same thing with Spike Lee. I decided to transfer to a different college and go back home. I understood that L.A. was distracting me and I needed to re-focus. So I’m celebrating my last night in L.A. and I meet Spike Lee. It’s not a fluke; it was just being at the most opportune place at the opportune time.
Rail: And also just doing the right thing—
Perez: [Laughs.] No pun intended!
Rail: [Laughs.] Right! But you were on the right path and actually going to college despite the odds. Had you rebelled and said, “I’m not going to school, I want to be a dancer,” you wouldn’t have met the people you were destined to meet.
Rail: In the book’s preface, you mention that you didn’t really want to write this but you knew it had to come out. It doesn’t seem like you were excited about telling this story.
Perez: I wasn’t excited. I’m a very, very private person. You don’t see me at all the parties and you don’t see me in gossip magazines, not even at the height of the ’90s. It just wasn’t my deal. I have been asked to write a book since the beginning of my career. I have always said no! It took a while of thinking about it. I didn’t need the money, I didn’t need the attention, but yet I knew that this was something that had to be told and I think it was really more for my family and myself. Because after the passing of my mother and then my aunt and then my father—and I write about this—when my mother passed, I barely knew anything about her. I don’t have any children. I have a lovely husband, but at the end of the day I just have my family and not all of them know everything. If I go, what is going to happen? So when I initially wrote it, it was not meant for publication.
Rail: So was it just to document your own history in your own words?
Perez: It was more, let me tell my family and the people that I love and are most dear to me what really happened. God forbid anything happens to me, I didn’t want to be an enigma or a mystery to the people that I love. It really wasn’t for the public but as I continued writing this, I realized that with my second career—which is activism and charity—I felt a nagging conviction to share.
Rail: Throughout your challenging childhood, what was your intuition telling you?
Perez: It was telling me that I was going to be successful at whatever I did and that I was going to contribute to the world. It was more on a civic-minded kind of plane that I was preparing to shoot off of. It was very strange as a child to have that feeling. In school, social studies and science clicked for me. But science clicked in terms of how it affected the world. For instance, biology was a big interest because I was worried about the world—our water supply and our marine life and how we are destroying the world and how can I contribute to help stop that. But I have to say I have to give a lot of credit to the Catholic Church because it was the nuns that put me on stage [in school plays]. They never told me you could be great at this as a profession. Yet they were preparing me for those Soul Train lines and that opening scene in Do the Right Thing. It’s mind blowing! I had that realization while writing this book: I never really came to the full gravity of it, that I was being prepared and the nuns had a hand in it.
Rail: In the book, you talk about being on the set of Do the Right Thing as a newcomer, intimidated by the seasoned actors and subconsciously retreating, masking your shyness and fear by whipping out an attitude. Why do you think Spike Lee was so lenient on set and didn’t reprimand you?
Perez: Well he wasn’t only lenient with me. He was lenient with a lot of the actors because there was a lot of bad behavior going on [laughs]. I was told a quote once: “If you step on an actor’s spirit, you will never get it back.” Although this is a question to ask Spike, I think it was probably that. But I’m sure he saw through my bravado and just saw how terrified I was. I was so scared, especially when Danny Aiello walked in the room and I am like, “Oh my, how am I going to measure up to this?” And Ms. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis? I was just blown away.
Rail: How did you overcome that fear?
Perez: I just acted like a pompous asshole and when that didn’t work, that revealed itself very quickly [laughs].
I opened myself up to Martin Lawrence and Robin Harris, God rest his soul. They kind of came to me first during rehearsals. I don’t know why they gravitated to me. I think it was after they saw how nerdy and goofy I was.
Rail: A lot of people don’t know that you also choreographed for big music acts including Diana Ross, LL Cool J, and Bobby Brown. What was that life like?
Perez: That life was wonderful. It was so much fun. The negative side of it was just dealing with the music industry—at that time, it was crazy! I’ve seen people get smacked in the face during a meeting, or managers wanting to sleep with you and if you didn’t you wouldn’t get the deal and then if you don’t get the deal, you get talked about that you’re falling off. It was like, what? Fighting for your paycheck was huge! That part of choreography, I couldn’t stand. And that was a major reason why I stopped. I just didn’t have the wherewithal and I didn’t want to exhaust any more energy, so I just walked away.
Rail: In the book, you also talk about your friend, Tupac Shakur. What was he really like?
Perez: You can’t just say one thing about him. He was many things. Very complicated but simple. I think that we understood each other because when you are a person of color and a person that doesn’t come from certain means there are immediate judgments, and so he got what I got. How disgustingly annoying it was when people would meet him and say “Oh my goodness, you are so smart Tupac!” Like why wouldn’t he be smart? He was a normal guy who was extremely sweet, kind, funny, vulnerable, and very unpredictable. I could see his unpredictable responses coming and that’s why we were kindred spirits, because he had a volatility about him that didn’t come from a place of bad intentions. He honestly didn’t have any malice in him unless you did something blatantly wrong to him. Then he wanted everything wrong to come to you [laughs]. But his bursts of anger, I could see them coming because I understood him—how a man who should’ve been much more respected than he was during his lifetime was continuously disrespected and didn’t have the proper tools to learn how to modify those responses.
I remember one time on the set of In Living Color, he had an explosion—he was actually in the right, but it was an overreaction. It was crazy. The cops came, I was crying and his mother was crying, and while he is yelling and screaming at everybody, telling everyone off, he turns to look at me. My heart is bleeding for him and tears are running down my face and he just starts crying, too. That’s Tupac Shakur, the real Tupac. And I remember just touching him like, I get it, I get it. And he catches himself in that split second, still crying, but then he went right back into screaming and ranting at everyone saying, “This is wrong, this is an injustice, what you are doing to me,” and the rant was 100 percent authentic and real but it also helped him shield his true vulnerability that just seeped out.
Rail: You grew up in Brooklyn, how much of that influenced your art, your dancing, your career?
Perez: I don’t see it as that. I see it as everything influences everything that I do. So it’s not just Brooklyn, it’s everything. That’s one thing that I had to fight against when I first entered the industry—actually the world. Because there were these negative stereotypes of what Brooklyn was all about. It’s quite ironic because we have everyone from Streisand to Michael Jordan, all these great artists that have come out of Brooklyn run the gamut—I mean Barbara Stanwyck, Brooklyn girl! Of course, Brooklyn is me and I am it, but you know, it’s not everything. It most definitely has an influence on me because it is a part of me and it is in my spirit, and plus I’m still here.
On Wednesday, February 26 at 7:30 p.m., Rosie Perez will be in conversation with Hilton Als at St. Joseph's College (245 Clinton Avenue), in conjunction with Greenlight Bookstore.
LATHLEEN ADE-BROWN is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in New York City.