ED GORDON, host:
In the late 1980s, director Spike Lee discovered Rosie Perez dancing in a Los Angeles club and cast her in his provocative "Do the Right Thing." Since that big break, Perez has stayed busy. She's choreographed the Fly Girls on the TV show "In Living Color." She won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in "Fearless." She's also performed on Broadway and established her own film company, Ten in A Car Productions. Now, BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is honoring Perez for her multifaceted career. She talked about the tribute and about making it as a Latina in show business with NPR's Farai Chideya.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
So what does it mean to be recognized by BAM? You know, I used to live in New York; it's this place in Brooklyn that's just a hub of culture. How does it feel?
Ms. ROSIE PEREZ (Actress): It's quite overwhelming. And I felt, like, hostile about it because I didn't know how to take it all in.
CHIDEYA: The event is called "Born in Brooklyn: Rosie Perez." So tell me about where you're from and what it was like growing up.
Ms. PEREZ: I was actually born in Greenpoint, which is on the borderline of Brooklyn and Queens. Then I lived with my aunt in Williamsburg for a minute, and then I spent some time upstate for a minute, and then I returned back to Bushwick for a majority of my childhood. And it's a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. I lived on Suddam Street(ph) between St. Nick and Wyckoff. It was a bittersweet childhood, but it was very enchanting. Now that I've traveled the world, I don't regret growing up in Bushwick at all. It was such a character-building experience and there was such a true sense of community without sounding cliches. You know, as soon as you turned a corner and stepped on Suddam, you knew you were home and that you knew you were on your territory and you were completely safe. And I knew practically every single family on that block, and they all knew me as well. So it was really wonderful.
CHIDEYA: Now you're someone who is not the most traditional-looking, you know, Hollywood actress. Most, you know...
Ms. PEREZ: I beg your pardon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: You know? Do you think that's a fact? How has it been for you to try to find a seat the table in Hollywood?
Ms. PEREZ: I think when I first started out, I was very, very nervous and scared to even ask to sit at the table. A lot of times, to be quite honest, when I first started, I was just so picked apart and ridiculed even by my own people. Sometimes I would say, `OK, I'm just going to stand here on the corner, I'm good. Go ahead, sit.' And that didn't sit well with me. And after a while, I just started pushing my way through and saying, you know, `There is nothing wrong with the way I look, there is nothing wrong with the way I speak. You guys are the ones with the problem. So move over 'cause my seat is right here, right next to you. And I'm not going to change to fit into your sense of what is norm. That should only occur in the roles that I play. The only time that I should change who I am is when I'm playing a specific character. Outside of that, I am who I am, thank you. Now let's eat.' And I think that if more people took that approach, we would have much more success and we would have much more of a volume of us, if you will, at the table. But we have to find some type of strength within ourselves to say, `I am beautiful, I do deserve to sit here, thank you very much.' And that going full circle has definitely come from being from Brooklyn, just because you know who you are. When you're on your block, you know who you are and you feel good about it.
CHIDEYA: The two-day film tribute, "Born in Brooklyn: Rosie Perez" runs today and tomorrow at Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinamatek in Brooklyn, New York.
Congratulations, Rosie. Thanks for being with us.
Ms. PEREZ: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
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