Rosie Perez Talks About Battling Racism, Sexism "and Every Other 'Ism" in Entertainment

World Red Eye, Courtesy National YoungArts Foundation
Rosie Perez Speaks at Miami's YoungArts

The actress urged aspiring artists at Miami's National YoungArts Week to "bring their authentic self" and avoid the "desperation" that comes from chasing fame.

“Life’s not easy for artists, right?” Rosie Perez asked, looking out into a room full of aspiring artists in the visual, literary, design and performing arts.

Perez, whose groundbreaking career spans nearly three decades, including one charged season of hosting ABC's The View, tossed her script aside for a Jan. 9 talk before approximately 170 finalists (ages 15-18) who were selected from 12,000 applications to attend National YoungArts Week in Miami. Alumni of YoungArts, which was founded in 1981 to support emerging artists, include such stars and creators as Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Jenji Kohan. For the Hollywood hopefuls in the room, Perez’s presentation was a master class in “real talk,” the Brooklyn-born firecracker’s forte.

“We are struggling inside ourselves with our own personal documentary or play. It’s all bubbling inside of us. And, sometimes it makes us very neurotic people. But that’s who we are,” said Perez. “If you weren’t a little kooky, you’d probably be working at a desk. All of that bubbling has to come out or we just can’t breathe. It manifests as art.”

Perez, a YoungArts Master Teacher, is no stranger to mentoring fresh faces in the arts. Her work with the Urban Arts Partnership (urbanarts.org) mirrors the National YoungArts Foundation’s commitment to supporting emerging artists at critical points in their creative development.

While the personal struggle for Perez is lingering depression, her professional challenges would generally show up in the form of typecasting, sexism, racism “and every other ‘ism’ you can think of,” she quipped.

She fought her way to the top of an image-obsessed industry by “not accepting the no, not accepting the closed door.” She told the group to audition for roles you’re not supposed to be good for, create your own work and collaborate with people you respect.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Perez after her master class and before the YoungArts gala, where she would be honored alongside director Robert Wilson with the Arison Award. The following is an edited version of the conversation. 

Why YoungArts?

I take time for kids, period, because validation is necessary for growth. I want to tell them it’s OK to be insecure, neurotic and weird — to find the uniqueness in your neuroses. There’s this Polish proverb that has stuck with me: “We must support the talented because the untalented will always find the stage.”

What did you see in the YoungArts finalists when you spent time with them today?

I saw their spirit. Some were tender. Others were loud. Others were soft. Some were very strong. I’m around kids all the time. You pick up on it, but they don’t necessarily see it [their gifts].

What do you hope these artists, or the next generation in entertainment, will bring to the industry?

I hope they bring their authentic self. That’s how change keeps happening. The more you showcase your original voice, the more you can bring something new to the world. I love Marlon Brando so much because he changed the game. He said, “I don’t want to do that kind of acting. I want to express real emotions.” He developed a new way of acting. He wanted honesty, and I relate to that because it’s pure. I hope they find it within themselves.

Authenticity seems like a buzzword in the arts right now. What does it look like when the driving force behind a career is fame?

I’m not going to name names, but they are mannered and their speech is very affected. The pretenses become part of their personality. You see it when they walk in the room. It’s desperation to be seen. Not to be heard, to be seen.

Do you think it’s immaturity?

No, I think there’s a lack of growth attached to it. It’s a chip on the shoulder. They weren’t picked or validated when they were younger, so they developed a façade that works. I used to feel very small in a room with people like that; I used to marvel at that ability.

What’s next for you?

I have no idea. I want to jump into something, but I’m mature enough to know I’m not going to jump into just anything. I want to make sure whatever I do is right. Writing again? A possible documentary? My life was so chaotic and busy from 2014 to 2015; I need to be boring and regular. It’s a relief to not have to rush into anything, you know? 

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