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Rosie Perez: still doing the right thing

We should celebrate our age rather than just accept it, the actor tells Emily Hourican as she recalls her memorable, 'life-changing' film debut

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Rosie Perez dances during the opening credits of 'Do The Right Thing'

Rosie Perez dances during the opening credits of 'Do The Right Thing'

Rosie Perez dances during the opening credits of 'Do The Right Thing'

'Listen honey, life's too short to drink the house wine." That's Rosie Perez's take on the business of living and ageing. Now 55, the Brooklyn-born actor is, judging by her turn as detective Renee Montoya in DC's big new release Birds of Prey, as bold and brave as ever. "Just because you're of a certain age doesn't mean you're dead and you're not able," she says. "I'm very proud that I've been in this industry for 30-plus years. The only thing I feel with my age is hot flushes. But," she cautions, "whether you're 20 or 50, you have to eat right and stay in shape, for yourself. For your health and wellbeing and also for your mental health."

And so Perez, who was a dancer - on Soul Train, the long-running music and dance TV programme -before she was an actor, says she still loves "working out, I still box. My workout today is not the same as my workout when I was 20 - you have to readjust, but doing it just makes life much more enjoyable. It's not accepting your age, it's celebrating your age - that's a wonderful thing. For women, there's so much sexism and ageism that we have to contend with every single day. And the idea of 'accepting' where you're at is so negative - it's celebrating where you're at."

It was as a dancer that Perez first caught Spike Lee's attention, one evening in a nightclub when Perez was 24. What does she think he saw in her? "He told me that I had a confidence and a vulnerability that would have been perfect for the screen," she says.

At the time, Perez was studying biochemistry in Los Angeles. Did she think about saying no to Lee? "I'm a pretty stable kind of conservative yet adventurous person. So I was like, 'I'll give this a try.' I didn't understand what it meant at the time. After filming, I went right back to school and back to my regular job. I didn't understand the magnitude of it or how life-changing it was going to be until I was at the premier." Even then, she says: "I thought it was a one-off."

It wasn't. That film led to a career which takes in critically lauded roles in Night On Earth and White Men Can't Jump among many others, as well as an Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress) for her role in Fearless.

The opening sequence of Do The Right Thing - Perez dancing to Fight The Power by Public Enemy - is one that gets mentioned again and again in Greatest Ever lists. And it nearly didn't happen.

"We were supposed to dance to the song Cool Jerk, by the Capitols," she says, "and it was a completely different routine. Then, Spike had a last-minute brainstorm and came and said 'I'm so sorry to do this, I know you've been in rehearsals for weeks, but I changed the music…' We literally had one day to pull it together. The choreographer, Otis Sallid, wasn't familiar with hip hop, and that's what Spike wanted, so I said, 'OK, we're going to do this…'"

In 2014, Perez published an autobiography, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling... in which she writes about the abuse she suffered during childhood from both her schizophrenic mother and the nuns at the group foster home where she lived, and the anxiety and depression that led to.

Happily, she was quick to recognise the thing that helped her through this. "When money came my way abundantly, it still didn't solve the issues of dealing with my childhood, and I got that memo very quickly early on, and thank goodness I did. What did bring me more happiness was stability and having a secure roof over my head and having relationships with my family which are loving. What I realised was, that, to me, is the true meaning of success. If you have a stable foundation with regard to your home life, it can get you through those times. I also believe in therapy. And as much as I take care of my body, I also take care of my mind."

Does life still feel unpredictable? "Yes, and it's great. Even though I'm pretty much a homebody and a fascinatingly boring person, I'm open to how life flows. If you stay stagnant you die. I've learned that just when you think things are settled, life changes, and it should. I've learned to roll with the punches."

Does she still get a thrill from that? "Yes, but the thrill could be exciting, or the thrill could be anxiety, and that's what I mean about rolling with the punches. You have to take it as it comes and take a deep breath, whichever way it goes, and keep moving."

The character of Renee Montoya is, she says, a perfect example. "I like how Renee is very dark on one hand - she struggles with alcoholism, she struggles with living and working in a patriarchal society. I really loved that. I also loved her tenacity and her belief in herself. Even with all those complications, she knew she was right about something and she wasn't going to give up on herself. That was very inspiring for me. She could easily have succumbed to making herself small, but she refused, and I think that's what all women should do, regardless of whether you're rich, poor, successful or not. Whatever you think the world sees you as, don't let them dictate your course."

DC's Birds of Prey opens in cinemas nationwide on February 7

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