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9 things you didn't know about Rosie Perez

By Cindy Y. Rodriguez, CNN
updated 5:42 PM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Brooklyn-born actress Rosie Perez has appeared on Broadway, was nominated for an Oscar and is an activist for Puerto Rican rights. She started her career in the 1980s as a dancer on "Soul Train" and has choreographed music videos as well as the Fly Girls on "In Living Color." Look back at some of her most memorable movie roles since then. Brooklyn-born actress Rosie Perez has appeared on Broadway, was nominated for an Oscar and is an activist for Puerto Rican rights. She started her career in the 1980s as a dancer on "Soul Train" and has choreographed music videos as well as the Fly Girls on "In Living Color." Look back at some of her most memorable movie roles since then.
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Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
Rosie Perez's movie career
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rosie Perez recently published a new memoir, "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life"
  • Perez describes how she survived physical, mental and sexual abuse
  • Perez is known to be feisty and candid, and she reveals her backstory

(CNN) -- Everything you thought you knew about Rosie Perez as the feisty and candid Puerto Rican actress will quickly dissipate after reading her recently released memoir "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (With Great Hair)."

"People make me out to be this super strong woman, but I have my tough days just like anyone else," Perez said in an interview with CNN.

She opened up about surviving physical, mental and sexual abuse, how she successfully navigated the entertainment industry without sacrificing herself and finally reached a place of compassion toward her abusers.

Here are nine things you might not know about the actress.

1. Rosie Perez wasn't raised by her parents

Her parents, Lydia Perez and Ismael Serrano, were both married to others when they met. Her father later told Rosie he couldn't help himself: He was drawn to her mother.

"It wasn't clear if (Lydia) knew that Ismael was married or not. He never really kept it a secret, but then again, he wasn't the first to volunteer that information either," Perez wrote.

Perez was raised primarily in a Catholic children's home in New York, with regular visits to her mother and aunt. Her father tried to get custody of Perez while she was in the home, but was not successful.

Her paternal aunt, Ana Dominga Otero Serrano-Roque, loved Perez unconditionally.

"I didn't include this in the book but once, when work was slow and money was tight, my aunt cut up some Slim Jim's -- she worked at the factory in Brooklyn -- and put it in the rice as meat for dinner. We looked at each other and I could tell she was embarrassed but just then she said, 'He, he, he' and we started laughing so hard," Perez told CNN.

"That same day, one of the neighbors came over to eat, as they often did, and she cut that portion in half and gave it to them. As you kid, you watch it, nothing has to be said. Her actions spoke volumes," Perez added.

When she was older, Perez was invited to visit her mother in Brooklyn, but says she was always treated like "the other." Perez's hair, weight and resemblance to her father made her a target for teasing.

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2. Perez earned an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for her role in "Fearless"

The Brooklyn-native is perhaps best known for her role in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" or starring alongside Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in "White Men Can't Jump." But few are aware of her two nominations for best supporting actress as plane crash survivor Carla Rodrigo in "Fearless."

"I knew deep inside that I could play this part with ease. I understood loss, depression, betrayal and how to pull yourself back together," Perez wrote of her character, who struggles with survivor's guilt but finds solace with another survivor Max, played by Jeff Bridges.

After landing the part, she tried to quit, scared to explore the character's vulnerability.

But when director Peter Weir tapped into her issues with success, she realized she felt guilty about making it out of the ward of the state system. She ended up living with her aunt instead of her mother and reconnected with her father. Weir insisted on not hiring anyone else and reassured her it was going to be great.

3. Perez is a three-time Emmy-nominated choreographer

Perez became a choreographer almost overnight after being offered a gig by A&R executive Louil Silas Jr. to teach his then-new artist, Bobby Brown, hip-hop moves for music videos "Don't Be Cruel" and "My Prerogative." That led to working with Diana Ross, Heavy D & The Boyz and LL Cool J.

Those skills caught the eye of Keenen Ivory Wayans, who helped her land a gig as the choreographer for the Fly Girls on "In Living Color." That's where she was nominated for her first Emmy for choreography. She later earned two more Emmy nominations.

4. Perez was discovered by "Soul Train" and Spike Lee while dancing in clubs

She got her start dancing after being spotted dancing at clubs in Los Angeles and was asked to go on "Soul Train." But the show's creator and host Don Cornelius was critical of her moves and her looks.

"Don Cornelius gave me an incredulous look regarding my accent. I lessened it; he gave a nod of approval," Perez wrote in her memoir. "Instantly, I felt ashamed. I had made my first conscious effort not to sound ethnic."

Cornelius also wanted her to dance more like a "sexy vixen," drop her hip-hop moves and dress in "tight-ass minis and high heels."

But one day, their disagreement got physical and Perez stormed out of "Soul Train," but not before she threw a chicken wing at his head. Years later, the two made amends.

It was not the first time she would be discovered out of confrontation.

Before leaving Los Angeles, she went out dancing at the same club Spike Lee was having a "butt contest to see which black chick had the biggest ass" to promote his movie "School Daze."

Disgusted by the contest, Perez decided to make a mockery of it.

"I jumped on the stage... and bent over shaking my ass... bouncers came over with this little skinny guy and told me to get down. My bravado vanished," Perez wrote.

That skinny guy turned out to be Spike Lee. The director was amused with Perez, introduced himself, and days later, he asked her to audition for "Do the Right Thing."

5. Her father had a panic attack in the movie theater when he saw her nude scene in "Do the Right Thing"

When Perez's first movie came out, her father invited everyone from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico -- including the family pastor -- to watch. She didn't prepare her dad for her nude scene. It shocked him so much that he was rushed to the hospital with what he thought was a heart attack.

"When the ice cube scene came on, my father gasped, jumped up, grabbed his heart and fell out cold -- no lie! He was taken away in an ambulance. I felt horrible. I flew down immediately," she wrote.

But that didn't stop her father from milking it as he asked Perez to "do it with class" next time and let him know if she was doing an "artistic film."

6. She almost didn't get the part in "White Men Can't Jump," because the studio had an issue with her ethnicity

"I went through several more callbacks. The studio, as I was told, had a problem that I was Puerto Rican; they were worried about the interracial aspect," Perez wrote.

But Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson fought to get her the part. She wrote that she was "grateful that they put themselves out there like that," because "that's the only way things change -- when everyone joins the fight and you're not the only one rushing up the hill."

As Snipes predicted, the movie was a huge hit, which opened doors for Perez. Roles offered to her thereafter were less stereotypical.

7. Perez refused to take on stereotypical Latina roles

People told Perez to be quiet and stop pointing fingers at people that were going to give her a job because she would risk hurting her career. But she refused.

"Hollywood's racist. I knew something else would come along that I was OK with. Sometimes you pay a price by not working as much, but I felt good about myself in the morning," Perez told CNN.

Perez measured her success in terms of stability, happiness and having a real life -- even if that didn't mean gobs of money and fame.

8. Perez was mentally, physically and sexually abused for much of her childhood and diagnosed with PTSD

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Perez, along with other children at the group home where she was raised, were often subjected to the nuns' cruelty. She was also severely abused by her mother, who was mentally ill, she wrote.

In her memoir, Perez also writes for the first time that her half-brother sexually assaulted her twice during her childhood while she visited her mother's house. When she told her mother, Perez writes that she was smacked and punished for lying.

Nobody was prosecuted in the case, Perez said in an interview. She said she hopes her siblings are getting help to break the cycle of abuse, she said, because they were all victims.

Indeed, it wasn't until she was an adult that she went to therapy.

"If someone was to punch you in the face for 18 years of your life, wouldn't you go to the hospital to get it treated? It's the same thing when it comes to mental and physical abuse as well," Rosie said to CNN.

While not unique to Latinos, Rosie also said there's certainly a stigma in Latino culture about mental health.

"I've heard racist remarks that refer to getting psychotherapy help as 'being white,'" Perez said. "We (Latinos) are selling ourselves short. Like my therapist said, 'If you're diabetic, you take insulin.' Therapy is not a 'white thing.' It's a clinical thing."

9. She was raised Catholic, but she doesn't know if she believes in God

One nun, referred to as Grace in the memoir -- her name was changed to protect her privacy -- was the only person Perez trusted other than her aunt. The nun said something to her that became a turning point in Perez's life.

"I don't know if I believe in God but I believe in something, and she was a definite gift from that something. I needed someone to grab my hand, look me dead in the eye and say, 'This is what you have to do to survive this and you can do it.' She meant everything to me and still does. I still think about her till this very day," Perez said.

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