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Rosie Perez on a roll

PARK CITY, Utah--What's it like to premiere your new film in the mountains of Utah? "I hate the altitude thing," Rosie Perez said. "Ooohhh, it's so bad. I couldn't do anything. I just had to lay down. My gums hurt. My teeth hurt. My jaws. It's funny. My knees locked in. When we finally got to the condo, they hadn't plowed yet. It's like right up to like my thigh. We were cracking up, but I love the snow. I like the cold weather better than the hot weather."

You do? I asked.

"I really, really do. I hate goin' on vacation like in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico."

Really?

"Really. Really. I might die and go to Alaska."

And we're off and rolling. You don't have a conversation with Rosie Perez. You try to keep up with her stream of consciousness, as she races from comedy to passion. Sometimes in the middle of lifeless movies, I ask myself, how would this movie be different if Rosie Perez were in it? The answer is: I wouldn't be bored.

Perez was at the Sundance Film Festival here a few weeks ago for the premiere of "The 24 Hour Woman," her new movie about a TV producer named Grace who gets pregnant and tries to juggle motherhood with a high-powered professional life. The movie is directed by Nancy Savoca ("Dogfight," "Household Saints"), who is half-Italian and half-Argentinian and originally wrote the role for an Italian-American. "I got a call," Perez said. We were sitting at a place called the Grubsteak, in one of those booths hewn out of a mighty log. "My manager said Nancy Savoca wants to talk to me. I said, `Wow, she was on my wish list, and I love her films,' and then my manager said, `Before you get too excited, she's offering you the role of the receptionist, and it's kinda small, but it's a very good part.' I read the script and I was blown away, but not by the receptionist. I wanted to play Grace.

"But Grace was originally an Italian-American woman. I told Nancy, `I'm gonna pass on your offer for the receptionist. I want the lead. It spoke to my soul. And it has comedy, it has drama, it's complex, it's a well-rounded character.' I felt as if she's rushing to end the lunch, so I really thought like I blew it. But a few weeks later, she called and said, `When I originally wrote the movie, it was for a Latin-American, but the people who were trying to get me financing for the film said I'd have a better chance getting it financed if I made it something else.' I said, `Really?' And she said, `Yeah, so maybe it was meant that we met.' And I said, `You mean you're not gonna change anything?' She said, `No. Instead of your parents speaking Italian, they'll speak Spanish.' I said, `Oh, my god, I can't believe it.' "

So it was a go. But just then, Perez said, her agent called with a big-money offer on a high-profile picture. She asked Savoca if "The 24 Hour Woman" could be pushed back a little. " `How dare you?' Savoca said. `You tell me you have the passion for the script, and now you're gonna tell me - Why? Are they offering you more money?' I fell really quiet. She said, `Listen, if you wanna take it, tell me now so I can move on.' I said, `I'll tell you in the morning.' I told my fiance, `I'm goin' to bed! I'm turning into everything I say I'm not!' And he said, `What's your heart telling you to do?' And I go, `But we can use the money.' He's like an independent filmmaker, too."

Somewhere in here, Perez ordered a shrimp and cilantro thing in a tortilla and was splashing hot sauce on it.

"The next day Nancy calls me and said, `Listen! As passionate as you were of me, I am with you now. You could do this other film and get paid and have a good financial year. But no one's gonna remember your 15-20 minutes on film, and you're just gonna be the girl in the film, and it's all gonna be about the men. Because I know the film that you're talking about.' And she did, too. She went on, `People are gonna remember `The 24 Hour Woman.' "

"So I hang up, and my fiance said, `What'd she say?' And I go, `I hate her! I hate her! I hate her!' He said, `You hate her 'cause she's a lot like you.' I go, `No, no! She's not!' He said, `You two are just alike and that's why you're gonna bump heads.' " And I went, `Ahhhhh!' And that next night, I couldn't sleep all night, and I called her and I said, `Let's do it.' "

Whew. There's as much suspense and drama in Rosie Perez deciding to take a role as in most actresses playing one. Her fiance, by the way, is named Seth Rosenfeld; I couldn't sneak that information into the previous two paragraphs because Rosie was talking too fast. Anyway, they made the movie, which is not about a superwoman but about an all-too-human woman who has a little girl named Daisy and tries to produce a morning talk show at the same time. It's not easy.

"Some people ask what the movie is trying to say," Perez said. "There is no definitive answer. She's not gonna tell you how to do it, and she's not gonna male-bash, and she's not gonna say you can have it all. What she's saying is - look, this is the real deal. We all gotta figure it out for ourselves. And it's difficult, and success is relative and you gotta figure out what it means to you. Grace always thought her career was everything. But she starts to say, OK, maybe what I wanted isn't really what I wanted, and I'm scared. But she doesn't wanna tell anybody that because she's supposed to be the consummate professional. She's one of these show-biz women, where she's supposed to be one of the boys. Only she isn't."

There is a moment in the movie when things are going badly at work, and Grace's husband is more focused on his own acting career than on their so-called shared duties, and Daisy is crying all night, and Grace says she's beginning to understand child abuse.

"Yeah," Perez said. "She's beginning to understand when women, like, throw their kids out the window. Of course she would never do it. But she's at the end of her rope. And some of the (movie's) financial backers were debating that. They were like, `Is that gonna be a little harsh for the audience?' And Nancy said, `I'm sticking to it. That's how you feel. That's really how you feel. The question is, are you gonna act upon it?' Of course not. But you can have those feelings, you know."

I first noticed Rosie Perez in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989), where she played Lee's girlfriend. It was a good role, but not a showcase. That came with "White Men Can't Jump" (1992), where she played Woody Harrelson's girlfriend and proved herself one of the few actresses capable of shouting him to a standstill.

Once again, the role wasn't written for a New Yorker of Puerto Rican ancestry. Once again, Rosie walked in and grabbed it.

"There was nothing to say his girlfriend couldn't be Puerto Rican. I went into the audition and I delivered the lines, and Ron Shelton, the director, told me, `Say that line again?' And the line went, You got hustled. And he said, `You say that like you understand that point of view. Like you've been there.' And he goes, `Most of the girls who auditioned - they would either cry or get emotional or laugh. Like the line was beyond their comprehension. You said it like - `Yeah, he got hustled.' "

It's part of the Perez legend that she started as a dancer on the TV show "In Living Color." The legend is wrong. She was the choreographer and segment producer: "They asked me if I wanted to be a Flygirl and I said, No! No, I don't wanna worry about being skinny and fitting into those outfits and having my hair done everyday and the makeup and no, I said, I really wanna choreograph. It's really more of who I am."

After the Spike Lee film and "White Men," she got an Oscar nomination for her work in "Fearless" (1993) as a woman who survives a plane crash and consoles a fellow survivor, played by Jeff Bridges. And she had a career high in Alex Rockwell's "Somebody To Love" (1994), which became a hit on video after the U.S. distribution got caught in a financial dispute. In that one, she was a taxi dancer with a crush on a broken-down former TV star, played by Harvey Keitel.

"It broke my heart when people couldn't see `Somebody To Love,' " she said. "Absolutely broke it. You gotta go out there and sell your picture. I'm at the distributor's office every day on `The 24 Hour Woman,' driving them crazy: We need more promotion, we need more this and more that. I asked for 5,000 fliers of the movie poster. They said, `What for?' I said, `I have friends, and we're gonna make sure everybody sees it.' They said I don't have to do that. I said, `Yes, I do; I've learned the hard way how this system works.'

"So I'm passing out fliers and someone comes up to me and said, `Don't you have no shame?' I go: No, this is my art; this is what I live for. This is nothin'. Van Gogh cut off his ear for his art. I'm not tryin' to cut off my ear. I'm not humiliating myself. I believe in my work, and I want people to see it, period, and I would do anything without losing my integrity, and this is not part of losin' my integrity."

Just the opposite, if anything.

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