Los Angeles -- Rosie Perez had the brass ring in her hand. She was preparing to work in director Peter Weir's "Fearless," having landed the hotly contested role of Carla, a young Catholic woman whose faith is shaken when she loses her infant child in a plane crash -- a part "every actress age 18 to 50 wanted," #F according to producer Paula Weinstein.
It was a wrenching role of tremendous emotional depth, one guaranteed to prove to moviegoers and filmmakers alike that there was more to this young actress than the sassy spitfire that had wowed them in such films as "Do the Right Thing" and "White Men Can't Jump" and had choreographed the muscularly flashy Fly Girl routines on TV's "In Living Color."
And then, it almost all fell apart.
"A week before shooting, I panicked outright," Ms. Perez says. "I called Peter and said, 'Quick, get [someone else] down here, because I'm not gonna be able to do it. I can't handle this.'
"He wouldn't listen to me, and I started screaming and crying to him on the phone. So he said" -- here, Ms. Perez assumes Mr. Weir's proper Australian accent -- " 'You're falling apart, and that's all right. I'll be right there.' He came down to the room and he ordered cappuccinos and we stayed up all night and I let it all out. And he worked and worked. He said 'You need to use what you're feeling right now, the anxiety you're feeling now is great to use.' "
Mr. Weir remembers it this way: "I told her one main thing: 'You're a pro, you're born to act. This is a craft, 95 percent of this is practice, but you have a natural talent. I know this is emotional, but it's not about being Carla, it's about acting Carla."
Though not exactly fearlessly, Ms. Perez forged ahead, and is now winning some of the best reviews of her career. Again, there's irony, since initially only Mr. Weir thought her perfect for the role. As Ms. Perez -- who in person is as disarmingly funny and bluntly honest as the characters she has played -- put it, "Unfortunately, it's usually the director who loves you and the studio who's going, 'I don't know, omigod, she's a minority, she's short, omigod, I don't know!' "
The actress's work in the HBO drama "Criminal Justice" made a believer out of the skeptics. And Ms. Weinstein said she was convinced "the first time I saw her on the set, the first day she worked. I saw it. She was raw, out there -- in terms of emotions she was unguarded. I was blown away. After that, there was never any doubt.
Where Mr. Weir and Jeff Bridges, who stars as Max, another survivor of the plane crash, spent laborious hours interviewing crash victims, "I chose not to," Ms. Perez says. "Because Carla is very alone in her pain. She feels that nobody understands. So therefore, I didn't want to understand anybody else's pain, I didn't want to connect with anybody. I wanted to keep distant.
"I told Peter that, and he agreed with me."
The fact is, Ms. Perez had done so little preparation for the film that she had no idea of her director's impressive resume. "All I kept saying during the audition was, 'He's deep! He's good!' And didn't know what he had done, and when I found out two weeks before the film, at lunch, having lunch with the other actors and him, that he did 'Witness,' and I remember my food just dropped out of my mouth."
Ms. Perez was equally impressed with her co-star Mr. Bridges, "I was in awe of him," she gushes. "Oh, my God, I put up the biggest front. He'd say, 'Are you OK?' and I'd say [brassily], 'Yeah. Roll 'em!' I was like, 'Oh my God' -- he was really good,
and he doesn't mess up on any of his takes, and he's consistent. When I would mess up, I was like, 'Oh, I don't feel good today,' making excuses. One day, he was messing up, and I asked him, 'You having a bad day?' and he said, 'No, I'm just screwing up.' And I said, 'Oh . . . you're human.' "
For Mr. Bridges, the admiration is mutual. "She's such a natural, gifted actress," he says. "She has such a wide range of talents -- she's a manager, a producer, she's directed a music video, she's an actress -- and she has this ability to touch emotions deep within herself."
Though Mr. Weir had no problems hiring Ms. Perez for a role originally written for an Italian-American actress, Ms. Perez has in the past found it a struggle to represent her Latina heritage faithfully in movies. "I always have to prepare myself for a fight -- 'Do I have to speak a different way? Can we put other Hispanics in there? Can my character at least have a Spanish last name?' " she says. "They don't have to change a word of the script or an iota of the story, they don't have to cater it to my ethnic background, but let me at least represent my people.
"And I was ready to go at it with Peter. I'm thinking what Hispanic actors can I suggest to him, and what strategy am I gonna pull to try to get that in the film? And in my fourth audition, Peter asked me to read with an actor who was being considered to play my husband, and he said, 'Rosie, this is Benicio Del Toro [who, in fact, does play Carla's husband].' And I looked up at Peter and I just wanted to hug him. It wasn't an issue with him, and he didn't change anything" in the script.
Ms. Perez says she never had the acting bug until she met director Spike Lee in a nightclub and he invited her to work in "Do the Right Thing."
"At first I didn't want to but then I said, 'OK, I'll do it,' " she says. "He tried to hit on me, even though he denies it to this day." Eyeing the tape recorder, she speaks directly to it -- "Oh, yeah, Spike, like I was after you -- I think not!"
That led to her work on the Fox network's "In Living Color," which she left soon after Keenan Ivory Wayans, the series' creator, exited following a dispute with the network regarding the program's artistic direction.
To her mind, it's not a big loss -- she's kept busy. She manages a female R&B; group, 5 A.M. (for which she directed a video), has choreographed touring shows for a number of artists, including Bobby Brown, has been host of an HBO variety show and runs her own production company, Ten in a Car Productions.
Calling the shots is a necessity if one is to survive in show business, Ms. Perez maintains. "You have to manipulate the system, not let the system manipulate you," she says. "I feel sorry for a lot of actors who sit and wait for a role. If you sit and wait, then they've got you -- you're like a puppet in their hands, you're waiting for them to offer stuff to you. That won't happen to me."