9 things you didn’t know about Rosie Perez

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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.

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.