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Rosie Perez Hates Flying, but She Soared in ‘The Flight Attendant’

Voting is underway for the 73rd Primetime Emmys, and this week we’re talking to several first-time Emmy nominees (at least for acting, in this …

Rosie Perez Hates Flying, but She Soared in ‘The Flight Attendant’

Voting is underway for the 73rd Primetime Emmys, and this week we’re talking to several first-time Emmy nominees (at least for acting, in this case; Rosie Perez had been previously nominated, but as a choreographer). The awards will be presented Sept. 19 on CBS.

This interview includes spoilers for “The Flight Attendant.”

On Rosie Perez’s third day of production on the HBO Max series “The Flight Attendant,” she was shooting a scene in which several characters congregated in an airplane’s galley. As the director Susanna Fogel set up a shot, she asked Perez to turn toward the camera because “we can’t see your face.”

“I know,” Perez replied. “I want to seem invisible.”

She had a personal reason for this acting strategy. Now in her mid-50s, she understands a thing or two about the plight of menopausal women, some of whom have an acute sense of losing themselves, of their diminishing social value and relevancy. Perez recalled how difficult it was to acknowledge her own menopause onset — to come to terms with the hormonal imbalance and the way it made her feel.

“I was like, ‘Why am I a nervous wreck all the time?’” she said. “‘Why do I have so much anxiety? Why am I questioning my life? What is going on?’

“It’s a strange, strange feeling,” she added.

She wanted to bring those conflicted feelings to her character, Megan Briscoe, and the show’s writers and producers agreed to incorporate the idea. She told them: “I don’t ever want you to mention the fact that Megan is menopausal. I just want to play it.”

This surprise acting choice provided a better rationale for her character to keep a nervous eye on her fellow flight attendant Cassie (Kaley Cuoco), a hot mess who has gotten embroiled in a mysterious conspiracy. And it set up a more sympathetic view of Megan’s own dangerous situation after a series of poor decisions leads her to accidentally commit treason.

It also inspired one of the showrunners, Steve Yockey, to pen an “invisible woman” speech for Perez to deliver in the season finale, in a poignant scene that likely helped secure Perez her first Emmy nomination as an actor. (She was nominated three times as a choreographer for her work on the early ’90s sketch show “In Living Color.”)

“I get choked up thinking about it now,” Perez said of the additional material she was given. “These moments don’t always come to me, as a brown woman. And when they come, you better deliver because, baby, you want to make it count.”

Perez previously made the most of her moments in films like “Do the Right Thing” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and her performance in the plane crash drama “Fearless” brought Oscar and Golden Globe nominations — an experience she now recalls with some ambivalence. She talked about it in a phone conversation from Spain, where she was shooting the upcoming Apple TV+ series “Now and Then,” and she also discussed “The Flight Attendant,” her moving monologue and her former life as a dancer and choreographer. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You initially turned down “The Flight Attendant,” partly because you hate flying. Where did this fear come from?

Two things. One, I hate traveling, and it doesn’t just pertain to flying on airplanes. I think it’s because of my childhood, traveling back and forth from the home [St. Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children in Peekskill, N.Y.] to Brooklyn to Puerto Rico, then back to Brooklyn and back to the home. I just couldn’t stand it. It gives me anxiety, which I’ve been working on with my psychiatrist. It’s getting better, slowly but surely.

The second thing is that when I did “Fearless,” I was really traumatized. When we were filming in the cornfields, it felt so real and so shocking to me. The research I did on plane crashes heightened everything.

You caught Covid-19 while shooting the show in Bangkok, early on in the pandemic. Did that affect your performance?

It was scary being in a foreign country and getting sick to that magnitude. I remember being carted into the I.C.U. I remember telling people: “Don’t let me die in Bangkok. Please tell my husband.” Those were my initial thoughts, and then the isolation and the worry. The head of I.C.U. was telling me that I had this new unknown virus, that people were dying from it. I had been sickly as a child, but this was on a whole different level.

That said, did it affect my performance? No. It affected my flying because I was even more paranoid, and I had to fly from Bangkok back to New York for “The Flight Attendant,” then to Brazil and Los Angeles for “Birds of Prey,” then to New York and Rome for more “Flight Attendant,” then to Utah for “The Last Thing He Wanted,” then to London for “Birds of Prey” press, then back to New York. I was a nervous wreck!

It was comforting to have work, so I was able to just let it go and feed it back into Megan. And I was already there. By my third day of filming, I was able to tell the showrunners, “I know you think Megan is this, but I think she’s that.”

What do you mean?

What I could bring to Megan is how I felt turning 50, how I felt having hormonal imbalances. You question everything. If you’re not happy, if you don’t have happiness around you, you’re going to go out and buy a new car, or in Megan’s case, you’re going to start working for North Korea. [Laughs] Something is going to manifest itself.

I wanted Megan to be too eager to participate. Everyone else is young, except her. My character is trying her hardest to be the person in charge, to be mature, but she wants to be Cassie, as messed up as Cassie is. I wanted Megan’s nervousness and anxiety to be conveyed through her smile, or asking, “What’s going on with Cassie?” Usually when you make suggestions like that, you get pushback, but the showrunners said OK to this idea. I was like: “Oh my god! Thank you!” Because what rational 50-year-old woman would idolize Cassie? She’s a train wreck! And that was the whole point.

Is that how the “invisible woman” speech came about? Did they incorporate the idea into the script?

I remember Steve Yockey going, [imitates a teasing singsong voice], “You’re going to love Episode 8.” When I got the script, I couldn’t stop crying. I remember calling Steve, sobbing, saying, “Thank you, thank you.” I didn’t ask them to write it in. They just actually listened to what I was saying and doing.

That scene happened to be my last day of shooting. I was so filled with emotion, and I looked at Kaley, and she said: “Don’t do it, Perez. Don’t you cry yet! You’re going to make me cry!” We both started laughing. Then we both sat down on the bed. We didn’t discuss how we were going to do that scene. They said, “Action!” and bam! We got it on the first take. It was magic.

When I get these kinds of chances as an actor, it just fills my heart with joy. I told my husband: “I’m going to work so hard on this show. I don’t even care if no one sees it.” He said, “That makes no sense.” I said: “It does, though. I did this one for myself.” If people enjoy it, that’s just icing on the cake with a cherry on top because there have been multiple times where I was never recognized for my work. To be recognized now, at my age, for something that I did just for the art of it all? That really moves me. It’s like when my husband goes, “Yeah, but you were nominated for an Emmy before,” and I go, “Yeah, but this is for acting.”

You were nominated three times as a choreographer for “In Living Color.”

I think I was a little before my time. Hip-hop was not new to me, or to New York, but it was new to the world. And I think that classism and racism came into play, where they downplayed my ability as a choreographer. They didn’t think it was hard work and real creativity. I had to come up with eight to 10 different routines a week. That’s insane!

I was blown away by the Emmy nominations for “In Living Color.” The first time I was nominated, [the “In Living Color” creator, Keenen Ivory Wayans,] told me, “You should have won.” I said, “But I’m at the Emmys, Keenen!” He was like, “You’re the happiest loser I’ve ever known.” And I said: “We’re putting hip-hop on the map. How big is that?” To be one of the pioneers? Wow.

And then because of this acting nomination, people are asking me: “You were nominated before as a choreographer? You were a dancer?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I was.” [Laughs.]

Do you have conflicted feelings about the Academy Award nomination you got for supporting actress for “Fearless”? You talked recently about how the Academy never invited you back to the ceremony.

I never mentioned it for years until somebody else brought it up. It’s not like I would sit there and cry about it. It was more of a feeling like, “Wow, that’s just so [expletive] up,” because it wasn’t only about me. It was about every other brown-skinned girl. When I saw my girls Viola Davis and Halle Berry win, I was screaming my head off, I was so happy for them. I just told the Academy Awards: “Well, OK, you didn’t invite me back. All right. That’s on you, honey.”

I think the other part of why I wasn’t invited back is that I don’t know how to play the game. I don’t schmooze. But a lot of [awards season] is campaigning and who do you know. The silver lining of this horrible pandemic is that I don’t have to leave the house. I can do interviews, meet the other nominees and all that stuff, and I don’t have to get dressed up or do my hair! It’s such a blessing because I don’t do well in those Hollywood settings. I’m getting better, but it’s just a little overwhelming for me.

Being nominated for the Oscars and the Golden Globes, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on. So many journalists asked me: “This is weird. This is a fluke, isn’t it, that you got nominated?” That just angered me to the point where I became numb to the whole process. My anxiety and depression took over and kind of shut down the joy of it all. Now that I’ve addressed my mental health issues, and I’ve been in therapy for so long, I’m able to embrace the joy.

Someone recently asked me, “Don’t you feel like this [Emmy nomination] is like, ‘Aha! Look at me now!’” And I don’t. In the grand scheme of things, this is small potatoes compared to the hell I went through as a child. The things that people take for granted — moments of joy and happiness — are like a ticker-tape parade for me, every day. I get to do what I do. I have a wonderful home, a wonderful husband, good friends and good family members. I don’t have to worry about being poor.

My husband says, “That’s so simplistic.” And I say, “But life is that simplistic.” It really is. You come from the depths of hell, and you rise up like a phoenix. I don’t want to show off; I just want to fly.

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