October 29, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Everyone has a Rosie Perez story, and the reason is simple: She’smuch more colorful in reality than anything they could ever dream up.Grown men are in awe of-and just a little tickled by-theturbo-charged engine in a 5-foot-1- inch package. You hear it intheir voices: They start off respectful, insightful, and then theybecome animated, trying to imitate the inimitable Perez patois-anasal, syncopated mix of Puerto Rico, Brooklyn, and hip-hop.While Perez’s voice is unique to the ear, her dance moves areunique to the planet. Spike Lee saw them and asked her to appear inDo the Right Thing. Keenen Ivory Wayans, executive producer of Fox’sIn Living Color, saw them and hired her to choreograph the Fly Girls(although he declined to put Perez on stage because next to her ”theFly Girls no longer looked fly”). And director Peter Weir says(actually, he sings) it was ”something in the way she moved” thatmoved him to cast her in this fall’s Fearless-in which she gives abreakthrough, widely praised performance as Carla, a devout womansearching for a reason to live after she survives the plane crashthat kills her child. Though Carla may seem a departure from thestreet-wise characters that are Perez’s stock in trade, the role isreally the newest shade in a surprisingly varied palette.Rosie Sees RedRosie Perez, undergrad biochemistry student, was dancing her headoff at an L.A. club called Funky Reggae in 1988 when Spike Leeapproached and asked her to read for Do the Right Thing. ”How manygirls do you say that to just to get in their pants?” was hercomeback, recalls one of Rosie’s friends. Perez herself won’t recountthe conversation, noting that ”It wasn’t very polite.” Maybe it washer in-your-face attitude that caught Lee’s fancy. Maybe it was hermoves. Maybe it was that the director knew talent when he saw it-ormaybe he was hitting on her. ”He was,” she says, smiling. ”He says hewasn’t, but he was.” No matter. The meeting was a big break forPerez. And she wasn’t even looking for one.Although Lee had a hard time convincing Perez that he wanted totalk to her about acting (”She was, like, ‘I heard all that s — -before,”’ a friend says), she eventually agreed to play Do the RightThing’s Tina, Lee’s character’s girlfriend and the mother of hischild. But the tension between the two didn’t let up. Perez feltviolated by the film’s nude scene. ”She was crying,” says a source onthe set. ”The first love scene, she didn’t want to do it. There wasmuch conversation behind closed doors.”

Rosie Plays BlueSince that debut role, Perez has amassed an impressive body offilm work: a crackhead on HBO’s Criminal Justice in 1990; amotor-mouth taxi passenger in Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 film, Night onEarth; Woody Harrelson’s Jeopardy!-playing girlfriend in 1992’s WhiteMen Can’t Jump; and a feisty waitress in this year’s Untamed Heart.But her wrenching, bereaved Fearless role projected her into new andtroubling territory.”Her personality is very full of life-this character is a lot moresubdued,” says costar Jeff Bridges. ”I don’t know if she ever feltshe had this one licked.”Director Weir had no such worries. ”She came to the door and Ijust held my breath because of the way she walked. I thought, ‘If shecan act, this is it.”’ Within five minutes he had his answer. ”Frommy first wobbly videotape I knew that here was a natural.””It was so uncomfortable slipping into the character,” Perez says,”’cause ) she was weak. Even when I watched it in the screening, Ididn’t relate to her.”How could she? It’s hard to know from weak when you’ve been atomboy in a large family (six girls, four boys) in the Bushwicksection of Brooklyn. When your mother, Lydia Perez, gave you up to aconvent school and your father, Ismail Serrano, sought custody foryears. When you couldn’t pronounce your own name-she called herself”Wosie”-until the sixth grade. When you were denied a spot in aninner-city dance program and told you had no rhythm. Weak just didn’tcut it.

Rosie Is StubbornThat steel will has led Perez to fight ferociously if even adetail doesn’t work for her. Director Ron Shelton says the twobickered ”like cats and dogs” over Perez’s wardrobe for White Men.”She tried on every single dress in Los Angeles and hated them all.She called them ‘hoochie mama’ dresses,” a synonym for slutty thatShelton admits was foreign to him, but that he liked so much he addedto the script.”She can’t fake a line,” he says. ”If she doesn’t understand it,if it doesn’t ring true for her, she stops functioning. She’s like acar that gets vapor lock.”

Rosie’s a ShrewShe can’t fake a line off camera, either. At the 1990 Emmys,Perez’s work as Fly Girl choreographer on In Living Color won her anomination. She lost out to Paula Abdul. ”Paula came over to Rosieand said, ‘This really should have been yours,”’ Wayans recalls. ”AndRosie said, ‘I know.”’So maybe tact isn’t her middle name. A few months after they hadfinished Fearless, Perez ran into Bridges and noticed he had gained afew pounds.”You’re fat!” she told him.”Nice to see you, too, Rose,” he replied.

Rosie Is ShyThough often direct to the point of professional risk, Perez canbe positively demure. ”She was shy when it came to the sex scene(with Woody Harrelson),” says White Men director Shelton.Well, sort of shy. ”I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gawd, my tits are showingagain!”’ recalls Perez. ”’My father is gonna die!”’Actually, she says, sex was the last thing on her mind during theshooting. ”I’m thinking about my fat ass up on the screen-that’s all.If I wasn’t doing films I’d think it was fine, ’cause the kind ofguys I like love a big ass. It’s just that on film you can’t have abig ass ’cause it’s gonna look, like, f — -ing humongous.”Perez is more discreet when it comes to her off-camera life (afour-year relationship with a man she identifies only as ”someonefrom the neighborhood” ended last spring; she’s now dating rapperK7). Perez puts her caution about men down to simple fact: ”It’s liketrademark p — — ,” she says. ”They want to be able to say they werewith a name.”

Rosie’s a LiarPerez may not have much celebrity attitude, but she does have onefoible of fame: She lies about her age-a number reported as anywherefrom 21 to 29. ”I got it from my mom. She was, like, 42 for years,”she says. ”I started lying about my age when I was 18 to be older.When I turned 21, I started lying that I was 18. It’s a weakness inme.”Another weakness not uncommon to the famous: vanity. Perez saysshe spends most of her money on beauty products. ”I have 50 millionfacial creams,” including maybe the entire inventory of the chicGreenwich Village natural- makeup store Kiehl’s. ”I have everyf — -in’ product they’ve ever made.”

Rosie Is SoftHer sensitivity is more than skin deep. ”Girls that tough alsohave a vulnerable side, and when you get to know Rosie, she certainlydoesn’t hide that,” says Jarmusch. ”I think she puts up a frontsometimes to protect herself because she’s a New York kid.”Adds Wayans, ”She gets hurt very easily. If she thought one of theFly Girls didn’t like her, that would affect her. She never wanted tohave to fire anybody. She likes being people’s friends.”

Rosie’s on FireBut watch out for the flip side. Jarmusch says he calmed a shakingPerez after she got into a battle with a car-service driver who gotlost in Chinatown on the way to the Night on Earth set. ”The guyasked her, ‘Do you know where we’re going?’ Of course, that broughtdown Rosie’s wrath: ‘How the f — – am I supposed to know? You’re thedriver.’ And he started yelling at her, at which point she jumped outof the car and into a cab. The guy then starts pounding on the cab,saying she didn’t pay the fare, and World War III ensued. Rosie wastrying to punch the guy through the windows.”She embodies a side of New York that I love so much,” he adds.”She’s like a stick of female dynamite.”She has fought bigger battles against bigger foes. ”The racism,the sexism, I never let it be my problem,” says Perez. ”It’s theirproblem. If I see a door comin’ my way, I’m knockin’ it down. And ifI can’t knock down the door, I’m sliding through the window. I’llnever let it stop me from what I wanna do.”

Rosie Can Hustle”Sometimes she’ll play up not being smart,” says Wayans, ”but it’sa cloak. She knows her numbers and I’ve seen her take care ofbusiness.”During the Fearless shoot, says Bridges, ”she’d be constantly onthe phone in the trailer to her (In Living Color) dancers, makingdeals.”The deal-making has paid off in career options. Perez justfinished work on Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip, in which sheplays the bitchy wife of Nicolas Cage. She manages an all-female R&Bgroup called Five A.M., currently cutting their first album forColumbia, and Goodie Goodie, a Lisette Melendez music video that shedirected, debuted last month. Her Fearless heat is keeping her at thetop of casting lists: She recently turned down an offer from NoraEphron to star with Steve Martin in her next movie. Instead Perezwill star with Harvey Keitel in Alex Rockwell’s (In the Soup) nextfilm. And all from a girl who refuses to stray far from home.”I didn’t appreciate Brooklyn until I left it,” she says. ”I wentto L.A. and I didn’t know any of my neighbors, and the guy at thelocal store-even though I visited 50 million times-didn’t know myname, never said, ‘How ya doin?’ In Brooklyn, friends just buzz, orthey call and say, ‘I’m comin’ over.’ In L.A. you’ve got to makeappointments to see friends. ‘Let’s do lunch!’ ‘Let’s do dinner!’What?!”And the guys in L.A. -forget it. ”I get bored in Hollywood. Thosemen f — -in’ bore the f — -in’ tears outta me,” she says. ”They can’tkeep up with me. I can’t relate to them, you know?”

Rosie Knows ArtWhat can she relate to? Take a look at the video collection in herBrooklyn apartment and this is what you’ll find: every Jessica Langefilm on video (Frances is her favorite); A Woman Under the Influencebecause she adores John Cassavetes (”He leaves it up to your own soulto feel it”); and a Jerry Lewis collection because she thinks he’sreally funny.What you won’t find at her place are a lot of possessions. Butthere is one that’s dear to her: a delicate ring of thin wire and abrown stone. A stranger came up one day on the street and said, ”Iwant to give you something of my art because I appreciate your art.”Perez was so touched, ”I never take it off. It doesn’t matter if Ilike it or not, it’s a gift.”

But Much More Than All That, Rosie’s Got H — — What’s her best asset? ”I was gonna make a joke and say my tits,”she says, laughing. Then she reconsiders and comes up with a betteranswer: her heart. ”I used to think this was my greatest fault, butnow I’m getting older and it’s like, f — – everybody, ’causeeverybody’s trying to be onto the cools — -! I got heart, and it allows me to stay very humble andtruthful. I get scared that I’ll lose it-that’s why I stay inBrooklyn. I hope I don’t lose it.”

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