PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rosie Perez

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rosie Perez For the new year, one of Broadway's few hit plays, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, is getting a new cast Jan. 1.

When the production bowed in July, It boasted a film star and a star of the television series,"The Sopranos"—Stanley ("Big Night") Tucci and Edie (Carmela Soprano) Falco, respectively. With the cast change, it still has a film star and someone from "The Sopranos," only the sexes have changed. The male of the play is Joe Pantoliano, the recently "whacked" television mobster, while the woman is big-screen spitfire Rosie Perez. Perez made a name for herself as a fiery and funny presence in films like "Do the Right Thing" and "White Men Can't Jump," but lately she has remained close to her hometown, New York City, and focused on the theatre. Frankie, in which she plays a defeated waitress taking one last chance on love, will mark the Broadway debut for the actress—a professional payoff that can still impress someone who grew up over the river in Brooklyn.

Playbill On-Line: Did the producers of Frankie and Johnny call you?
Rosie Perez: Yes. They called me and asked in September if I'd be interested. I knew the play. And then I didn't hear from anybody, so I thought, whatever. Then, in November, they called again. I said, let me go see it first. So I saw it and...[laughs]...this is a great play but, oh, my God! They're hanging out, they're totally nude!

PBOL: You were a little intimidated by the extended nudity at the start of the play.
RP: Yeah, but then [director] Joe Mantello made a personal call and asked me what were my concerns. I said, "I just don't buy a woman who works 10 hours a day, and doesn't have enough money to go to the gym or a trainer, is going to look that great or be that confidant to just stand up and walk naked to get a robe." It has nothing to do with my issues of not wanting to be nude in front of thousands of people. He said, "You have a point, but when they're engaged in the sexual act"—well, yeah, that's part of her complexity. The only time she is able to let down her inhibitions is when she's in the dark. When the lights are on, all the inhibitions come back. So, we talked and he said, "Let's work on it." I immediately said, "Joe, I've worked with you before. I totally trust you. Let's do it."

PBOL: When had you worked with Joe Mantello before?
RP: I worked with him when we had done a reading of The Ritz by Terrence McNally. That's when I first met him and we clicked right away. I just think his direction is clear and precise and he lets you find it yourself at the same time. The second time we worked together was on The Vagina Monologues at the Westside Theatre.

PBOL: So are the first 20 minutes of the play, when the characters are naked, going to be different than they have been?
RP: I think it's going to be slightly different. Probably the whole play will be slightly different, because Joe Pantoliano and I are different people. But we'll remain true to the text. My main concern is not the nudity, but the piece itself. It's very complicated and difficult and there are only two of us onstage. There's no rest period except for intermission. It's really engaging and intense and exhausting. I'm exhausted, I'm exhausted. PBOL: What's Joe Pantoliano like?
RP: He's not a pretentious man. He's very down to earth. He has a high appreciation of life, which I like. He's an easy going guy. You don't sit there and pontificate on the skills of acting. I hate that! I hate when actors do that! I go, "Oh, shut up! It's make believe!"

PBOL: What are some of the things that you discovered about the character of Frankie that might be different from what Edie Falco brought to the role?
RP: Edie did a great job. The thing that I found about Frankie is she is a lot funnier. When I read the part on the page, she's not booksmart, but she's smart. She has a quick wit. She's really funny and very dry. I didn't see that amount of humor on stage, so I asked Joe, "Is it me?" Because I'm just a really funny person naturally. And he said, "It's there, it's there."

PBOL: Edie Falco said that she was just a few steps removed from being a struggling waitress, so she understood the character well. Is it a character that is fairly easy for you to understand?
RP: No. I understand it, but it's hard to grasp it. I've had disappointments, but I'm a person that just keeps trying. When you think I'm defeated, I just pick right back up. Not because I have a certain mantra that keeps me going. It's just the way I've been all my life. It's very innate in my personality. So, I found her very, very sad. [For instance,] I always wanted to be a singer, but I can't sing. But I still sing! I've tried out for the musical theatre once and it was hilarious. I sounded like a Puerto Rican Ethel Merman.

PBOL: Do you enjoy the stage experience?
RP: Yeah. Moreso than movies. People thought I was sabotaging my career by not going for the big movies. I was just staying in New York and if you had a reading of a play, I was there. I would do everything. George Wolfe cast me in [References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot] at the Public. Then I did something at Ensemble Studio Theatre. I think that's why I was considered for this play. This is something that I really wanted. I've gone out for roles in films, but I've been fortunate with offers. I've been the first one to the auditions. But with theatre, it was the first time where I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I wasn't even being considered. And I was pursuing it. All of the plays I've done have been a big payoff for me. Very satisfying.

PBOL: I imagine after this, people will be calling you for plays more often.
RP: I hope so. To be able to do this for the rest of my life and still stay in the best city in the entire world. I don't know if you'd noticed, but I'm a diehard New Yorker. And I love the hours. Go to work at 7 PM, get off at 10 PM.

PBOL: It's your first Broadway show. That's kind of exciting.
RP: It's kind of exciting. Oh, my God! I'm flabbergasting. I'm so excited, it's disgusting. I remember once at the Sundance film lab, I was up there, and Denzel Washington was giving a speech to all us actors and encouraging us to do theatre. He said, "You don't really know what acting is until you do theatre." And we were all like, "That's bull! Who the hell do you think you are?" We actually said that to him. He said, "Have you guys done theatre?" And we said "No. But there's a lot of difficulty in both." And he said, "Yes, there are a lot of theatre people who can't transfer to film, but there are a lot more film people that cannot do theatre." I was like, "This man is full of himself." Then, when I finally stepped on a stage, I remember I saw him on an award show and thought, I wish I could see him so I could tell him. I was an idiot! I didn't know! He was right! Oh, my God!

Joey Pantoliano and Rosie Perez star in <i>Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.</i>
Joey Pantoliano and Rosie Perez star in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.