role call

Rosie Perez Answers All Our Questions About White Men Can’t Jump

Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

What is the 30th anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump? Not only does Sunday mark three decades since the release of the iconic basketball comedy, it’s also the day that stars Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, and Rosie Perez will reunite as presenters at the 94th Academy Awards.

That trio has come a long way from those courts in Venice Beach. Still early in their careers at the time of filming, they’d all found a bit of success — for Perez, most notably in Do the Right Thing. But this was the last moment before each was cemented as a movie star, with blockbusters and Oscar nominations to come in the next few years. Like with his previous sports-movie Hall of Fame entry, 1989’s Bull Durham, writer-director Ron Shelton pulled from his own experiences for White Men Can’t Jump, the tale of two hustlers who reluctantly team up to make some much-needed cash. The fast-talking Sidney Deane (Snipes) is desperate to get his young family out of his crime-ridden neighborhood. Meanwhile, gambling addict Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) is on the run from mobsters with his loyal girlfriend, Gloria Clemente (Perez), who spends her days learning every random fact possible in the hopes of appearing on Jeopardy.

Shelton wrote the first 37 pages of the script in one night but found himself stuck on what Gloria’s “thing” would be to separate her from the guys. After hearing someone discussing their friend’s Jeopardy aspirations, he had his solution — and it proved to be Kismet. Perez, a Brooklyn native who was discovered in a dance club by Spike Lee, also dreamed of appearing on the legendary game show, and she saw this as her opportunity, even if Gloria was presently written as a white woman. Her audition more than impressed Shelton: “You can’t invent that,” he recalled in 2017 of watching her. “That’s original.” The role was hers, and she made it her own, going toe-to-toe with Harrelson and Snipes from the moment she appears onscreen. Girlfriends and wives in sports movies are too often positioned as either obstacles or support mechanisms. But thanks to Perez’s crackling performance and sizzling chemistry with Harrelson, Gloria (now also written as a former disco queen from Brooklyn) becomes the character whom audiences find themselves rooting for above all else. (If anything, our biggest concern is whether Billy will get his shit together for her.)

While White Men Can’t Jump was only Perez’s third film, and she was still working as a choreographer on In Living Color at the time, her performance is the kind of star-making showing that sticks in the pop-culture lexicon for 30 years and counting. Ahead of the big three’s reunion and Perez’s turns in season two of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant and Apple TV+’s Now and Then, Vulture hustled up an interview with the revered actress about fighting to become Gloria, being a nervous wreck on Jeopardy, and worrying she’d never see Harrelson and Snipes again. 

What percentage of fans who bring up the movie with you ask you to name foods that start with a Q?
Do you know how many times I’ve been asked that question? I don’t give a shit about that. [Laughs] That’s why I say, “Why don’t you answer that and enjoy it?”
Now I’m curious what other White Men Can’t Jump bits people try out on you. Have you ever told someone you’re thirsty and, as a nod to the Billy-Gloria argument, they refused to bring you a drink?
Way too many times, unfortunately. I remember the first time it happened, I went, “Are you serious?” The guy started laughing, and I go, “That’s not even funny. What are you doing?” [Laughs] He’s like, “Oh, well, I thought it was …” I went, “No, no, no. Don’t ever do that to another actress ever again.”

Since you’re constantly being reminded of the film, what’s always the first thing that comes to mind?
Woody and Wesley. Every time I think about White Men Can’t Jump, it’s just the three of us hanging out down at Venice Beach and having way too much fun. The first day with Woody, the chemistry was immediate. Same with Wesley. The image that also comes to my mind is being in the car with the two fellas. I don’t even know how we filmed it, because we couldn’t stop cracking up at every little thing. I remember Ron Shelton yelling at us a lot, saying, “Would you guys get effing serious, we’re doing a movie!” To date, it’s the movie that I’ve had the most fun on. Even during our lunch hour, we still wanted to hang with each other.

This wasn’t Woody and Wesley’s first sports comedy together; they’d previously starred in Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats. You had no problem sliding right into that friendship, despite their established connection?
Well, Woody created a problem. All the girls were, of course, fawning over both Woody and Wesley. And one of the girls said, “Who do you think is cuter?” You know, I’m in character, so I’m going to say Woody, right? Woody goes, “Oh, you think I’m cuter than Wesley?” And the other girls go, “You think Woody’s cuter than Wesley? You must be bugging.” I said, “Yeah, I guess he just doesn’t do it for me the same way.” It wasn’t supposed to be, “He doesn’t do it for me.” It was meant like, “Okay, the way you girls are wagging your tongues at him, I’m not feeling the same thing.” It did not mean he wasn’t attractive, because Wesley is completely attractive. What does Woody do? He goes over to Wesley and says, “Rosie says that you don’t do it for her.” Wesley walks over to me and goes, “You said I don’t do it for you? Well, you don’t do it for me either, so I guess we’re even!” And I went, “You’re an asshole,” and he goes, “Yeah, I am,” and I go, “Me too.” And we all just cracked up.

On a regular movie set, that would’ve ruined the day. It would’ve changed the dynamic of the chemistry and everything. But it didn’t at all. And that was our first day inside the car. Even in the car we couldn’t stop laughing about it. I said, “Woody, you’re such a f—ing idiot, I can’t believe you did that.” He goes, “What?” I go, “I told you, I didn’t mean for you to tell Wesley.” And he goes, “Oh, well, you should have said something.” I go, “That’s understood,” and Wesley’s like, “Y’all got drama!” [Laughs] He was just cracking up. It was too much fun. There was some fun that I can’t even repeat; fun we had that I will never tell. But Ron, like I said, there were days that he was not having us at all.

Going back to the beginning, Ron originally wrote Gloria as a white, upper-class southern woman. When this script got on your radar and you saw who this character was, what made you want to pursue it?
When I read it, I said, just flat out, “This part is mine.” My agents at the time, who were wonderful, they were so serious with me, saying, “We just want you to know that this is for a white girl.” I go, “Which part isn’t for a white girl?! Tell me something new, please. It hasn’t stopped me before and it hasn’t intimidated me before; it’s not going to intimidate me or stop me now. This is really good, it’s really funny, and I am obsessed with Jeopardy, so this has to be mine.” My agents were like, “What?” I go, “I dream of being on Jeopardy, but I’m too much of a nervous wreck, so that’s why this part is mine. I’m supposed to be on Jeopardy!” They were looking at me like I was insane.

When I spoke to Ron in 2017, he remembered watching you and thinking, “You can’t invent that.” What do you remember from what was clearly a very memorable audition?
I walked in, and when I saw other A-list girls there, I lost it; all that confidence just started to go away. I went into the bathroom to calm myself down, and I splashed water on my face and messed up my hair that I had gotten done at the beauty parlor for the audition. I went in and Ron says, “How you doing?” and I go, “I’m having a bad hair day.” And he said, “What did you say?” I said, “I’m having a really bad hair day. This is not how I’m supposed to look. I looked so much better, so just act like you’re seeing something else.” He went, “Okay, hang on a minute.” He comes back and we run some lines, and then he leaves the room again. This time he brings in Woody. And I saw Woody, Woody saw me, and we were like, “Yo!” And that was it. After the audition, I went in my car and I just screamed, “Yeah!” I knew it. I just knew it. My agents said, “How was the audition?” And I go, “Sloppy as hell.” [Laughs] But I said to them, “It’s mine. I told you, this is mine.” They’re like, “Well, just prepare yourself, because they don’t want a Puerto Rican.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. I nailed it.” I just knew. I knew the chemistry that I had with Ron, the chemistry that I had with Woody. Ron told me that I had gotten it even before I left the room because of one line. It was when I told Woody, “You got hustled.” He said that no other actress delivered that line with such reality and that’s what made him offer me the role.

In the end, Gloria became, like you, a former disco queen from Brooklyn. Once you came onboard, were there any other changes? If so, what were those conversations like with Ron?
None of the dialogue changed. The only thing that was changed was where the character was from. Now, when I met with wardrobe, I said, “Well, it’s Venice, I would wear this and this,” so we worked together there. And then Ron and I had the famous fight about the dress for Jeopardy. Wardrobe goes, “This is the dress you’re wearing,” and I go, “I’m not wearing that. That’s the ugliest dress.” Ron came in, and he said, “You have to wear this dress.” I said, “I am not wearing that hoochie mama dress.” He goes, “What did you say?” I said, “That’s a hoochie mama dress.” And he goes, “What’s a hoochie mama?” I said, “You don’t know what a freaking hoochie mama is?” He goes, “No.” I said, “It’s just a ho.” And he fell out laughing. I said, “I’m not being funny, Ron. I can’t wear this dress.” He goes, “Now you have to wear the dress. Because guess what? You didn’t buy it, Billy bought it. Okay? So, of course, he’s going to buy you a hoochie mama dress.” And I said, “Oh, God.” I was so mad. And then we got the sides for that day and he had put that in the script: “And you got me that stupid hoochie mama dress!” I couldn’t stop laughing. And that’s why I delivered it with such anger, because it was so funny. I told him, “Gosh darn it, you were right.“

The Billy and Gloria relationship is one of my all-time favorites in film, because everything about them together feels authentic. None of their arguments feel contrived just for story or conflict purposes. What did you appreciate most about portraying that ride-or-die duo?  
What I loved about it was that here was a woman that was on the verge of exploding into a certain womanhood of self-determination, self-awareness, self-respect. And what was killing her was, and she didn’t want to articulate it in the beginning, but her boyfriend was holding her back. She kept saying, “Listen, you got to do this, and you got to do this,” and he kept messing up. The fact that she finds the strength to leave the love of her life is huge. And even as a young person, I understood the magnitude of that. I think every young girl, every woman has experienced having to make that choice, and so it resonated with me in a very real way. It’s heartbreaking, because not only are they extremely physically attracted to each other, they are emotionally and spiritually attracted to each other. Working with Woody, there was an ease in falling into that comfort zone of having an intense, long-term relationship and allowing it to play out in a real, honest way onscreen, where you’re not worried about yelling too loudly, you’re not worrying about crying ugly. I can’t stand it when actresses do that. Like, when they cry, they have to cry pretty. Or when they want to be serious, they have to whisper. Who the fuck whispers? Who does that in real life? Especially with your man. And so I wanted that intensity.

I’ve seen White Men Can’t Jump more times than I can count, and yet, I somehow always forget that Billy and Gloria don’t end up together. In your mind, was that truly it for them? Or do we think they eventually reconciled?
I thought that they would get together in their 40s or 50s. Gloria would go on and become extremely successful, and maybe Billy would’ve gotten it together, or not. I always said to my sister that they’d get back together again because they realized that they really liked each other. They weren’t just in love, they liked each other, they had fun with each other, they were friends. And when you get older, you realize that’s the basis of a real long-term relationship with a significant other. It’s friendship, companionship, compatibility, being able to make each other laugh. I’ve imagined that maybe Gloria even would’ve gotten married and had kids with another man, but she still wanted to go back to Billy, and they found each other again.

You mentioned that being on Jeopardy was a dream of yours. What was that moment like when you walked out on that stage and stood behind that podium, in front of Alex Trebek? I know shock was one emotion, since you were under the impression that Alex Trebek was going to be played by an actor, not the man himself.
I was very nervous, because we were on the Jeopardy soundstage. And I was even more nervous and uncomfortable because I was in the hoochie mama dress! I was too short for the podium, they had to put me on a riser, and I’m in high heels, thinking I’m going to fall off. I kept asking the guy, “How do I hold the button? What do I do?” And they’re like, “You’re going to be fine.” I took a deep breath, and then out comes Alex Trebek. And that did it. The nerves settled in, and I was like, “The butterflies are not going away, girl, so you’d better use it in the scene.” As a child, I suffered from a speech impediment, so that’s why I mispronounce a lot of words when I get nervous. And that’s the famous faux pas, where instead of saying “Mount Vesuvius,” I said “Mount Suvius.”

I froze because I knew I said it wrong and nobody’s yelling “cut!” And Alex Trebek goes, “Let me check with the judges. The judges said okay.” He did that on his own. If you see my smile afterwards, I was like, “Yes!” I’m such a cornball. I’ve never said this before, but I would say in White Men Can’t Jump, me being on Jeopardy, is the closest to who I am. I’m a determined person, I’m a nerdy person, and I’m so corny. The littlest thing could make me happy. I’m also a nervous wreck, just normally in my personal life, so that’s why that scene was so special. And the other special scene was saying good-bye to Billy, because I really cried that day.

Why do you think that sequence hit you the way it did?
It was just the realness of it all. Woody and I were getting closer and closer, and I’d done a few movies prior to White Men Can’t Jump, and you make a bond with an actor on the set and they’re like, “Let’s exchange numbers and keep in touch,” and then you don’t hear from them. That’s fine, it’s just business. You learn how to protect your feelings and put your big-girl pants on. And I thought that was what was going to happen. After this movie was over, they would say all the niceties, and then I probably would not see them again, unless it was an industry function. So when I was saying good-bye to Billy, inside I was thinking, I will never see Woody Harrelson ever again, except for at an event. I’m not going to call him, I’m not going to bother him. I’m not going to call or bother Wesley either. But this is really heartbreaking. And I brought all of that to the scene, and so that’s why when they yelled “cut,” I went back to my trailer and I just couldn’t stop sobbing. Because it was so special and there was such a bond instantly between the three of us, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried at the wrap party. Oh my God, I was a wreck.

And then a couple of weeks later, Woody goes, “Hey, I’m in New York, what are you doing? Wesley and I are going to go hang out and have dinner, do you want to come?” I was like, “What? Okay!” I couldn’t believe it. Wesley will probably never remember this, but I told him how I felt and he goes, “You are corny. You know that you are because most people don’t feel like that. And even the ones that do don’t admit it. You are like corn on the cob.” [Laughs] And I was like, “I got it, thanks.”

It may be happening at an industry function, but Sunday’s Oscars will find you hanging again with Wesley and Woody. What do you anticipate that being like? Maybe some happy tears this time around?
It’s going to be tremendous. You know what, I really don’t want to say what it’s going to be, because I don’t want to have any preconceived expectations, I just want to live in the moment. I have not seen both of them in a good five, six years, and that’s partly due to COVID. It’s going to be special, I know that for a fact. And it’s going to be fun because we always have fun when we all get together.

Speaking of getting the band back together, has news of the White Men Can’t Jump remake reached you?
Are you kidding, my phone was going off the hook with texts, calls, emails, and what do the kids say, DMs? To my surprise, most people are so angry about it. They’re like, “You shouldn’t mess with a classic!” And I’m like, “People, relax, it’s just a movie.” I hope it does well. I don’t understand people getting so upset about it. Why would somebody want something to do poorly? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. There are tons of remakes. Some work, some don’t. At least give it a shot. Whether the remake is good or not, it will never affect what the three of us did. It will never affect what Ron Shelton wrote and directed. No one will be able to touch that; it’s in film forever. I am so humbled and honored to say it’s an American classic. So if they want to make a remake, I wish them the best of luck, and I pray that whoever gets cast has the same or an even better experience than the three of us had. I hope that magic is re-created. If not, you still have the original!

We don’t know much about the film yet, just that Jack Harlow has been cast. Well, first off, how familiar are you with Jack Harlow?
Yeah, I know who Jack Harlow is.

Okay, cool, you know what’s poppin’. Let’s say we’re getting new versions of our beloved characters. Would you have a dream casting for Gloria?
I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole. I say to the casting directors, good luck. And whoever does get the role, I hope they make it their own, because that’s what I did. I could have played it safe, played it as it was originally intended to be. But I made a choice when I walked into that audition room: “I am going to make it the way I see fit.” Because I did not buy that the woman that Ron Shelton originally came up with would’ve been a ride-or-die chick. I just didn’t buy it. And that’s the character that I played. I didn’t play me, like everyone thinks. I am way too sensitive. I am way too corny, as Wesley loved to call me. I wouldn’t have put up with all of that. So I just hope whoever gets Gloria in the remake has the wherewithal and the skill and the talent to make it their own, however they see fit.

What if we’re staying in the same universe and they come your way to reprise Gloria? Is that something you’d be interested in touching with a ten-foot pole?
There would be a lot of factors that it would be dependent upon if I would say yes or not. You want to make sure that whatever it is, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be of worth, and that it’s going to be a fun project to be a part of. So never say never, and let’s see what happens.

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Rosie Perez Answers Our Questions About White Men Can’t Jump