‘Rise’ Star Rosie Perez Believes in the Power of the Arts

Rosie Perez has found a TV series close to her heart with “Rise,” about a high school theater program that’s more than song and dance.

The Oscar-nominated actress (“Fearless”) plays a teacher passionate about using the stage to help youngsters discover themselves and their place in the world on the NBC drama, which airs 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday. That’s long been Perez’s cause and was a key to her own path.

In the early 1990s, she co-founded the New York-based Urban Arts Partnership, which works to bring arts education to underprivileged communities. Perez, who chairs the group’s artists board, said she’s seen first-hand how a student can be inspired by writing, acting and other creative endeavors to do better in school and in life and, in some cases, learn they belong in the arts.

That’s what happened to the Brooklyn-born Perez, who discussed the partnership, her roots and what the stage version of “The Wizard of Oz” means to her in an interview with The Associated Press.

AP: Your interests and the themes of “Rise” are so similar. What was your reaction when you were asked by executive producer Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights) to join the cast?

Perez: The intersection has me gobsmacked. Reading the script, I said, “This is what I’ve been doing for 25 years, and now I’m going to be able to play it on television.” … I believe in the arts. It’s sad that arts are not part of the curriculum across the nation. … United Arts Partnership is arts education, and we use the arts to help kids comprehend academics and to help build a sense of civic-minded duty and their self-esteem. With “Rise,” it’s not about arts education per se, and yet it is. It’s teaching students about life, about stepping outside of yourself, and those are lessons that are valuable and are absent in our school systems.

Q: Can you share the story of a student who was changed by exposure to the arts?

Perez: Honey, there’s so many stories. There was this young man, he was always absent, always late for school, a very dark, moody individual who was close to getting kicked out of high school. … After he came and sat through a few of our programs, he said, “I’m a writer.” We asked him to write us something, and this kid wrote the most disturbing and beautiful poem. In it, he revealed he was in a homeless shelter and there were times he wasn’t in a shelter, and his mother was gone and he had to fend for himself. … This kid now travels the world doing spoken word. This kid now is trying to write his first novel. This is a kid who should have fallen through the cracks, and because of the arts he did not.

Q: How did acting and the arts enter your life?

Perez: I was a ward of the state, initially, and then in the foster care system for quite some time, even though I did live part-time with my aunt in Brooklyn. When I was in the system, in the Catholic home, they kept putting me on the stage (even though) I kept saying no. “You’re gonna be the lead bunny in the Easter production.” I said no. “You’re gonna be in it.” There was always something in me that kept resisting it, and they kept telling me how good I was at it. But I really didn’t take it in because of the circumstance of my reality. Then when I was in junior high school I went to see a Broadway play, “The Wiz.” And it changed my life, because they were telling a story that was similar to my story that I thought I was all alone in. And that’s the beauty of the arts.

Q: “Rise” is about youngsters and the adults in their lives. How do you get parents or other guardians involved in the effort to help kids succeed?

Perez: We have an open-door policy and we invite and encourage the students’ parents to come to our program. … When you meet parents, they’re stressed out and overworked. They have such guilt in not being able to provide what children need, or making a mistake of punishing them too harshly or not punishing them at all, or “I can’t help them with their homework.” That’s why I think it (“Rise”) will resonate with a lot of people, because the parents in it are watching these kids transform from putting on one single play. And I’ve seen it firsthand, not on set. I’m talking about Urban Arts Partnership. I’ve seen it, it’s real.


Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.

Source: Associated Press