The character of Renee Montoya is one of the more diverse, and complex women in DC Comics history. She first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, but in 2004, the police procedural comic series, Gotham Central #6-10: Half A Life, brought Montoya front and center while also giving her a queer, Dominican-American identity. It would take a woman just as fierce to encapsulate the iconic character, and Cathy Yan knew just who she wanted.
“Cathy Yan called me up and she was very honest with me,” said Rosie Perez, who gives life to Montoya in the DCEU’s latest release, Birds of Prey. “She said that the studio was not really keen on casting me and that it was because of my age. I think that they were worried about presenting a more mature Renee Montoya, but also, I think they would say were worried about the physicality that was needed to pull it off. But she said, ‘I want you and if you’re ready to fight, I’m ready to fight.’ She explained to me the point of view of the movie was of the emancipation of women, and forming an all girls gang. I said, ‘I am in, this is my role, you could tell them I said that,’ and she did. I went to Warner Brothers and met with everybody and they said, ‘you know what, we were wrong. The role is yours.’”
Hollywood is a fickle creature, particularly when it comes to issues of sexism, racism, and inequality. Actors, notably women and people of color, have had to make compromises with their beliefs or tow the company line in order to keep having a career in the business. Perez, who made her debut in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing! in 1989, has never been afraid to speak her mind about issues that have only recently begun to be discussed openly in the entertainment industry.
“When I entered Hollywood I was like, ‘Hello! How come nobody’s talking about how racist it is? Why are roles limited to me? I don’t understand this, this is wrong,’” Perez ruminated over the phone during the film’s press day. “At the beginning, everyone, told me to be quiet and they would say ‘you know, you’re not going to work in this town if you keep voicing your opinion.’ I was like, ‘okay, fine, then I’m not going to work in this town. I’ll do something else but I’m gonna give it a shot.’ I’m going to keep kicking down the doors as long as possible. But, early on, I wasn’t afraid to walk away.”
Perez drive, and immovable integrity, combined with her unique talent to tap into the complexities of the women she portrays earned her an Oscar nomination in 1994 for Best Supporting Actress for the role of Carla Rodrigo, a woman grappling with survivor’s guilt in the film Fearless. Complex women are something she deeply relates to, as she herself suffers from mental illness issues. “I have mental illness issues that prevent me from getting past certain things emotionally and mentally. Everyone thinks I’m so strong, but it was actually a struggle and the struggle was containing my rage and containing the hurt of not being allowed into certain rooms. I had to get smart and I had to get tough.”
On her first day on set as Montoya, that toughness shone through when she experienced an injury during filming. “I tore my meniscus disc and I thought I was going to be out of the film.” After getting treatment, the studio stood by her, and the stunt team assured her they would help her through it, and in one scene, it actually helped influence her character. “There’s a running scene where I’m running with Harley Quinn and you see the agony on my face. I tried to make it funny, but I was really in pain and I remember the director saying, ‘you look like you’re in pain.’ I go, ‘I am!’ But I said, ‘Montoya is a woman of a certain age and she’s in pain and I’m in pain and I want this. I want every single woman to see this, that even when it hurts, you gotta keep moving forward cause that’s the real world.’ And the team said, all right, let’s do it. I was like, thank God, because I couldn’t have done it any other way!”
Although, she does caution against films, particularly huge, blockbuster films, to portray women as super women. Her own resume is full of women who are layered, complicated, messy, and complex. Those qualities in Montoya are one of the biggest factors in why she wanted the role. “What’s fantastic, as I’m admitting to you my flaws and how hard it was for me. I’m not a superwoman in that regard, but neither is Renee Montoya. Sometimes when [films] portray women as super women, they’re perfect and that’s not real. It’s not reality. This [movie] makes such a strong statement by not showing them be perfect.”
Perez is excited for the world to meet Renee and what she might mean to women and young girls who see her character on the big screen. “I beat out all the youngsters,” she said proudly, “and I think it’s because I understood the fight against the patriarchy. I understood the frustration and the pain and the anguish of being underestimated, to be passed over, to be not given the opportunities that you should be given and still show up for work. And that’s Renee Montoya.”
Birds of Prey is now out in theaters.
Header Image: Warner Bros.