Gary Perez | Performer of the week

John Ortiz, left, and Gary Perez in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

John Ortiz, left, and Gary Perez in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker with the Hat is currently lighting up Steppenwolf Theatre Company with its dynamic characters and electric dialogue. Gary Perez is a highlight as Julio, the cousin of lead character Jackie who finds himself in the middle of a lovers’ feud between Jackie and his drug-addicted girlfriend Veronica. Perez, a Harlem native who studied ballet at the High School of Performing Arts, didn’t start acting until he was 25, and has built up a storied career despite never studying theater. A cofounder of Latino-based theater company LAByrinth, Perez has gone on to work extensively on screen and stage, appearing on TV shows like The Sopranos and Oz while working at theaters across the country. Perez speaks to us about how his dance background has informed his acting, the biggest challenge of this role, and how Chicago theater compares to New York.

You entered the world of performing as a dancer. Have you taken anything from the dance world and applied it to your acting?

Absolutely. You know, I never talk about the dance background because it is so very short-lived, although I was studying dance like five times a week because I’m just a competitive monster. I was taking ballet class up until a year ago when I was—I’m old, so you know, getting injured a lot. I’m highly competitive, so I was just running it right to the end. And I had to stop, and I found yoga, and I’m now a little bit better off. I’m still competitive, but it’s a gentle exercise. But to answer your question, every company I’ve been in, whether it be a film or a television show I’m shooting, I always know how to get to my mark a little bit differently than other people, and it’s always a point of talk, like, “Oh my god, you use your body so well.”

And on stage especially, I don’t know if you remember the little bit that I have where I go around the “merry-go-round,” as we call it on set. I really use my body to convey, and I thought it was a great opportunity. I remember giving Anna [D. Shapiro, director] several options every time we did a run-through. I’d give her a new version, and this was during tech when they were trying to light that specific transition. I’d give her another option when we went around in terms of my body language and what we tried to convey, one was with me on my cell phone, perhaps writing to Marisol. The other was really kind of depressed, and the other was what you see, Gary’s been sitting there contemplating for a very long time. Is he lonely? Is he alone? Is Marisol in the other room? Just all these kinds of questions, but you fill it on your own based on what I’m giving off and what you deduce from the performance or the art that I have. That’s all sold on body language, and I feel the understanding of how my body can affect anything is really huge. So, yeah, I do use my body quite a bit and I think my dance background has paid off in great ways.

What was your first reaction when you read the script for The Motherfucker with the Hat?

It just sounded so alive and real to me. I’m from the hood, so these people are my neighbors, my family, my cousins. The ones you don’t want to visit. [Laughs.] The ones, when they come over, you hide the bottle. I remember my uncle coming over and being like, “We’re not leaving until that bottle of rum is done.” And it was guitar and singing and dancing, it’s just that alive. I know some people walk away thinking, “That can’t be real,” but it absolutely is on many, many levels and when I first read that script I just laughed with hilarity and with understanding at just how real and specific that is, almost like Stephen [Adly Guirgis, the playwright] is Latino. For all intents and purposes he’s been hanging out with LAByrinth for such a long time that he kind of is Latino. He’s from the Upper West Side, he’s not really from the hood, but he’s kind of like a hoodie. 

What do you appreciate most about Stephen’s work? 

What I appreciate the most about Stephen’s work is the real, layered humanity that exists in his writing. And I’m not just talking the characters, but the actual words that he uses are all very specific and geared toward a sentiment, a layered sentiment. And he also likes to challenge actors, I mean, in the same play he wrote Victoria and Veronica. Can you imagine what a challenge it is for an actor who’s just trying to fly on stage? (Laughs.) Who has to be aware that he’s not going to say Victoria when he’s talking about Veronica? I think that says a lot about Stephen wanting to get actors to get their muscles on. So it’s humanity, with challenge—with another underlying level of theme.

What are the differences you have noticed between Chicago and New York theater?

I hope you have time for this one. Since I’ve gotten here I had the pleasure of working on a couple of unfinished workshop pieces of Stephen’s that he brought to be read on our first day off here at Steppenwolf. So I arrived at 3pm for these readings and everyone was there already, I may have been the last one to arrive—and I wasn’t late. All these eager Steppenwolf actors sat down to read, and we read these pieces and I was blown the fuck away at the amount of talent that was here. It’s even been a point of conversation, the reason I was blown away was because it sounded like it had been rehearsed, these words were coming out of these mouths with so many levels that it just was rich. And I was like man, I know we didn’t rehearse this because I’m in the reading and nobody invited me to a rehearsal and I was just really thrown for a loop, and in that week I just noticed that Todd [Rosenthal, set designer] was from here, our wardrobe designer was from here, I finally had to ask Anna, “What is it about Chicago that attracts the talent that’s here?”

Then I went to go see something at the Goodman and I was thoroughly blown away. This was just a workshop production of Tanya Saracho’s piece [Song for the Disappeared], but the level of talent here is really incredible. I think the big difference is that, right at the end of the show, Steppenwolf has the discussion of the play and I heard that’s done in many theaters here in Chicago. That is not done in New York. And I wish that New York actors could come get a vibe of what’s going on here. I’m not trying to knock any actors in New York because I’m surrounded by really delicious actors, especially with a talent pool like LAByrinth. However, there’s something that’s lost. The grind that exists in New York is perhaps overbearing to some degree and you wind up losing the kind of love that you have, and I think that that’s what Chicago has, there’s a love for the art form on a huge scale.

The amount of theaters that are here, the amount of theaters that are being supported, the talkbacks, I mean it’s unheard of that they do this everyday. You used to hear this during tech run and they’d do this announcement about no flash photography or whatever, and the last thing was “Meet us for discussion about the play.” And I thought that was a mistake, I thought they were using it as some track or testing it, but it’s on everyday and I’m like, that really happens. People want to talk about theater. And that’s the huge difference, the interest level. And you know there’s such a level of sophistication here with the theatrical eye that doesn’t exist in Los Angeles, where I’ve been living the last few years, and in New York I think people have taken it for granted. Everyone’s a theater snob and they’re like, “Ah, we don’t need to discuss it,” and I think it enriches the soul. You can’t be enlightened unless you look for enlightenment on a daily basis, you know? Same thing with theater, you gotta want to be a part of it and you gotta be interested in feeling the love on all levels. So it really took me by surpise and I’m so, so glad to be here amongst all these artists. The talent is just bubbling over here and I’d love to see more.

The Motherfucker with the Hat runs through March 3 at Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N Halsted St, 312-335-1650). Read our review of The Motherfucker with the Hat.

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