“What is fair?”: Rosie Perez on the complexities of playing a federal prosecutor on "Your Honor"

"The number one reason I said yes was Bryan Cranston," Rosie Perez said of joining Showtime's "Your Honor" cast

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 22, 2023 8:00AM (EST)

Rosie Perez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Rosie Perez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I once read an essay I had written on police violence in front of a small-town crowd at a book festival. However a reading followed by a Q&A isn't always enough to give these evolving issues the attention they deserve, which is why I wasn't surprised when a middle-aged Black gentleman approached me after the event with that familiar look of confusion on his face. The look that screams I have a question about your presentation that I didn't want to say in front of the crowd.

"Great job sir," the gentleman said, squeezing my hand. I nodded, "Thanks." 

"So, I am a cop. And I'm from the hood like you," the gentleman continued, "We aren't all bad. As a matter of fact, most of us are good and . . ." 

"My man," I cut in, "I don't know you. I never said if you are good or bad, and if you listened, I only focused on numbers and systems and how it's so easy for guys who look like me to end up in jail."

I told him that I rarely mention individuals, but since he wanted to talk about individuals, then we all must acknowledge that flawed people exist in every profession from doctors to lawyers to journalists like me . . . and yes cops. People have a hard time understanding this because of the rhetoric that the "system works" is always pushed in America. This is why shows like Showtime's "Your Honor," which takes on people's relationships with criminal justice system, are more relevant now than ever before. 

The first season of "Your Honor" introduced us to Michael Desiato, played by Bryan Cranston, an ethical judge who understood the ills of the system and used his power for the good of the underrepresented until he needed to wield that power in twisting that same system in an effort to save his son. Desiato showed us that judges are more powerful than blind truth, acting as the most dangerous kink in our system. Rosie Perez, who joined the cast in Season 2, talked to me on "Salon Talks" about how the show is continuing to build on the vicious kinks in the system.

Perez, the Academy Award and Emmy Award-nominated actor most known for "Do the Right Thing," "The Flight Attendant" and "Fearless" plays Olivia Delmont, an assistant U.S. Attorney who is hungry to put out some of the fires started by Desiato.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Rosie Perez here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about this exciting new season and her perspective on the system as a whole. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm so excited about this season. Like so many people, I fell in love with "Your Honor" over the pandemic. When I heard you were going to be on Season 2, I knew you guys were up with something special. How did you get involved with the project?

I didn't know there was going to be a Season 2 either, and neither did Bryan [Cranston]. One of the people over at Showtime asked him the question, "Where do you think Michael would be after all of this?" Bryan said he'd probably either take his own life or be in prison. That's how the second season began, from there. They incorporated my character late in the writing process, so I literally got the call on Friday, had to fly on Saturday, and then shoot the next day. I had no prep time. I was scared to death. I first turned down the role because of that, because I didn't have enough prep time.

I have a very strong work ethic. When it comes to this, I don't like to mess anything up. But Bryan got on the phone with me and just kept convincing me, and he's so charming, I can't stand it. Then the first day of shooting, I just had to just dive right in and create a character right on the spot. It was crazy.

What is your prep time normally like? How do you get ready for a role?

It depends upon the role. It's really just getting within myself and finding the truth of the character within me. And then just research and research and then studying the lines over and over and over. Because the words mean nothing. They only mean something when there's intention behind them. So if you know the lines, then you don't have to worry about the lines.

I had no time for that. My first thing that we shot, I had this monologue, I was dying. I'm so glad that I said yes because the challenge was a severe heavy-duty challenge, but it's one of those things in the career that you just go, oh wow, thank goodness for these.

You play assistant U.S. Attorney Olivia Delmont. Tell us about her. 

"The show says that criminal justice is very complicated. That sometimes it doesn't take into account the human factor."

She's from New Jersey, and she's been transferred down to New Orleans, and she is hell-bent on getting the Baxter crime family. She knows that Michael Desiato, that's Bryan Cranston's character, is the key, and she will use him and manipulate him within the law to get what she wants. 

Within the law. She doesn't bend the rules. In Season 1 we meet Bryan Cranston's character. He's an ethical judge who understands the system and tries his best to help people. But then he throws it all out the window when it comes time to protect his son. At least that's what I took from this series. In his journey, we see the ridiculous amount of holes that exist inside of the legal system. What do you think some of the takeaways may be that people are going to have after they spend time watching you on Season 2?

Well, I think one is how manipulative law enforcement can be for the good of the people that they're serving. I also think that it really addresses the prison system in a very real way. When I was reading it, I was like, wow, they're going to go there. And they do. But I also think that what they hopefully take away is about accountability, and can you find redemption or can you be offered forgiveness without accountability? That is Michael's journey and my character's presents that challenge for Michael.

All of my favorite shows, they tend to blur the line between politics, law enforcement and the streets. "Your Honor" does an excellent job at that. What do you think this show says about criminal justice just in general?

I think the show says that criminal justice is very complicated. That sometimes it doesn't take into account the human factor. If you take Season 1, it proposes the question for everyone: What would you do if that was your son? Here's a judge who has an immense amount of integrity, but when it comes to his flesh and blood, that goes out the window. Does the criminal system take that into account? It also brings into question if the criminal justice system is about rehabilitation, what is fair? And how many people do we just throw away? 

For me, I believe in our law enforcement. Yeah, there are a lot of bad eggs, but there are also a lot of really good people. In approaching this role, I wanted to offer that to Olivia. Yes, she's extremely manipulative and cheeky, but she does believe in the rule of law and she will be a stand-up law enforcement person.

Is it easy for you to play a cop or is it difficult? Just in thinking about how you just referenced the police climate and how there's so many different perspectives of how law enforcement works.

I think that it's complicated. I have an advantage because there are law enforcement within my family, and I have made friends with DAs. They're former DAs, prosecutors, judges. I have become friendly with them. Sometimes we get into really heated discussions. I see things one way, and they see the other. And I think that that's good. I hope people . . . because there's such division right now here, not just in the United States – you see what's going on in Brazil, it's all throughout the world right now – it's either black or it's white, and there's no more gray area. There's no more area of saying, "OK, maybe I see your point," on both sides.

 How do you pick roles?

If they're good.

Is that based on the writing?

"I have a very strong work ethic. I don't like to mess anything up."

It's based the writing, first and foremost. Because as the cliche goes, if it's not on the page, it's not going to be there on the screen. Within the writing, is there room to work with? Is there room to create someone that is real and authentic? And also the cast has a lot to do with my decisions.

Like a party. Who's going to be there?

Oh, absolutely. Because I mean, this last-minute request, the number one reason I said yes was Bryan Cranston. And also the rest of the cast, quite frankly, like Hope Davis, I just revere her acting style and also Michael Stuhlbarg. And there's so many other great performances that were in season one.

It's also the director and the studio because if you don't have someone who really knows how to direct, it can suffer no matter how good you are. And if you don't have a studio that is supportive behind you, that comes into play and it comes in your mind. On your day of work, you just don't need any added stress.

Have you ever passed on something that you wish you would've taken?

No. Not that I could think of. Maybe tomorrow I would and call say, "Oh, I should've said this one." But no.

What sparked my whole interest in the film industry was actually "Do the Right Thing." A lot has happened since it came out 34 years ago. We had our first Black president, we got our first Black minority leader the other day. Congress may have apologized for slavery at some point, I think, I don't know if it was a meme. But some things have happened. Are you seeing some changes in the industry?

I'm seeing some changes, but they're still very small changes. We're really not going to see a lot of change unless people in the power positions reflect what the world is really about. Yeah, we can have changes with people in front of the camera, and that's really small. But you know that saying that's been going around for a while, "Show me your room." If your room is not diverse, the opportunities will not be diverse either.

There's a lot that needs to be done. Studio executives, executive producers, financiers, DPs, makeup people, casting directors — it trickles all the way down. It's not just about the actors. Sometimes actors could be a little bit self-serving or just only see their category because they're just in a bubble within their own experience. It takes a lot of moving parts to move the wheel forward.

What can we expect from you? What's next for you?

Well, I mean, I don't want to say because I don't want to jinx it. I'm a little superstitious like that. Even my family goes, "What are you working on? Oh yeah, right. You won't tell us." Unless it's done. When they say it's a wrap, that's when I make a call. The only person in my family that I actually share if there's a possibility or if something's in development, is my sister Carmen, because she works with me. She runs lines with me, she travels with me. She's my biggest supporter outside of my husband. My family is very supportive as well. Like my cousin Sixto, my cousin Brian, there's a lot of people that are supportive of me. But Carmen is the only one that I go, "Psst, come here."

Did your family travel with you to New Orleans?

No, my sister couldn't travel with me to New Orleans. And she was dying to go, because she was a chef and now she's a retired chef. She graduated from the French Culinary Institute, and she just got tired. It's an exhausting job being a chef. 

"There's a lot that needs to be done. Studio executives, executive producers, financiers, DPs, makeup people, casting directors — it trickles all the way down. It's not just about the actors."

Do you want to direct?

Well, back in the day, I directed a couple of music videos, and I just recently directed a short. It was an ensemble of different directors and stories, anthology about COVID that Trudie Styler and Sting put together. It got into Tribeca. We were really excited about that.

That was really hard because it was during the pandemic and I had to shoot it on an iPhone. I had to say, "OK, sound." I'm sound. "Roll camera," I'm camera. "And action," I'm the director. And then I have to run in front of the camera and also be the actor. That was exhilarating. It was really, really hard but it was exhilarating.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Bryan Cranston Rosie Perez Salon Talks Showtime Tv Your Honor