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Rosie Perez plays a strong-minded teacher in the new education drama 'Won't Back Down'

Rosie Perez plays a strong-minded teacher in the new education drama 'Won't Back Down'
Film follows a fight to improve public schools, something Perez has been doing for years
By Caitlin Colford / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, September 30, 2012, 6:00 AM

Rosie Perez, co-star of the new drama "Won’t Back Down,” in NYC recently

Acting and activism go together for Rosie Perez. And both explain her involvement in "Won’t Back Down,” out Friday, a controversial movie at the center of a debate about education.

Perez says she’s hopeful "Won’t Back Down” will spark a change and inspire communities to try to improve public education — as the movie’s protagonists do in a dramatic way.

"I think the movie shows that everyone can have a say,” Perez says. "I think it’s everybody’s civic duty to speak their minds. That’s kind of the American spirit, right?”

In her own life, Perez has long advocated for arts in the schools, especially since she learned firsthand how much they matter.

"I had a tough childhood and art was an emotional release," Perez says of growing up in Bushwick.

"What people don’t understand is that we’ve made so many advances and research has shown that you can’t just teach to one side of the brain. When you incorporate arts into a specific curriculum, kids understand and comprehend academics more easily.”

She’s the artistic board chair at Urban Arts Partnership, which works with public schools throughout New York City to integrate an arts-based curriculum into classrooms.

That’s not all. The Academy Award-nominated actress and activist was also appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council in 2010, and is a dedicated advocate not only for HIV/AIDS awareness, but also for improving public education.

Now the actress who starred in movies like "Fearless” and "Do the Right Thing” is making a splash in "Won’t Back Down.” The new movie follows a mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and teacher (Viola Davis) who band together to take control of their school. They use a fictionalized version of the "parent trigger law,” which was first instituted by California legislation.

Prior to the film’s release, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten criticized the film’s depiction of teachers’ unions as the villain and privatization as the cure.

Weingarten compared the fictional film to the 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman.” That movie, like "Won’t Back Down,” was produced by Walden Media, and "Superman” notably took Weingarten to task.

At the movie’s New York premiere last week, a reported 50 protesters turned out to show their disapproval of the movie’s politics.

Given Perez’s involvement with schools issues, the actress says she simply wanted to do teachers justice through her character. Perez plays Breena, a strong-minded teacher leery about the overthrow.

"There are teachers that do take a leap of faith by leaving the teachers’ union and that’s a scary thing, because the teachers’ union provides protection,” Perez says.

In an earlier draft of the script, co-writer and director Daniel Barnz featured Breena as "a little jokey,” she says.

"It’s not a funny subject," Perez says, revealing that she went to Barnz to suggest he use her character to highlight the difficult issues involved.

In "Won’t Back Down,” Davis’ character, Nona, states that, "If you change a school, you change a neighborhood.” Perez helps prove that off-screen. Her Urban Arts works with many schools in lower-income areas.

She says the first thing that too many students see at school is a metal detector.

"The second thing,” she says, "is a correction officer with a gun on the side of their belt and a night stick — and that’s before they even walk down the hallway.”













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