When there’s only one woman in a film, the story’s ability to represent diverse kinds of womanhood (and therefore the human experience) is severely hindered. Womanhood becomes essentialized, with all female experiences conflated into one character, one perspective, one experience.
This is why it is so important to have movies like Birds of Prey, which boasts five girls or women in its ensemble. By having a diverse group of women in its story, the film is able to paint a richer tapestry of the female experience, all in the context of a kickass action flick. One of those diversities comes in age.
Actress Rosie Perez, who plays queer, weary, badass detective Renee Montoya in the film, is a woman over the age of 40, which means she is not the kind of actor who usually gets to star in an action film—or, you know, any mainstream film. Birds of Prey, as it does in so many ways, subverts that status quo.
“Originally, Renee Montoya was slotted for a much younger woman,” Perez tells us. “And when [director] Cathy Yan called me, I said, ‘I’m up for the challenge, let’s rock and roll.’ And Warner Brothers signed on as well with her choice. And I think that’s a wonderful thing because, in Hollywood, if you’re past 40 and you’re a female, they consider you dead.”
Perez was in Yan’s “pitch deck” for the film, which means she was Yan’s ideal actor for the role even before Yan landed the gig.
“That’s how much I’ve always wanted to work with her and that’s how much I saw her in the role,” Yan tells us. “I like that. I think that the story sets up a motley crew of women. It’s unlikely that they’re actually supposed to get together, but when they do, hopefully it’s very satisfying and it’s also more fun that way. When you have a Cassandra Cain, who’s 12 years old, and you have Harley and you have these varied characters, for me, it just made sense. And I think given the diversity of the movie as is, it was nice to bring that element in.”
The 55-year-old actress did all of her own stunts for the film.
“I think that Rosie is such a badass, and such a role model for women of all ages,” continues Yan. “She trained, she looks amazing. She just did it. She really, really did it.”
Co-star Jurnee Smollett-Bell (who plays Black Canary) notes how important it is to have someone like Yan behind the camera to make these kinds of creative choices.
“It took someone like Cathy saying, that this chick is incredible, that she’s got to be in this film,” Smollett-Bell tells Den of Geek. “And I think the nice thing about what’s happening in our industry is there’s so many women of all kinds. We’re just like, I’m going to not ask for a seat at the table, I’m just going to build my own damn table, and we’re going to keep it moving, and all these other women are coming along with me. And I think the more we get female filmmakers and women of all kinds, just behind the camera, decisions like this, which are very smart decisions, will continue to be made.”
For Perez, who has been an avid activist for Puerto Rican rights as well as other issues throughout her decades-long career, the idea that middle-aged or older women shoudn’t be stars of mainstream Hollywood films needs to be firmly rejected.
“I will say out there to all the other females, don’t accept that narrative,” says Perez. “Push on, fight through it and let them know that you are a badass and you’re still viable, just like all the aging men who get to do these types of roles. So, you know what I mean? That’s true feminism, that’s true female empowerment.”
Birds of Prey is in theaters everywhere now. Find out more about the film here.