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Role Playing: Gary Perez channels his Harlem youth as quiet, unflinching Julio in ‘The Hat’

Submitted by on Feb 20, 2013 – 6:21 pm

Interview: Actor says growing up on rough streets of New York prepped him to play the self-assured character in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The ____ With the Hat,” at Steppenwolf through March 3.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

One of the most appealing, indeed endearing, performances to be seen on Chicago theater stages this season is Gary Perez’s quietly philosophical, yet vaguely dangerous turn as Julio, the gay cousin and one true friend in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play “The ______ With the Hat” at Steppenwolf.

Perez credits director Anna D. Shapiro with framing Julio as worldly-wise and possessed of a Zen-like calm. His good faith and fearless intervention help his ill-used cousin Jackie through a rough patch with both his girlfriend and his AA adviser. Julio is the one really centered character in a collection of loose cannons.

But what Perez achieves in his resonant, sympathetic performance reflects something more infectious and even more luminous than a director’s sharp eye. Actually, says the actor, his take on Julio – in accented speech as well as ready bravado — springs from his own youth on the mean streets of Harlem in New York City.

“I grew up in the high-rise projects, in a Puerto Rican population that lived side-by-side with blacks,” says Perez. “It was a tough place. I went to the High School for the Performing Arts where I was a ballet major. I can’t tell you how many times I was scared to death just walking by these guys who’d be hanging out on the corner drinking beer.

“One guy busts out of the circle and bumps into you, just to see how you’ll react. Same thing on the trains. It’s startling, frightening, but you have to posture up even though inside you’re terrified. When I was just a kid, in kindergarten, I was mugged at knife point. You live with this kind of fear, but if you show it, that’s the end. Every day they’ll be waiting. So you have to ruffle up your feathers no matter how small you are. You have to believe you have that courage.”

That’s the slight Julio who doesn’t hesitate to get in the face of Jackie’s imposing AA adviser (Jimmy Smits), and who informs Jackie that on a dime he can turn into a lethal machine he personifies as “Van Damme,” referring to the martial arts master and action film star Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But Julio’s ominous posturing – and Perez allows that Julio’s tough talk can be interpreted as pure bluff – is only made the more remarkable by his generally contained demeanor, and that’s where director Shapiro came in.

“I always thought of Julio as a little off-center, possibly even way out there,” says Perez, “but Anna spins it around and says this guy is very calm, very still. I understand the power of stillness on stage, so I decided to take it home and kill it” – meaning work it out thoroughly. “I figured I’d do it so calmly that Anna would say it was too much and we’d meet halfway. But that was exactly what she wanted.”

Speech, its structure and rhythm, is another factor in Julio’s charm, and Perez says he revisited normal Puerto Rican English – and body English – by observing people in coffee shops.

“It’s very real there,” he says. “Nobody’s trying to be anything in a coffee shop.”

Perez and the Jackie in this production, John Ortiz, are in fact old friends. In 1992, they helped to establish the New York Theater venture Latino Actors Base, which subsequently widened its scope to become LAByrinth Theatre. That core group also included Guirgis as well as Bobby Cannavale and Yul Vazquez, who played Jackie and Julio, respectively, in the Broadway production, which Shapiro also directed.

In the story, Jackie, who’s on parole and trying to distance himself from assorted stimulants, discovers a guy’s hat in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend Veronica. He storms out, borrows a gun and goes looking for the guy with the hat. Meanwhile, he’s accountable to his AA adviser Ralph D., who lectures him constantly on what it takes to get clean and stay that way. But now he has to get rid of the gun, which he has used. So he appeals to Julio to hide the gun, which only leads to more lecturing, this time by Julio. In time, Jackie discovers the real owner of the hat even as he learns the real meaning of friendship. Getting there involves a profusion of obscenity.

Perez insists the notoriously coarse language of “The Hat” captures Harlem street patois.

“It isn’t far-fetched or over the top,” he says. “It’s real and visceral. The curse words have a physical effect on how we’re delivering the lines. They are words from the gut, which means you bring them up from a different place. You can feel it. But there’s also a rhythm behind the language. Puerto Ricans are known for the sing-song quality of their speech, a rhythm beaten out by the consonants at the end of a sentence. About the things he wants to do, Jackie says, ‘I do got a list.’

“The rhythm is so right on the money — ‘I know it, you know it, even Ralph knows it.’ There’s that strong beat. It should sound like it’s right off the street.  Julio says, ‘But thass OK,’ dropping the t. It’s not the actor’s choice, it’s written that way. He says to Jackie, ‘You open fire in his residence,’ in present tense, not past. Julio is someone trying to find some decorum and refinement in his life, but his language still has that rhythm.

Stephen (Guirgis) has a great ability to listen to the street and put it on the page.  I did the workshop on this in Ojai (Calif.), where the Van Damme idea was developed.”

Yet, beyond the toughness, the anger, the thirst for vengeance that reverberates through this play, there’s also a great deal of love, says Perez:

“Anna has picked up on that.  Julio is always trying to give as much love to Jackie as possible. He wants to look out for him, to protect him. Jackie was once there for Julio, when they were kids. Now it’s Jackie who needs someone. He’s on parole, and Julio isn’t going to let him down.”

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Actor Gary Perez. Descending: Julio (Gary Perez) engages life with quiet philosophy. Not even the physically imposing AA adviser Ralph (Jimmy Smits) can intimidate the Van Damme in Julio (Gary Perez). (Production photos by Michael Brosilow) In 1992, Gary Perez helped to create the Latino Arts Base theater project, which evolved into LAByrinth Theatre. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Below: John Ortiz (foreground) and Gary Perez, co-founders of LAByrinth Theatre in New York City, share the stage as Jackie and Julio at Steppenwolf. Jackie (John Ortiz, left) has a hard time taking advice from his cousin Julio (Gary Perez). (Production photos by Michael Brosilow) 

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