Bringing Lucha Underground's Catrina into existence changed Karlee Perez's life

Catrina, seen here managing Mil Muertes and the Disciples of Death -- all champions at the time -- has played a key role in the world of Lucha Underground throughout its three-season run. Courtesy of Lucha Underground / El Rey Network

Karlee Perez, the woman who would ultimately take on the role of Catrina on Lucha Underground, remembers when writer Chris DeJoseph handed her that piece of paper. DeJoseph gave a brief description of the character to Perez, and did the same for Ricky Banderas, who wrestles as Mil Muertes, before they started filming the first season. That small paragraph was all Perez was given to create the character that would change her life -- and as it turns out, it's all she needed.

"We've always had chemistry from the beginning," Perez said about her relationship with Muertes, who together have created some of the most compelling scenes over the course of more than 100 episodes of Lucha Underground. "There's a respect there, where he's obviously a massive guy but he doesn't overshadow me and I don't overshadow him. From that paragraph we kind of grew into it. Our entrance and the rock were the ideas that came after reading just the paragraph that was provided to us."

Perez is no stranger to having to make a lot with a little

The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native never envisioned becoming a professional wrestler despite her athletic prowess. She was on the powerlifting team for more than five years and played volleyball for seven. Perez was even on track to play volleyball collegiately, but she instead opted to graduate high school a year early and return to Tampa, Florida, where she was born. By coincidence, Perez's home in Tampa was five minutes away from WWE's then-developmental territory FCW. Although Perez was modeling at the time, her manager was connected with John Laurinaitis, then the WWE's head of talent relations, and was able to get her a tryout. Perez wasn't pursuing a wrestling career, but she agreed to come in for the tryout anyway.

The WWE trainers pushed her physically during the weeklong tryout and even had her talk on the mic to get an idea of what she could do. Despite having zero wrestling experience or any background in the business, Perez's athletic physique, modeling background and the toughness she learned through each of those endeavors earned her a developmental contract in 2009. She was signed to WWE one week into her wrestling career.

That gave Perez the opportunity to work with the late, great Dusty Rhodes, who early on taught her the importance of developing a character.

"Because my time started in WWE and working with Dusty Rhodes, [who] was really the biggest influence I had, [he got me] really attached to the character development part, which I see there was a lack for a long time in the wrestling industry," Perez said. "I don't consider the characters I play as a wrestler. I happen to know how to wrestle. I try to think more outside the box and really develop a character when I'm doing stuff in the wrestling industry. I respect we have amazing athletes. I consider myself an athlete as well. I've had to endure and do the same thing as everybody else, but I really take pride in the character work."

While Perez, under the name Maxine, appeared on NXT TV during its early stages as a reality show, and even wrestled on Monday Night Raw, she grew frustrated with what she felt was a lack of creative direction for her character. She decided to leave WWE in June of 2012 after spending three years in the system. Perez made a public statement in which she said she wasn't planning on wrestling anymore, and that she would be pursuing acting full time.

With the exception of a one-night appearance for TNA, Perez would stay true to her word until DeJoseph handed her that piece of paper. The combination of Robert Rodriguez, Mark Burnett, Eric Van Wagenen and DeJoseph made Perez realize Lucha Underground was far from your average wrestling show.

"There was something atypical about it when it started," Perez said about her decision to sign on with Lucha Underground. "Having Robert Rodriguez, Mark Burnett, and also being where I wanted to be which was Los Angeles, it was able to give me a different view and be a part of something new. I like new things and challenges and going outside the box. You don't grow unless you try something new."

Perez has made the Catrina character her own. Catrina is an undead seductress who, along with Mil Muertes, has cast a dark cloud over Lucha Underground's temple throughout its three seasons. Catrina's vignettes are always unpredictable and have allowed Perez to refine her acting skills.

"It's helped [my acting] tremendously," Perez said. "Definitely even more as an actress [than as a wrestler]. As an actress, I was able to really dig in [to] some cool stuff with the character, and I was allowed to. The only way you become better as an actress and as a performer is actually going through scenes and seeing what fits, what doesn't, how your character would react in that scene. I take all that stuff seriously, which is why I think Catrina wasn't just a stagnant character. I wanted her to have some layers to her."

Perez's success as Catrina has opened the door for roles outside of wrestling. Initially, she was typecast for "tough girl" roles because of her background in wrestling. Perez says "it took years" to move past that label and be taken seriously as an actress.

"I really wanted to sink my teeth into drama and comedy, stuff that didn't have anything to do with what I already accomplished and did in my past," Perez said. "I looked at somebody like The Rock, who's separated [from wrestling] but still goes back-and-forth. In my mind there was no reason a woman couldn't do it. I haven't seen a woman do it in the way of taking an actual, authentic role. Not reality shows. Not porn, but stuff that is actually meaningful. It can be done, it just takes time."

Perez's two biggest roles yet will be released within the next six months. She will appear in a biopic of Robert Mapplethorpe starring "Doctor Who"'s Matt Smith, as well as "Nation's Fire," which stars Bruce Dern and in which Perez does her own fight scenes. While Perez is excited for the theatrical releases of those films, she first has the biggest -- and only -- match of her Lucha Underground career coming up in part two of Ultima Lucha Tres on Wednesday.

Catrina and Ivelisse have feuded since the inception of Lucha Underground, but have yet to compete against one another in the ring. The writers decided to hold off Catrina's in-ring debut until the right time emerged, even though Perez was willing to wrestle whenever called upon. The Ultima Lucha match with Ivelisse was the first time Perez has wrestled in years, but don't expect that to hold her back one bit.

"What you guys are gonna see is one of the most intense matches I've ever had," Perez said. "It's bloody. [laughs] It got bloody. Ivey is a very intense person, as am I. You could just feel it in our story. It took years to build up to that. It's not going to be your typical match you see women having. It's definitely an aggressive, all-over-the-place style of match."

Perez says appearing in future seasons of Lucha Underground would "have to make sense" with her busy schedule, but adds that she has "loved" her time there. Even though she is now acting full time, Perez will always have an appreciation for where that passion started.

"I love where I came from and what I've done in the wrestling industry, and the reason I fell in love with acting and entertainment in the first place was because of it," Perez said. "It really made me fall in love as an actress, and that is what I do full time now. I definitely consider myself an actress, a professional wrestler, just an entertainer."