Issue 12

The Power Source

Rosario Dawson is one of Hollywood’s most electric and enduring figures—and she has herself to thank.

By Remy Ramirez

Photographed by Shane McCauley

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Rosario Dawson’s entrée into Hollywood is the stuff of lore—the American dream, by way of divine intervention. You’ve probably heard the story: She was 15 when director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine plucked her off her stoop in New York’s East Village, begging her to audition for the part of Ruby in 1995’s Kids, which became one of the most villainized and revered films ever. Dawson took the role with no prior training or experience, acting opposite future indie darling Chloë Sevigny in a meandering plot that explored sex, drugs, and HIV status among the teenage skate crews of a different, tougher New York.

 After Kids’ premiere, she went on to star in an impressive string of films, with roles in 25th Hour, Alexander, and Death Proof. Those movies boasted big directors and big budgets, but Dawson’s portfolio also allowed for smaller, quirkier titles: offbeat comedies like Josie and the Pussycats; the adapted musical Rent; Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2; and multiple comic book-based projects, among them Sin City and Netflix’s Marvel series (which has included five shows). This fall, she’ll team up with Woody Harrelson in Zombieland: Double Tap and Kevin Smith in the Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, and next year she’ll voice the title role in the much-anticipated Wonder Woman: Bloodlines.

It’s such a varied oeuvre, the casual onlooker might dismiss it as haphazard. Actually, Dawson’s professional path has been shaped by unremitting curiosity—one that has led her to rendering an accumulation of wide-ranging human truths. 

That curiosity surely has roots in the actress’s upbringing, which furnished her with a rare perspective on the world. Growing up in a New York City squat without heat, electricity, or running water, she was exposed to a level of diversity most people never experience. “They came from all around the world and all around the country to create that space,” the 40-year-old marvels of the artists and activists who cohabitated the off-grid housing, now home to a boutique bakery. “You’d see them bringing their sheet rock in from the street, tearing off the pieces that had mold.”

 It was eclectic for sure, and it was hard in certain ways—the elevator shaft had no working elevator, and the windows were covered in plastic. Still, it wasn’t dire, and that made all the difference. “It felt very distinct from the projects down the street,’ Dawson says. ‘We were just as poor—more so—but there was a different kind of richness because there was real love. People truly wanted to be there.”

Coming of age in communal spaces can be excellent fodder for an actor (River Phoenix grew up in a cult, Winona Ryder in a commune), but Dawson’s story encompasses more. She had family around the country, and visiting them gave her the chance to check out environments that looked nothing like her own. 

“Travel made me curious about other people,’ she explains. ‘It made me empathize with their journeys, and that opened me up to so many more characters.”

Even the struggles of those closest to her offered a glimpse into other worlds. Her mother had been a teen parent, her grandfather emigrated from Cuba, and her grandmother (who liked to say, “I may speak with an accent, but I don't think with one”) raised five kids on her own. Their stories—full of heartache and resilience—helped prepare Dawson for the complexities of the roles she would later inhabit. 

“Even when a character was just a stereotype, I tried to add depth, because people like that do exist,’ she points out. ‘They’re multifaceted people with feelings, and thoughts, and dreams. You can be in a sea of humans and not see them, or you can take the time.”

It’s a sentiment that no doubt fuels Dawson’s work as an activist (the long list of organizations she supports includes Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Voto Latino, which she-cofounded). Born in Coney Island, raised in the East Village, and family to residents all over the city, Dawson was fully immersed in New York’s “sea of humans” early on. Navigating that terrain taught to her to question a status quo that left so many struggling. “It always fascinated me that you could cross one block and suddenly the prices went up,’ she says. ‘It looked clean. It felt safe. Then you'd cross back over, and it was a totally different story.”

The streets started to look like a map of social injustice to Dawson, etched into the body of the city. It seemed absurd to her that something so arbitrary as the block someone lived on could effect such dire consequences. “If [a child] had been on the other side of 14th Street, they would have gone to that better school,” she points out, emotion rising in her voice. “And if their parent hadn’t been thrown in jail for something petty like having a joint, maybe they’d have healthcare. Instead, this kid’s got rotting teeth in their head and they’re in so much pain they can’t pay attention in class.”

Her willingness to stare into the urban underbelly is something she shares with the film that launched her career. Kids’ quasi-vérité grittiness shocked audiences when it was released, depicting an amoral counterculture of adolescent boys hell-bent on drugging, boozing, fighting, and deflowering virginal girls, with rape and HIV thrown into the mix. Some critics called the film “child porn,” and Harvey Weinstein, who bought the distribution rights for Miramax, said it was “the most controversial film [he’d] ever been associated with.”

  Nearly 25 years later, Kids is no less controversial, but Dawson—who now has a teenage daughter older than she was at the time of casting—speaks of it solely with affection. “There’s real heart to it,” she says. “Larry didn’t make things up for shock value, he hung out with those skater kids for years. He has injuries to this day from skating around with them so he could become invisible and take in as much as possible.” 

That the film did less inventing than exposing might have been exactly what offended its critics. But, from Dawson’s view, realism was the source of its power.  “I was a latchkey kid, so I really understood what it was like to have more responsibility than you should, out of necessity,’ she admits. ‘That’s why it still resonates today—it’s raw and relatable.”

Being relatable is essential to any actor, and certainly it’s something Dawson has pursued. But looking back at her work through the lens of today’s zeitgeist—which increasingly aims to dismantle myths around racial stereotypes—many of her earlier roles now seem confining, relegating her to the “street smart, sexy, take-no-shit Latina.” It’s a current that runs through even her most lauded projects. In Spike Lee’s He Got Game, her character hustles her boyfriend, a basketball star, to collect on his talent. In Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, she helps deliver the final blows (a series of awe-inspiring right-left hooks) that take out a psychopath. And in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, she nearly kills her husband in a savage wedding night brawl.

“If anything,” she says when I question her about racial typecasting, “what's felt frustrating is not having access to certain kinds of jobs or scripts, because there's definitely a hierarchy in this business.” 

In whatever way Dawson has been held back, whether by cultural bias or industry echelons, it hasn’t stopped her from pushing the needle forward for others, and making room for different perspectives. In one of her more recent parts, a cameo in the Netflix dramedy Someone Great, with Gina Rodriguez, she plays a veritable snob. In The CW’s Jane the Virgin, she’s a high-powered lesbian lawyer. Inarguably, her work breaks ground for women of color. 

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, either. “I was talking with this 11-year-old actress,” Dawson relates, “and she was saying she looked up to me, and Gina Rodriguez, and all these different Latina actresses, and that it meant so much to see us doing the work she wants to do.”

The anecdote is heartwarming for sure, but maybe more importantly, it highlights a trend toward greater inclusivity in film. “I told her it's remarkable that she has that many people to look up to, because that didn't exist when I was her age,’ Dawson shares. ‘And the roles she’s auditioning for—it’s remarkable that they even exist. There didn’t used to be parts like that [for people of color]—so nuanced, and provocative, and thoughtful.”

 It’s patently obvious that Dawson’s own trailblazing is partially responsible for film and television’s shift toward more complex representations of people of color. But as we talk, it strikes me how unaware she appears to be of her contribution—which makes sense when you think about the reality of celebrity. Working in Hollywood is far from the Malibu-party, designer-everything lifestyle many fame-seekers imagine. It can demoralize, deflate, and knock down even the heaviest hitters, she reveals.

“Being underpaid is very real,” Dawson affirms. “There are so many situations where you’re essentially told, ‘You’re just lucky to be here,’ especially as a woman and a woman of color.” 

Constantly hearing that would take a toll on anyone. For Dawson, it was like a specter, silently unraveling the threads of her confidence. And even as her fame grew, her self-assurance dipped. “It's easy to get distracted into thinking, I got that magazine, or I got into this thing, that means I made it—so why am I still eating ramen noodles? And why am I still struggling to feel like I can call myself an artist, when actually I'm just lucky and should be grateful?”

It’s not new. Browbeating has been hidden beneath laugh tracks since Hollywood’s inception, especially for women in the industry. Nothing has illustrated that better than the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, whose promises of systemic overhaul have carried women out of the very darkness those same movements unearthed. Dawson—who once spoke out in an interview about the time she was asked to take her turtleneck off in an audition—lands just this side of skeptical on the whole thing.

 “I've been in the industry long enough to recognize how powerful, and beautiful, and incredible this moment is,” she concedes, “but I’ve also been here long enough to remember other movements that made everyone go, ‘Wow, now women are going to have more leverage and more content that features them front and center.’ Then it ebbs. When will we get to the point where it’s just normal and doesn’t have to be talked about as an ‘opportunity’?”

 She continues, barely seeming to take a breath. “Until the shift is represented in the boardroom and [among] studio heads and execs—and not just in some headlining films and stars—until there's real nondiscrimination and equal pay, these moments will continue to feel like moments, and not a true revolution.”

One would expect caution from a serious activist, but Dawson’s concern is offset by hope: “I was in a meeting with different activists and leaders, having this revelatory conversation, going, ‘I've had my head down for 20 years, whacking away at the weeds of patriarchy, and misogyny, and prejudice, and homophobia—just trying to push through. All of a sudden, I heard these other women cracking a whip in their part of the field, and I realized there's a bunch of us out here, and we can make a clearing!’ When we put our backs to each other and move outward from the center, we can cover a lot of ground.”

Weed-whacking social ills is exhausting work, of course. And the end is never truly in sight (see: all of history). It makes sense, then, that Dawson would be drawn to the world of comic books, where, as a general rule, good guys send bad guys to eternal demise. In addition to playing Claire Temple in Marvel’s Netflix shows and Gail in Sin City (based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel), she’s voiced Wonder Woman in animated films and co-created Occult Crimes Taskforce, a comic book mini-series in which she also stars.

“That’s definitely the reason I keep going back to them,” she effuses when I mention the moral tidiness of comics. “It’s a fantastical place that connects me to idealism and youthfulness, and sometimes even naivety.” Processing painful, real-life situations using that innocence as a backdrop has real value for the actress. “It’s important and beautiful work,” she emphasizes.

Dawson’s love for comic books might surprise people who only know her as a social justice champion. But Dawson, who often melds her acting career with activism (maybe most memorably in Miss Representation, a 2011 documentary that challenged media depictions of women as pretty but unfit for leadership), is also delightfully playful. When I ask her what impact she wants Wonder Woman to have on girls—particularly in light of Miss Representation’s message—she says she hopes it teaches them to embrace joy.

“They were just spinning, and flipping, and doing their thing right there in the middle of everyone,” she says, recalling children at a wedding she attended the day before our talk. “They couldn’t care less! It’s that reverie, that vibrancy I want to share.”

A genuine respect for pleasure is often earned through confronting its opposite, and that may well be true in Dawson’s case. In 2007, she starred in and produced Descent, a deeply disturbing film about date rape that was directed by her friend Talia Lugacy. It would have been a difficult role for any actor, but for Dawson, who was sexually assaulted as a child, there was ample room for distress. “We were shooting this scene where my character gets raped, and the actor in the scene was so horrified by it, I had to comfort him, because I was the producer,” she says. “It was very surreal to console my rapist.”

There have been other opportunities for catharsis. Dawson has long worked with V-Day, an organization aimed at ending violence against women worldwide, founded by performer and activist Eve Ensler. “Most of the healing I did around my own sexual trauma came from being on the board of V-Day with Eve,” the actress explains. That type of work, along with movies like Descent, helped chip away at the wall of silence that so often surrounds sexual assault, making room for #MeToo to materialize in the first place. As if returning the favor, #MeToo has helped her to have further epiphanies.

“I was really confronted by the larger narrative of #MeToo,” Dawson says. “It brought up a lot that I hadn’t fully [examined]. I’ve realized,” she adds, laughing, “that I probably just need more therapy.”

That isn’t to say she’s not doing well. After years of dealing with objectifying auditions, insulting pay, and a dearth of available roles, Dawson is finally coming out ahead. These days, the parts are fresh, exciting, and copious, including her potential role as first lady of the United States (a little byproduct of dating New Jersey Senator Cory Booker). “I'm almost 40 now,’ she reflects, ‘my daughter's 16, my boyfriend's running for president, my career's doing really well—it’s wild. For the first time, I feel like I actually have a seat at the table.”

It’s a seat well earned, and one she doesn’t squander on ego. There’s a stillness and strength in Dawson that reflect the larger evolution of her life: a shift to balance the spotlight she’s long lived under with introspection. “These past couple years have been more internal for me,” she says. “I’ve been working to understand my life better, and to heal. Being picked off the street, quote unquote, really impacted my own experience of myself—because if that hadn’t happened, who would I be?”

Answering a question like that is, of course, impossible. But, as Dawson has learned, it’s not an answer that’s really needed—it’s the ability to have faith in the process.

“I’ve always thought of my career as schizophrenic—it just felt so all over the place,” she reflects. “But there is a cohesion to my life that makes sense to me. And that one thing, that one constant, is that I keep choosing it. I keep saying yes.”

Stylist Tiffani Chynel Set Designer Merisa Libbey Hair Makiko Nara Makeup Cedric Jolivet Manicurist Mimi D Producer Ryan Beck at Oui Productions

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