Rosario Dawson, full of energy and speaking with consistent rapidity, admits it was her family that gave her the ‘chutzpah’ to step into some dazzling shoes, singing and dancing on screen in Chris Columbus’ screen adaptation of the Broadway hit Rent.
Dressed in red, her hair cropped short, the beautiful 26-year old actress says she has a lot of incredible family members who tend to take on everything that she does “with the same kind of attitude that made me go running with the bulls in Pamplona,” she now recalls, laughingly. “It was probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, but I thought I might as well try it. I don’t usually get scared about something until I try it and realize, ‘Oh, that was really scar,’ ” Dawson admits, offering parallels with bull running with taking on Rent after the original Broadway star who was set to reprise the role of Mimi on screen, became pregnant.
“That was kind of how I approached this, but I was actually really nervous when I went into the audition. It’s one thing to go against some other actors for this part, but I was going against actors who originated these parts; people who have been nominated and had gotten Tony Awards for it; people who know it inside and out, who knew Jonathan Larson as well and had totally the inside track.” Dawson, who has never done a musical prior to auditioning for Rent, says she “was really excited because I knew I could do it even if I was delusional.”
Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera ‘Rent’, loosely based on the opera La Boheme, tells the story of a group of bohemians struggling to express themselves through their art and “measuring their lives in love.” Against the gritty backdrop of New York’s East Village, these friends strive for success and acceptance while enduring the obstacles of poverty, illness and the AIDS epidemic, with Dawson starring in the pivotal role of the drug-addicted Mimi, who ultimately finds solace and love with her upstairs neighbour. Dawson says she ha no doubt she could pull it off, instinctively, from the outset. “I just knew I could because I love singing and dancing. I bought my first song when I was six and it’s really the only thing I ever wanted to do,” conceding that she ventured into acting more by accident than design. I was discovered into acting, but singing and dancing have always been my dream and fantasy. Some kids want to be a ballerina, or a princess, but I’ve always wanted to sing and dance.” It took her this long to fully realise her childhood dream “because I got into acting, just fell in love with it and that became my thing. I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of theatre and didn’t see the original production of “Rent” for that reason, because I didn’t have the money to go see it. So the only musicals I ever saw were on film, which I really loved, but it was sort of like that dream thing where I could never imagine myself actually doing that. I saw my uncle Gustavo doing West Side Story and that’s what got me excited about the idea of doing something like that.”
Dawson says that she had no difficulty identifying with Mimi. “I grew up in a spot in the lower East Side and my mom was so much of what Mimi could have been or was,” Dawson quietly recalls. “She was a young woman who was struggling and she moved into a building with no heat, water or electricity. She thought that was a better opportunity for her even thought her family thought that was crazy because my mom was an idealist and it helped to think that this is what she can do with her life; even if it was a struggle, she knew she could build it from her own hands. She wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel but she was trying to make a life for her that she felt comfortable in and could rest at night, so once we moved into that spot with no running water or electricity, she became a plumber so she could put the sewage lines in. My dad did construction and when we first moved in, there was this huge gaping hole in the floor and a firewood door with a chain. We had an extension cord that went across the courtyard for the one refrigerator we had for the entire building and that’s how we lived for awhile until they build the place around us. She was the only person who had kids doing that and for her and my dad, that was better than living in the railroad apartment with the slumlord down the block.”
Dawson pauses, smiles, and draws parallels between her childhood and her latest screen character. “It was an interesting way to grow up, but doing something like “Rent” and discovering it when I did, a few years after it had come out, gave me the articulation to look back in my life and be really proud of what it taught me and where it puts me now.” These days, Dawson muses, she says that she has gratitude for her success, and sees especially Mimi as something of an inspiration. “I’m so encouraged by and inspired by Mimi’s vitality, while at the same time knowing that she is doomed and needy for love, attention and all the things that I’m not starving for. She was 19 and I’m 26, I’m doing all right and feeling no day but today. I’m so grateful for what I have in my life and the opportunities I have and I see that every morning and I’m grateful for that. I love Mimi, but I’m also glad that I’m not her.”
Dawson also insists that while the original play was a product of its times, the movie version is a timely reminder that AIDS remains a worldwide tragedy. “Now it’s so under the radar that you have people like Magic Johnson doing press about, ‘Hey, I still have it, people.’ Before it was only this big moral disease and it only affected homosexuals, and so if you stayed away from a lot of these sweaty little places, then maybe you won’t get it. So hopefully putting this movie out there will help.” But the actress also insists that Rent is far more than just a story about AIDS. “It’s about people.”
Dawson has evolved into one of Hollywood’s brightest and most in-demand stars, with future projects further confirming her diversity. “I just finished working on The Passion of the Clerks, which is Kevin Smith’s sequel to Clerks that he did 10 years ago, playing the manager of Moobie’s. It’s really quite funny and probably going to be a different kind of press situation after this, talking about it.” Dawson says that there’s a possibility of Sin City 2 but it is far from confirmed, and “I also did another film, Kill Shot, with John Madden, based on an Elmore Leonard novel, we filmed in Toronto. And the day after the premiere of Rent I am starting production on a film I’m producing with my company, Descent, which is a rape revenge story.”
Still ravishing, Dawson has no qualms about being pigeon-holed as the sexy girl, saying that she thrives to play a variety of women, some of whom, will downplay her sexuality. “I’ve done over 20 films and maybe four or five of them have been quite sexual, but the other ones not so much. I’m excited about the one I just did with John Madden as the character I play is supposed to be in her 50’s and they cast me. She lives in a trailer home and loves Elvis. So I have this really bad, curly hair with a ponytail on the side of my head, with no makeup or anything, except for pockmarks on my face. You have to see something about her, that she has low self-esteem about herself and imagines herself in a situation where she can be in a room with Mickey Rourke and Joe Gordon Levitt, being abused and feeling like she doesn’t have any hope or any other options. So I’m excited about being able to play a lot of different characters. I think as sexual and young and sprightly as someone like Mimi can be, you also see how insecure she is and how needy she is, and I think that shows so much. Just because you have that beauty on the outside doesn’t mean that it’s always working on the inside because otherwise she wouldn’t be taking heroin every five minutes, so I think I’m lucky and I’m blessed to be able to show a diverse group of characters. I’ll do what I can for as long as I can. On Alexander, the nudity worked for me and I thought it made sense for the character. Also I’m glad that when I’m in my 80’s I can be like, ‘I was hot!'”
Dawson has come a long way since make her film debut in Larry Clark’s controversial Kids. Self assured, in demand and proactive in attaining the roles for which she yearns, Dawson’s additional priority is to balance her intense work schedule with a normal personal life, conceding that she finds it tough to focus at al on her life outside of work. “There has definitely been a little bit of suffering in my personal life, not so much with my boyfriend or the very close people in my family, but extending out, it’s a little bit hard. It’s been really tough with my godchildren, and gets a little bit difficult because I just moved out to LA and they’re out in Queens. But the film I’m producing is being shot here in New York, even though its six-day weeks, which is pretty rough, but on my days off I plan on spending as much time as possible with my family.”