Discovered on a stoop at 15, Rosario has plenty of misgivings about her ascent to Hollywood's A-list. Looking forward to two high-profile leads, this unconventional starlet proves she still has parts left to play.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's premiere issue from May 2002.
When Rosario Dawson was growing up on New York's Lower East Side, her parents had a strict rule: No going out of the apartment unaccompanied. Ever. And with good reason. The neighborhood was rough. Isabel and Greg Dawson were squatters in an abandoned building in Alphabet City, a part of Manhattan where avenues are lettered from A to D. By the ’70s, though, the street names took on a more sinister meaning as the Lower East Side experienced some of the worst urban decay America had ever seen. Avenue A stood for Alright, Avenue B stood for Bad, Avenue C stood for Cruel, and Avenue D stood for Death.
“When we first moved on the block, it was all squats,” recalls Dawson’s mother. “Heroin and cocaine dealers were everywhere.” But one day, when Rosario was 15, her father noticed a television crew shooting a commercial on the street. “He said, ‘Go downstairs, you’re beautiful, you’ll be discovered,’” continues her mother. “It was the first time she had ever been allowed outside alone. And it happened.”
Not long after, Dawson was sitting on a stoop in front of her building when a grizzled older man and a pimply kid approached her. The man was director Larry Clark; the teenager was screenwriter and director Harmony Korine. But Dawson was skeptical when the filmmaking duo, who had written a script with her in mind, offered her a role. It took a visit to their production office a few days later to convince her to accept the job on a lark. “It was summer, and I had nothing else to do,” she says of the decision that launched her career.
What transpired was Dawson’s searing performance in ’95’s Kids as Ruby, a doe-eyed innocent who contracts AIDS from a reckless teen lothario. Critics immediately labeled her a major new talent. But the path her career has taken since then has been anything but predictable.
What I want, and what I’m coming into right now, is my power.
Dawson's trajectory to her current status as Hollywood's next Latina bombshell (after J. Lo) has taken her from gritty urban indie films to megaplexes and malls. As Dawson, who turns 23 in May, grows up, fans and critics alike are learning that she fits into almost none of the stereotypes initially ascribed to her. While raised in a squat, she never got involved in street life. While she's had a string of high-profile box-office successes, acting alongside Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's He Got Game, Forest Whitaker in Light It Up and Parker Posey in Josie And The Pussycats, Dawson never aspired to a career in acting. And while she’s often played streetwise beauties, in real life she’s analytical, whip-smart and even somewhat nerdy. As a teen, her life goal was to become a marine biologist. She cried when she realized that the demands of acting would mean postponing college.
But the gamble paid off. Having just wrapped a slew of movies, including The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest with Adam Garcia, Love In The Time Of Money with Steve Buscemi and Ash Wednesday with Ed Burns, she is perched at the edge of Hollywood mega-stardom. But the two things most likely to cement her status as an A-list talent are her co-starring roles opposite Will Smith in Men In Black 2 and Eddie Murphy in the futuristic comedy Pluto Nash, both of which required five-month shoots and promise to be heavy hitters at the box office.