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.

 

Dawson's ethnicity is a mix of Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Native American and Irish, and although she’s been on the cover of Latina magazine, she isn’t particularly interested in identity politics. She was, however, pleased by the fact that as part of the merchandising campaign for Josie And The Pussycats, a black doll made in her image. “I identify myself as Rosario,” she says. “I loved it when I did Josie, because I’m part black, and I liked having a brown doll out there, just to have a cool role model. Girls come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, and it’s all good ’cause girls rock, you know? I like to do things like Latina magazine, because it’s empowering a group of women that aren’t always fairly represented. But I don’t see myself only as that, and I always make that clear. I’m just a pro-positive human being. It isn’t important for me to differentiate myself from anybody by saying I’m only Latin and that’s it.”

She must have felt this from an early age, because Dawson’s own role model when she was growing up was Punky Brewster. Like her childhood hero, to this day, she has a taste for clothes that are “clashy, colorful and crazy.” Despite New York magazine’s decision to paste her on the cover of a spring 2001 fashion issue decked out in a few thousand dollars worth of runway gear, Dawson is neither fashion victim nor executioner. “I don’t like shopping,” she says. “I get sick from the smell of all the new stuff and the fluorescent lighting.” Dawson is more interested in inner beauty. The girl who spent New Year’s Eve meditating in the mountains talks a lot about “energy”—wanting to surround herself with positive energy, and avoiding negative energy. “I started doing yoga,” she says. “I’m going to an herbalist who’s into chakras and stuff. It’s kind of funny—it’s a whole L.A. thing—but it’s actually really nice to kind of get my energies together.”

 

I don’t want to be anybody’s 'it' girl. I’m just doing my thing.

 

Those energies quickly become apparent when she gets to the topic of Hollywood, its foibles and her place in it. “What I want, and what I’m coming into right now, I think, is my power. That just means getting over the bullshit of being self-conscious and insecure, and all the things that go along with this business: constant rejection and the way they compare you to people. And the whole idea that I only have so much time and I have to play it very safe. It just fucks with you. I question myself all the time. Why am I in an industry that makes me feel like shit? I know that only I can make me feel like shit, and I’m not going to make myself feel like shit anymore.”

“It’s such an up-and-down ride,” she continues. “They have all this stuff about who’s prettiest, and who’s on the cover, and on the next ‘it’ list. It’s just like, I don’t want to be anybody’s ‘it’ girl. I’m just doing my thing. I’m working really hard. I’ve been doing this for seven years. I’m gonna do it for as long as I want. And it isn’t like there’s a cap when I turn 28 and suddenly I can’t act or some bullshit. I’m just not feeding into that. It just doesn’t sit well with me to have a time limit to what my potential is.”

With a deliciously over-the-top sexiness that recalls the old Spinal Tap joke about an amplifier that goes up to 11, Dawson isn’t reaching her “time limit” anytime soon. Given her hypnotic attractiveness, it’s hard to believe that the fact that she didn’t lose her virginity until the age of 20 wasn’t entirely a matter of her own choice. “All through high school I was the ugly duckling,” she says with a laugh. “That’s one of the reasons why I was such a late bloomer. I mean, in the tenth grade I was still pulling chairs out from under guys that I liked, and they still didn’t get it.”

It’s ironic, then, that Dawson’s biggest stumbling block has been getting casting directors and
audiences to move beyond Hollywood’s fixation on appearances. To be fair, her looks aren’t that easy to ignore. And even those who appreciate her intelligence rarely fail to mention her visual appeal. When asked why he cast her in Men In Black 2, director Barry Sonnenfeld admits he had never seen any of her work. “I cast Rosario in Men In Black 2 because she was real and alive and smart, both in person and in her audition. The movie is a comedy, yet she didn’t sell the comedy. She played the lines and situations straight, which was great. She’s also very pretty and charming, and her eyes are deep and warm.”

 
But to speak with Dawson for even a minute is to realize there’s a lot more going on behind those eyes than the typical starlet ambition. Dawson is a voracious talker. Within 60 seconds, she’s likely to let more ideas fly than a lot of people consider in a day. “People always want to make her seem hot and sexy, which she is, but she is also a smart person with a lot of things going on in her head,” says close friend Abbey Goodman, a journalist who met Dawson while interviewing her in 1996. “People never take her seriously, but she’s incredibly introspective and so smart and wise beyond her years. She’s too family-oriented to have a movie-star attitude.”

If you ever need proof of that, go and see where Dawson lives. Even when she could afford to buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side, she chose to live in an apartment one flight up from her mother, in the same building where she grew up. Her father, a construction worker who illegally connected to the electrical grid in the ’70s, lives in a separate apartment with her 17-year-old brother Clay, across the hall. So, even though her parents are recently divorced, her family has managed to stick together. 

Such close ties have helped keep Dawson grounded, even as she moves in and out of a social world where Jay-Z, Q-Tip, Ed Burns and Leonardo DiCaprio are dinner dates. “She still has childhood friends, the neighborhood kids who have no concept of what she’s doing with her life,” says Goodman. “They see her movies but they’re not going into acting as career choices. They knew her when she was a scruffy kid going to school who never combed her hair.”

 

When you’re dying, the only thing that matters is how well you lived, and how much you loved. No one cares about your car or how big your ass was.

 

“Sometimes Rosario will be on a movie set where people will be offering her four different kinds of bottled water,” her mother expounds. “And then she’ll come back home and be scrubbing her own toilet, and she’ll tell her brother, ‘Give me a glass of water,’ and he’ll say, ‘Get it your damn self and get me a glass while you’re at it!’”

Which is probably why children are the last thing on her mind. Even though Dawson’s mother was 16 when she got pregnant with her, and her grandmother was also a teen mother, Dawson is the one who’s breaking the cycle. Fittingly, she’s now a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. “My mom was always very forthright about being young, female and hormonal,” she says. “I was definitely an accidental baby, so I’m not going to put that down, but education makes a huge difference. And if you actually see choices, you feel more powerful in your life. That’s my shout-out to the whole world. There’s no need for compromise, there’s no need for settling. You’re just as much that homeless person on the street, as you are that prostitute, as you are that nun, as you are that Wall Street guy. I mean, when you’re dying, the only thing that matters is how well you lived, and how much you loved. No one cares about your car or how big your ass was, you know? It’s amazing the things we put importance on, and I know that the only way I can make a difference is by being different.”  Dawson is dating someone now, and while she says she has never been in love, she’s feeling pretty optimistic: “I definitely feel like I’m the happiest person in the world right now.” 

Having begun her career with a disturbing portrayal of youth gone wrong, it was far from a safe bet that Dawson would be able to parlay her indie credibility into mainstream success. But now that she’s established herself as a bankable female lead, the appeal of the underground is beckoning once again. “I want to get back to something raw like Kids,” she says. “I want to get back to something that makes a difference.” 

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