July 8, 2015
By Ray Rogers | April 5, 2014 | People
The Puerto Rican, Cuban, African-American, Native American, and Irish actress takes on the role of Dolores Huerta ("a feminist before feminism was even a word") in Diego Luna's just-released Cesar Chavez biopic.
It’s early afternoon on an especially sunny day, and Rosario Dawson is just getting into the swing of things. She was out late last night with friends and her younger brother, Clay, carousing in her old Lower East Side Manhattan stomping grounds. The highlight was a stop at a karaoke bar called Boho, where she belted out a mean version of “Bat Out of Hell.” Meatloaf is her karaoke go-to—“‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ and those long, epic songs are just so outrageous,” she says.
It's been quite an epic ride for Dawson: It was 20 years ago that she was discovered by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine just a few blocks away from last night’s scene of the crime—on the stoop of the squat where she grew up (and the building where her dad still lives).
In Clark’s controversial Kids (scripted by Korine), which details a day in the life of a group of skate teens living dangerously on the edge in the mid-’90s AIDS-epidemic era in NYC, Dawson was riveting as Ruby, best friend to Chloë Sevigny’s character Jennie, who tests positive for HIV. Since then, she’s starred in dozens of films, ranging from independent titles (Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof ) to big-screen releases (Men in Black II, Rent, Sin City, 25th Hour).
Her knockout looks—a mix of Puerto Rican, Cuban, African-American, Native American, and Irish roots—are of course spellbinding. But it’s also her passion, humanity, and sense of humor that keep audiences riveted.
Now 34, she’s grateful to be not just still in the business but thriving. “I’m proud I’m still doing it,” she says, looking back over her 20-year career arc. “I’m proud that I’m still feeling challenged, that I’m still working on things that scare me a bit or inspire me, and that I still get to do what I love. As a woman in her 30s, I know I’m supposed to feel like I’m about to have a nail put in my coffin or something. But I don’t. Actors I’ve always admired have acted until pretty much the end.”
Besides, she reasons, “I work a lot more now than I used to when I was really young. I was scared throughout almost my entire career that I wouldn’t have one, and then 20 years later, I’ve done over 50 films, so I’ve stopped worrying about that.”
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Right now, she has other things on her mind, like a move back to the East Coast to be nearer to family. For the past several years, she’s been living in Venice Beach in Los Angeles, where she leads what she calls a “Burning Man kind of life,” riding her bike along the ocean when not stuck in LA traffic.
Being a beach-lover, she also cherishes time spent in Miami, savoring the local Cuban food when visiting relatives in Palmetto Bay, near Coral Gables. “My cousin Paco is like 6-foot-6—you’ve got some big Cubans down there!” she cracks.
One of her all-time favorite Miami jaunts involved her brother and her late grandmother. En route to see Dawson’s mother in the Dominican Republic, the trio stopped over in Miami to visit relatives on the way. “We had dinner with my family, and then we went into the club in our hotel and stayed up until 3 in the morning. My grandmother was drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes,” she recalls. For once, she wasn’t the main attraction. “People were just beside themselves with my grandmother. They weren’t even taking pictures of me—they could have cared less—they just wanted to take pictures with my grandmother because they thought it was the funniest thing. Here’s this beautiful, white-haired lady in her 70s who’s dancing and cheers-ing and having a good time. I’ll never forget how cool that was.”
For her current role, in the Diego Luna-directed biopic Cesar Chavez, Dawson steps into the shoes of another truly awesome woman who is still living life to the fullest in her eighth decade: civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta. “She’s still rockin’ in her 80s—filing petitions, marching, protesting, and advocating.”
The film tells the story of Huerta and Chavez forming the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, but their inspiring story is certainly pertinent today. “A lot of the issues in this film are still very imminent: immigration, labor rights, and unions—watching the movie, it feels like you’re watching the news today. It’s really good for perspective and to see just how interconnected all of these things are. Dolores was a feminist before feminism was even a word! When I watch this movie, I feel like it’s Activism 101. The film really shows how together we can make a big impact and really help people—and how transformative that is.”
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These are lessons Dawson learned from a young age, surrounded by generations of activists and philanthropists. It’s no wonder her Facebook page is full of encouraging messages to her 797,907 followers to get involved in a multitude of causes dear to her heart (including the nonpartisan group she cofounded 10 years ago, Voto Latino); she’s been an activist since she was a young girl.
“My first campaign was to save trees when I was 10—it probably was wasting more paper than saving any trees,” she says. “But I was highly encouraged by my mom. These things are passed on: My grandmother was involved in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; she used to march and translate material into Spanish so that more of the community could be engaged. My mom was in ACT UP and used to work at an organization called WOMAN, Inc. in San Francisco that would take in mothers who were abused and their children, help them get a leg up on life again. This is my family, my community.”
Family is clearly key to Dawson. But what about a family of her own? “I have always had a very strong mothering instinct. My first job ever was babysitting and tutoring. I would even tutor and babysit my peers’ younger siblings! Today, I work with a lot of different organizations and public schools, and I have a family that I sponsor in Sierra Leone that I love, and my godchildren. That mothering part of me has just always been in action. I wouldn’t be surprised to have it evolve and transform.”
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She’s had some high-profile paramours throughout the years, including Sex and the City beefcake Jason Lewis and, most recently, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle (she starred in his 2013 film Trance). While she won’t comment on her current romantic life, she will admit that there is “lots of love in my life.”
And lots of work to be done. Coming up later this year: Dawson plays a celebrity journalist profiling a star comedian in Finally Famous, written, directed by, and starring Chris Rock. This made us wonder what key messages she would want to get across if she were profiling herself. “I’m very human. The more I see my flaws, I see them with perspective,” she muses. “I’m a very optimistic and passionate person. I love that I’m still in awe of so many things. I love learning and challenging myself and trying things, and I’m not afraid to be weird or silly or outrageous at all. I can be really shy, which I know can be surprising, but I do like to deliberate on things and take my time and figure stuff out. I feel really grateful that I grew up with people who were really human, too. I’m not a perfect human being, but I think that’s what makes me perfect. We’re all perfectly imperfect.”
photography by nigel parry; Styling by Michelle McCool at Kate Ryan Inc.; Hair by Ted Gibson at tedgibsonbeauty.com; Makeup by Beau Nelson at The Wall Group; Manicure by Julie Kandalec at Bryan Bantry Agency using Essie