Interview By: J.P. Mangalindan
Casting Rosario Dawson as stripper Mimi Marquez was probably one of the easiest decisions Chris Columbus could have made for his adaptation of the 80s-centered musical, RENT. In many ways, the 26-year-old actress comes knit from the same fabric.
Dawson moved to the Lower East Side â€” pre-gentrification, she’s quick to note â€” when she was six, with her brother Clay and parents Greg and Isabelle. Their rundown tenement lacked utilities like water, heating and electric and came with a gaping hole in the floor and a door of erected from moldy firewood. Every day, she and her mother hoisted buckets of water captured from a nearby fire hydrant up four stories to their dingy apartment; water was warm ed on the stove for baths, and when it came time to “flush” the toilet, well, the buckets proved to be their only plumbing.
“I admired the bravery my mom and dad had in moving not only themselves in, but their kids into this situation,” Dawson recalls. “I wondered why they did that, but eventually I realized it was because they knew they were idealists. They could make lives around themselves even if it was just piece-by-piece. So my mom became a plumber, my dad did the construction and the electrical. They put the sewage lines in the building. They did that together.”
The eclectic characters in Jonathan Larson‘s musical â€” a kaleidoscope of different cultures, beliefs, orientations â€” were familiar faces in Dawson’s life, so when she discusses people like her uncle and his partner, it’s with an invisible, nonchalant shrug of the shoulder (“It’s almost to the point where I don’t know the difference.”). She describes her childhood as amazing, if occasionally dangerous, invaluable and even miraculous.
“I remember moments like, wow, we have a tub. You get to turn a knob and here comes the water! It was all really amazing for me as a child. It made me
Just outside her tenement was where she was discovered. Director Larry Clark was knee deep in a casting call for an upcoming flick, but he wanted performers from the streets, rather than hiring Hollywood poseurs. He found Dawson and fell in love with her exotic beauty, casting her as the bold, sexually promiscuous Ruby in what would be one of 1995′s most acclaimed and derided films, Kids.
Roles for Dawson either fall into two categories: the mostly forgettable Josie and the Pussycats and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, or the underground notable exception like Spike Lee’s He Got Game or the more recent critical darling, Shattered Glass. Skipping Oliver Stone‘s Alexander, which she doesn’t regret (“I’m glad when I’m in my 80s, I can be like, I was hot,” she has said), Dawson seems to be finding her footing in Hollywood, first with her turn in RENT.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, RENT centers on the complex bohemian lives of eight people struggling in New York City. As heartwarming as it is painful, Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work resonated with Broadway â€“cum-rock musicality and humanistic characters. Characters like the transvestite Angel or the stripper Mimi, felt more like people and less like two-dimensional stereotypical eccentrics.
Dawson admits she was initially nervous about taking over the role from Daphne Rubin-Vega, Broadway’s original Mimi.
“The only thing that scared me is that this is so important and personal to so many people,” she says. “I want them to know how personal it is for me. I’m not taking it lightly because it deserves that respect.” She had faith in the musical itself, though. “We knew it was successful. As much as people were nervous about making it into a film, there’s also the knowledge that this really beautiful material is air tight. It has the opportunity to transform lives and really has.
Part of the reason Columbus cast Dawson was her relevant background, so aside from learning the score, preparation for the role wasn’t intensive and rather than pulling a Natalie Portman, training for several months as a pole dancer for Closer, Dawson chose not to.
“My brother works at Scores, so I definitely did my research way before I did the movie,” she jokes. “I read this book about the life of a woman who was a stripper and just down to the little details, I imagined my character who’s 19-years-old. She knows she’s HIV-positive; she’s got these guys clamoring to have sex with her all the time knowing she has this really deadly disease that’s repulsive to so many people.” Dawson enjoyed the physicality of her character, not just the sensuality, but the chance to use all her facilities: her body, her acting, her voice. It’s an opportunity she misses already and isn’t sure will happen again anytime soon.
Seemingly poised for her real break, will she explore, like so many actors have before her, the possibility of wading into the music industry? As much as she enjoys performing and singing in the studio, the idea of segueing into an arena dominated by the J. Lo‘s and Lindsay Lohan‘s of the world doesn’t really entice her.
“Going into the studio and recording this was one of the best things I’ve ever done. To take that on and become a singer/songwriter, I have too much respect for the artist. Unless I really felt like I could contribute, I can’t imagine myself going there.”
The actress plans to explore more familiar territory as the producer of the upcoming film Descent, currently in pre-production. Until then, she’s enthusiastically preaching the positives of RENT and the girl who once boiled water on the stove for a bath appears more than happy to do so. RENT, as she’ll have you believe, isn’t just a
“It’s about an opportunity every single day to choose and know that, even when you’re down in the gutter, you still have a choice.”