Articles | Film / Television
Chameleon, Rising
Rosario Dawson's ability to play a range of characters and ethnicities is propelling her to larger roles
By: Clare Kleinedler
Los Angeles Times
A heavily bearded man in his late 30s is shifting nervously on the sidewalk outside La Conversation cafe on Los Angeles' Westside. With a Sharpie in one hand and a few ripped-out magazine pages in the other, he musters the courage to make his approach.

"Um, hello ... I have this magazine, and I've gotten everyone else's autograph and yours is the only one I don't have yet," he stammers. His hands are shaking and his forehead is beaded with sweat.

The magazine is Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue, and the cover features a handful of rising female stars including Kate Beckinsale, Jennifer Connelly, Selma Blair and the latest object of this fan's affections, Rosario Dawson.

"Sure, no problem," says Dawson as she takes the pen and neatly signs the cover. The fan then pulls out another magazine photo, but there's just one slight problem.

"Well, I can sign it if you'd like, but that's not me! I don't who it is, but I know it ain't me," she says, laughing. Embarrassed, the man apologizes and hurries away.

It isn't surprising that even to fans, Dawson isn't always recognizable. The actress can play up any one or all of her features to become a wide range of characters and ethnicities. Her brown skin, huge dark eyes, hourglass figure and bee-stung lips are the result of a diverse ethnic background: She's a self-described "mutt" with Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Native American and Irish roots.

"I think I use it to my advantage. If they need me to be 'more black' or 'more Spanish,' even though I think that's kind of stupid, I can pull it off. In the end, it's most important that I can pull off the character emotionally, so that should be the focus," Dawson says. "But you know Hollywood.... Sometimes I won't get a role because they'll think I'm not hot enough. To that, I'm like, 'Oh, I'm sorry I don't look emaciated or starving enough for you!' " Dawson's bravado is another of her charms.

Although she recently turned just 23, her self-assured presence and forward nature is that of someone who has experienced a few things in life. When director Barry Sonnenfeld was casting for the just-opened "Men in Black II," he needed a beautiful woman who could hold her own beside Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

Dawson plays Laura, a pizzeria worker who witnesses the murder of her longtime mentor and father figure. But since her friend was actually an alien posing as a human (unbeknownst to Laura, of course), it's a case for the Men in Black. Laura immediately charms agent Jay (Smith), and Dawson's ability to play the tough chick with a heart of gold with such conviction is key to the on-screen chemistry between the two. Times critic Kenneth Turan singled out Dawson's casting as Smith's love interest as the movie's "best idea .... Dawson brings a warm and welcome human touch to a film that has been needing it all along."

"She came in the first day we were reading women, and we pretty much decided to hire her as soon as she read," Sonnenfeld says. "She's so exotic and has this great sort of New York attitude. But she's so accessible; she invites the audience into the journey of the story."

"Men in Black II" is just one of several films Dawson has completed in the past two years. A few weeks before the start of production on "MIB II," she wrapped "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest," penned by Jon Favreau of "Swingers," as well as "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," playing opposite Eddie Murphy; both will be released later this year. She also appeared in Edward Burns' "Sidewalks of New York" and the Ethan Hawke-directed "Chelsea Walls." Her next project? Spike Lee's "The 25th Hour" with Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Dawson got her first acting job at 15. For that gig, she was sitting on the stoop of her Lower East Side apartment building when photographer-cum-director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine walked up to ask if she'd like to be in their first movie. The project turned out to be the controversial "Kids," and although Dawson had never acted a day in her life, her performance as the naive girl who contracts AIDS from a reckless teenage boy won rave reviews. Before "Kids," Dawson says her life as "a bratty little tomboy" was just like that of any other teenager: dysfunctional family, school, boredom, baby-sitting.

The actress describes her life matter-of-factly, never seeking sympathy for her turbulent upbringing in one of New York's toughest neighborhoods. Regarding her parents' recent divorce, she says she's happy for them and that there's no need to dwell on the subject. "What's the point? If they didn't get a divorce I would have been traumatized, and them getting divorced was a little traumatizing, but why focus on that?"

Her mother and father have an amicable relationship (and still live in the same building where Dawson also keeps an apartment), and she is very close to her younger brother, Clay, 18. When she speaks of her brother, she gushes with words like "beautiful" and "brilliant" and phrases like "I'm totally in love with my brother!" When that remark is compared with Angelina Jolie's Oscar-speech reference, she laughs it off.

"Oh, I already get the comparisons because of the ... lips and everything, so whatever," she says. "And I really do think my brother is the most amazing person, and I'd fight for him to the death of me."

Dawson's fierce loyalty and levelheadedness are certain to come in handy as her profile continues to rise. With her ability to play a range of diverse characters convincingly, industry admirers say the actress may redefine female-lead stereotypes.

"I think she's the new American girl because she represents everybody," says actress Rachael Leigh Cook, 22, who co-starred with Dawson in "Josie and the Pussycats." "Rosario will be able to do her own thing. She's not going to be pegged as a certain type of woman.... She's what we're all going to look like in 30 years. Actually, I hope sooner, because I'd love to look like her."

"Pluto Nash" director Ron Underwood, 47, echoes Cook's sentiments. "I think she is going to be in great demand, and she isn't going to be limited. Rosario has a lot of soul, and she's very connected. She will have the opportunity to do a wide range of roles," he says.

For now, the young actress prefers to take things day by day. She's just as excited about reading a new novel as she is about her next film role, and Dawson asserts that she will have time to do it all and maintain her sense of self.

"I'll check in with myself once in a while, see how I'm doing. I have to do that because if I don't, I'll just lose all sense of reality," she says.

"It's good to have time-outs, to keep in check because otherwise I'll probably freak myself out, and there's just too many experiences I would really like to have."

Clare Kleinedler is an occasional contributor to Calendar.

Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times