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Rosario Dawson - Actress Descending



by Jay S. Jacobs

You have to give it up to Rosario Dawson. She has some real guts.

A lot of actresses in her position – in her late twenties, well-respected, attractive, hip and working on a near-constant basis – might just sit back and collect scripts and residuals. It certainly would be easy enough. However that is not enough for Dawson. She loves the creative process.

Therefore she and her childhood friends Talia Lugacy and Brian Priest formed their own production company: Trybe Films. The three pictured the company as a haven for quirky, quality movie projects.

“Ultimately our motto is basically in our name,” Dawson says, “… it being a tribe. So far, it's just about making films that the three of us unto ourselves are 100% behind. Feeling comfortable that we have the talent and the motivation and the discipline to actually create it in a way that can be delivered to audiences.”

Dawson and Lugacy had met at fifteen at the Lee Strasburg acting academy, where Dawson was learning acting and Lugacy was just hanging out trying to find out about directing.

“She had this great T-shirt that came down to her here,” Dawson laughs, motioning to her knees. “A Clockwork Orange. The actual poster of it. It looked like a full-size poster on her body while she was walking around. It was interesting because people in my neighborhood do a lot of advertising for free. I was like ‘Kubrick? Nice! How old are you?’ I liked her immediately. She was just sitting there grumbling and I put my hand out like Hi! And she looked at it for a while. Like ‘Really?’ I'm like, ‘Wow, I like you already! How does that work?’”

Their first film, Descent, shows the individualistic and dogged determination to create important works of art – commerce be damned. A pitch-black look at college life – with date rape, drug abuse, racial tension, homosexual acts, violence, anger, promiscuity and revenge – Descent would have been a tough sell even if the MPAA hadn’t saddled it with an NC-17 rating.

However Dawson felt that the script that Lugacy and Priest had created (Lugacy directed the film as well) was an important and thought-provoking piece of work. She wasn’t willing to sit back and let it maybe be made, maybe not… Dawson threw herself into the difficult role of the protagonist Maya, a smart, shy honors student who is nearly undone by a violent sexual encounter with a boy on their first date.

The producer credit was not just a vanity thing for Dawson, either. If she was going to have the title, she was doing the work. She pounded the pavement looking for contributors that would assure that the film could be done their way.

“It was fun,” Dawson acknowledges. “I got to be there for the very first conversations where Talia approached me about whether or not they should even write it. Down to being on the phone in the last few days, finalized one of the last songs we got the music rights for the release.”

It shouldn’t be a real surprise. Dawson has always had an eccentric and interesting artistic streak that you don’t always find in starlets her age. She first was noticed in Hollywood when she was only sixteen, as one of the standouts on Larry Clark’s Kids, the infamous 1995 dissection of the drug and sexual habits of the youth of the nineties.

Since then her career has followed a varied, eclectic path – swerving from tiny art films to major blockbusters, comedies to drama and even a musical. Just a few of those titles – good and bad – include He Got Game, Josie & the Pussycats, Sidewalks of New York, Men In Black II, The 25th Hour, Shattered Glass, Alexander, Sin City, Rent, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Grindhouse and Clerks 2.

Not only that, in a development that must have tickled her Clerks 2 director and co-star Kevin Smith, Dawson has created a comic series called “Occult Crimes Taskforce.”

“I started over a year ago,” Dawson says. “We just released our first trade paperback, which is a compilation of the first four issues with extra manual bits. We have our next miniseries coming out, which I’m really excited about, and we’re in development with a trading card game and a movie. I’m co-writing on that and continuing on it. I really love it.”

Which sort of leaves you wondering – when exactly did Dawson have time to make Descent?

“Leading up to Descent, I shot Rent, then A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, then ‘Little Black Dress’ – a short film with the two of us,” Dawson recounts. “I did Shakespeare in the Park. I was shooting Killshot and Clerks 2 at the same time. While I was doing the Rent press, we were doing rehearsals for Descent. The very next day after the premiere of the film, we started shooting. So, I did seven projects in that time. It’s interesting. It’s pretty schizophrenic. And it’s fascinating because I was doing almost seven-day weeks for a lot of that time. I was jumping on different projects at the same time. Either I was doing press on one or rehearsing for another. Whatever. Having people said you did this, and you did this… actually I did that four years apart. My timeline is very different than the audience’s timeline. That’s one of the reasons why I had really short hair towards the end of [Descent]. Because I had it from Clerks. It’s fascinating to see how that all blends together. Surprisingly, as much as I felt like an army brat, jumping from film to film, I had a lot of energy. Which then was, of course, restrained. Which was good.”

Restrained is a bit of an understatement. After her character of Maya in Descent was date raped, she was often near catatonic. Long stretches of film showed her just stumbling through life, dazed and confused, body seemingly on autopilot. It’s not a pretty or comfortable place to be for anyone, however Dawson realized it was essential for her character.

“I just had to be someplace willing to be vulnerable and open,” Dawson says. “[I] also had to think… not like myself in a lot of ways… because this was a woman who went into that situation with some naiveté that I don't have. With some insecurities that I don't have and made choices thereafter that weren't mine. I had to just be really honest to that because that's the story we were telling. I think it's unfortunately a very common story. I felt like I was wading through water. There was a lot of resistance to everything that I was doing. I was having to be very methodical about every single moment, including the long passage of time where I wasn't speaking, which was difficult. It was really particular.”

It also felt right to the experience that Dawson and Lugacy were having on the outside. She was living the script and fostering its development all at the same time.

“It was great, actually to have that challenge be a part of the greater challenge of producing the movie, making it happen,” Dawson continues. “Being behind the story and being honest with it. We weren’t doing it with anything easy about it. We didn’t have any budget. We didn’t have a huge crew. We didn’t have a bunch of supporters. We had enough to keep us through, but we had to fight the entire way.

“That showed in the performance. Wanting her to be stronger. Wanting to be smarter in her decisions. Wanting all those different things – to scream and shake her and be like, reach out, you know? Do something more positive with this. Be frustrated with the fact that it wasn't because she was uneducated. It wasn't the fact that she didn't have a good life. Those weren't the obvious issues that were holding her back. They were much different and much more internal and about the make-up of her character in a lot of ways. They're human flaws.”

Of course, these human flaws are sensitive to an audience. There is always a natural reaction to look away from something which is too sensitive, too raw, too intimate and hurtful. However, by shining a light in some dark corners, we are able to learn more about Maya, as well as the young jock who raped her (Jared, as played by Chad Faust of The 4400).

“Those are hard, because we want to resist those,” Dawson feels. “We don’t want to look at them. Not in him or in her. That was a lot of what we were trying to do with this story in general. Look at the ugly, not just at the world around us but within ourselves. That we can allow ourselves to get to these ugly places, that we can do things to each other, that we can perpetuate violence cyclically because of that. We refuse to look at those issues. Not just at sex and men and women relationship taboo. It’s that ugliness.

“We’re a happy, great, thriving American society, with tons of things at our disposal – vacation time and our 2.5 kids. We don’t want to ever think about the bad stuff. That’s why, ultimately, we had a place where the World Trade Center collapses. We looked to our government and go, ‘What should we do?’ And they tell us to go shopping. And we don’t scream and go, ‘WHAT?’ But we go, ‘Really? Phew. Okay, good. I thought I had to learn about the Middle East or something.’”

She laughs. “And you’re like, damn it. An opportunity is lost because of that. It’s part of our makeup sometimes. We want things to be good and we don’t want to think that there are bad things out there and people out there who are really willing to hurt us. We are actually willing to do the same thing. Even if we have a different reason for it, it doesn’t make it any better.”

Despite the fact that eventually Maya plots to get even with Jared, Dawson and Lugacy don’t see Descent as a revenge film – like the recent Hard Candy or Ms. 45.

“It's really more of a coincidence of style,” Lugacy says. “I wouldn't even categorize it in that genre, especially when we came up with the idea… I just don't think of it as revenge. It's only about revenge in the last ten minutes if you even want to call it that. It's not as if we're spending half an hour or forty minutes with her and she's figuring out how she's going to get her revenge… You could very easily have gone through the entire film with her having made a different decision of where it was going to go and what she was going to do. It happens that this is a choice she decided to make, but she made that choice twenty minutes before the film was over. It's really much more about how far down is she going to go into this state of mind that she's been put in because she was gripped by a violent act. That's what we're following. That's where it takes her. It takes her there.”

Rape and abuse is a subject that Dawson knows something about, because her mother has been involved with the field. In fact, her mother was very active in the filmmaking process of Descent, also working as a producer, introducing Dawson to the film’s eventual backer, doing a cameo role as a bartender and even contributing a song to the soundtrack.

“I’ve talked about this stuff for a long time, because I’m passionate about it,” Dawson says. “I’ve dealt with this before. My mom used to work at a place called Women’s Inc. in San Francisco when I was younger. I knew what that was like talking to the mothers. It was the mundane issues that were always so striking to me. One woman asked, ‘I’m going to leave my husband who’s beating me, and my children, but I don’t have a job. I don’t have any money saved up and I have no skills and no resume. I have no one to help me. How do I do that?’ Otherwise, I’m going to end up right back with him, because I don’t see any other options. Those are the things that are fascinating to me – the smaller things. That’s what I wanted to deal with and talk about. That’s what was consistently strong for me throughout the entire film. I’ve always been concerned about that stuff. That’s why I’ve worked with [rape counseling] … I know these people and they have talked about this, a lot. So it felt great. If it changed me in anyway, it just really cemented it more. Just because any experience when you indulge it for a long period of time, really becomes more a part of you. A really strong experience, a very emotional experience and the memories are really strong. So, when situations come up, I have even less patience for them than I did before… but it’s not that I ever really had much patience with them to begin with. It has made an affect. It made me feel like I’m just a bit more adult than I have. It solidified some of my opinions – which considering how opinionated I am is kind of scary… but it’s good.”

These strong opinions come from a strong family structure; Dawson insists. She said her family does not always get along perfectly – but the most important thing is that they talk. They communicate. She laughingly recalls a time where she, her mother and her aunt were so caught up in a long conversation one afternoon that they didn’t even notice it had gotten dark until a family member walked into the room and asked why they were sitting there with no lights on.

This kind of family structure and her friends help Dawson to cope in a show-business world that is full of complications and temptations. She will be the first to admit that she is not a perfect person, but in this Hollywood landscape of Lindsay and Paris and Britney, how is it that Dawson has been able to stay out of trouble? She’s been doing this since she was a teenager. She must occasionally indulge a dark side, right?

Dawson laughs. “Well, who’s to say that I’m not, actually? A lot of people would look at this movie and go: This girl’s got problems. Issues, clearly. There are many, many reasons for that. There’s my family. There’s who I am as a person. Going into this experience of this film, I view myself differently than other humans. The amazing thing about acting is putting myself into other human’s shoes. Honestly going through their experiences… I have integrity in my life and a lot of other things that luckily surpass whatever bad things I’ve done. There are definitely people out there who know me well and that’s great. I’m a multi-faceted human being. There are certain actions that definitely stood out more and that’s not just me doing that. That’s a lot of people out there that help to maintain that privacy. I’m very lucky.

“Sometimes that’s really frustrating,” she continues. “I think ultimately that a lot of the question [is] about what the media is, because we have a lot of attention that we are putting there. Unfortunately, if you looked at anybody’s past, you would find some very interesting things that we’re probably very grateful never ended up on the front cover of a magazine. We are continually subjecting younger actors to that – when we clearly have much bigger issues to be talking about. Then we wonder why we have kids petitioning for Paris Hilton to be let go on a DUI charge, while we’re still trying to get those same kids to vote. Clearly, they have an understanding of the political process because they are voting on American Idol. And they’re using it for Paris. I think journalistic integrity has a lot to do with our voters. It is a very new thing. I just hoped we would have learned something from Princess Diana’s death – better than we clearly have.”

In the meantime she is looking forward to whatever comes next. As has been a constant in her career, the opportunities are coming fast and furious – and as a multi-faceted artist Dawson is making a point of taking as many new challenges as she can. She would love to do some live theater but currently her plate is a little full. (“I was just asked to do Rent for a stint,” she says, “and I think that’s something I’d be very interested in doing at some point, but just not right now.”)

Now that she’s given producing and writing a try, how about directing?

“I was in discussions to direct a film with Famke Janssen and Christina Ricci, but it fell apart,” she admits. “There’s another project I’m talking about with Sophia Sondervan, directing a music video to just kind of break in – something light. I love stories, and I’m excited about doing them as an actor, getting into it as a producer, and I think I eventually will get into it as a director. Right now I’m also enjoying writing with my comic and continuing producing with Incense and Peppermints [the next Trybe project] and the OCT film. I want to incrementally learn.

“I feel comfortable that I have a lot of time,” Dawson says. “I just met with Dustin Hoffman, who told me ‘you’re in the first act of your career.’ It’s like ‘awesome.’ He’s about to direct his first film, and he’s really excited about it. This is something he’s been working on for a lot of years. It’s cool to see him in that stage and discovering something new and attacking the same industry from a totally different angle. That’s what I’m doing, and I’m taking my time with it.

“There’s not a lot of control in this industry, but there are bits where you can,” Dawson concludes. “This is exactly what I like to explore in films. The choices we have in front of us. What experience I choose to put myself through right now. It’s been really interesting doing that. Luckily, I’m very excited that I do have a lot of options and I could focus in certain areas, but it’s fascinating seeing where I am focusing now as opposed to where I was before. Right now, I’m concentrating on the comic and concentrating on our production company and I’m really concentrating on acting. I really want to be a better actor. That’s something that’s very important to me. I’m multi-tasking already. I’ve got the Lower East Side Girls Club, I’m working with Operation USA on relief work around the world, and just regular travel and experiencing that and growing and learning. It’s fun. I’m excited about that. Leaving some things for myself to discover on my own.”

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: August 10, 2007.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2007. Courtesy of City Lights Media. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2007. Courtesy of City Lights Media. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2007. Courtesy of City Lights Media. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2007. Courtesy of City Lights Media. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2007. Courtesy of City Lights Media. All rights reserved.

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