The story of Rosario Dawson’s discovery speaks to her enduringly cool credibility as an actress. A New York native who grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Dawson had only a Sesame Street appearance under her belt when she was spotted, on her stoop, by budding director Larry Clark, who, at the urging of then-fledgling screenwriter Harmony Korine, went on to cast her in Kids. She was 15. Just as it did for fellow hip starlet Chloë Sevigny, Kids proved a major launchpad for Dawson, rather literally moving her from her doorstep and shuffling her into the public consciousness. She began attracting other directors in search of gals for urban dramas, and starred in Spike Lee’s He Got Game and Craig Bolotin’s Light It Up, a 1999 flick that took cues from Kids and Dangerous Minds.
But Dawson didn’t wait long to buck her impending typecasting. However unsavory the results, she pulled a 180 and took a part in Josie and the Pussycats, a—ahem—wannabe Spice Girls comedy for the MTV generation. The movie hardly soared, but it was an early indication of Dawson’s deft, enthusiastic knack for diversity, not to mention a taste of the fine musicality that’s periodically weaved its way into her work. Dawson has her limits. One of her virtues is also something of a hindrance: She’s a thoroughly modern actress, and give or take Roxana, her Persian princess in Alexander, she’s not quite cut our for period fare—corsets and all of that. But that hasn’t stopped her from building a terrifically varied filmography, or kept her from emitting a regal fire on screen.
Tracking Dawson’s career is like following the path of a seismograph, with as many spikes into mainstream blockbusters as there are dips into indie fare. Her first big tent-pole film was 2002’s Men in Black II, which cast her as Will Smith’s love interest. That same year, she balanced her output, also appearing in 25th Hour, which, again, placed her in front of Spike Lee’s camera. This trend of project volatility has continued for Dawson in virtually every subsequent year. In 2003, there was The Rundown, and also Shattered Glass. In 2005, Sin City was released along with This Revolution, a political film about media bias from activist Stephen Marshall. 2006? On one end, Clerks II; on the other, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. She may not be a character actress, but Dawson has proven herself especially malleable, and one of the reasons she seems to slip so easily into so many different milieus is her palpable, insuppressible zeal, which always conveys commitment and her love for being an actor. And yet, none of that spark ever seems to drive her to surrender a shred of poise.
Of course, Dawson’s beauty surely hasn’t hurt her success. Her look is at once exotic and all-American, and the combination of her stunning facial bones and Julia Roberts-like smile is reflective of her even knack for levity and enigmatic sexiness. Her whole appeal is a sort of seductive accessibility, which is further evidenced in curios like Death Proof and Seven Pounds, and even her baldfaced misfires like Zookeeper and The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Her beauty and her voice (not to mention her streetwise aura) netted her the role of Mimi in the big-screen version of Rent, and she was surely the most watchable thing in the whole misguided effort, revealing some rocking pipes that, again, brought out her tuneful side (through the years, she’s also teamed up with acts like Prince, OutKast, and The Chemical Brothers, in various capacities). In the Rent stage production, Mimi isn’t in fact the star, but in the movie, Dawson steals the show.
Dawson has also benefited from being able to easily hang with the boys, without ever making it seem as if she’s had to do so. From Clerks II to Trance, her new thriller that gives her a killer role and exploits her myriad talents, Dawson has slinked her way through many male-dominated casts, often emerging the one in control instead of the damsel or the little wife. She can play those roles, but she’s never defined or defeated by them, and another trend of her work is the fact that they’ve lessened over time. Though it succeeded her hoo-ra ass-kicking in Death Proof and Sin City (the latter of which has a sequel arriving this year with Dawson attached), the actress, now 33, may well have a turned a personal corner of empowerment with Descent, a little-seen 2007 film she starred in and produced, about a woman who takes fierce, vengeful action in the wake of her devastating rape. Such a bold endeavor surely helped light the fuse that led to films like Trance, which sees Dawson in fearless mode long before she fully disrobes on camera. It’s telling that, in her next four films, Dawson will be playing women who, for better or worse, are perched in positions of power. She reprises her role as street queen Gail in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; plays a deplorable, abusive mom in the indie Gimme Shelter; embodies activist Dolores Huerta in Diego Luna’s Chávez; and plays a movie exec with unknown motives in the decadent drama Famous. If history is any indication, the ever-exciting Dawson will have these roles licked.