Since her legendary discovery on her East Village apartment stoop at the age of 15 by Kids director Larry Clark, Rosario Dawson’s edgy career — save for being a Pussycat here and with a Pluto Nash there — has remained deathproof. And 2005’s Rent, in which she rocked out as HIV-positive heroin addict Mimi, could’ve been based on her own queer-soaked vie bohème. The 28-year-old — whose latest endeavor was the NC-17-rated rape thriller Descent — tells us why she gets so much attention.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: Descent marks your first effort as a producer. What drew you to the project?
Rosario Dawson: I’ve done work with V-Day [an antiviolence group created byThe Vagina Monologues’ Eve Ensler] and fought for women’s rights, and I got really disturbed because I had people telling me, “I saw Irreversible, and I’ll never think about rape the same way again.” I’m like, “How did you think about rape before?” Descent isn’t a court story or a societal discussion; it’s about a woman who doesn’t tell anybody she was raped and decides to deal with it herself. I thought it was going to be difficult to do, and in my opinion, that’s a good reason to do something.
Why was it necessary to have the rapist, Jared, not only sodomized by your character, Maya, but also raped by another man?
You have her strapping him down and telling him how everything had affected her, and he’s laying there thinking, Oh, my God, I hope she doesn’t cut my dick off, but he’s not feeling any remorse. When she rapes Jared it doesn’t overpower him. It’s when she brings Adrian into it that it becomes his worst nightmare, because it’s taboo and something he’s trying to push away from himself. It’s fucked-up for a woman of color to be raped while a white man is calling her a “baboon nigger,” and for a white male to then be raped by a man of color and told he’s basically a bitch.
How do you think gays will react to that final scene, which feeds into heterosexual fears by portraying homosexuality as something predatory?
It’s not that Adrian’s character is gay or that it even matters, but it’s definitely open for discussion. One of the people who wrote it and put it together is gay, and that was something in particular he wanted to put into it, because he does feel that some people look at him as something scary — just like people may look at a jock boy or someone like me as something scary. We had all the producers, everybody, saying, “Can we cut that stuff out at the end? Does he have to be nude? Does he have to like it? Does it have to be so much?” But we just pushed it and made it more confronting for people, especially for men.
I definitely needed a drink afterward.
Yeah, I’ve gotten a couple of calls from people who watched it and said, “I slept in the fetal position last night, you could’ve warned us!” It’s like Kids: It’s not for everyone, but I hope it reaches the people it’s supposed to.
Even before the rape, before she started making out with both sexes on dance floors, I got a bisexual vibe from Maya.
In that college environment, when it’s your first time away from home, a lot of women experiment. It’s fascinating to me, because women have a little more leeway to do that. There’s a looseness to a woman’s sexuality because she’s bringing something into herself, while guys push it outside of themselves.
Do women hit on you in real life?
Oh, yeah, and I find them to be a lot more aggressive sometimes. [Laughs] Because women get undressed in front of each other, we’re constantly checking each other out when we go out, so there’s a different type of comfort level there. Women have this assumption that it’s OK to just touch you. Guys will be touchy-feely as well, but they’re grabbier, they’ll try to dominate you. You can start dancing with a woman and it’s totally fine, but then it starts getting aggressive. It’s subtle and dominating in a different kind of way, which is kind of fascinating.
How do you react in those situations?
Well, it depends on how hot she is. [Laughs] I’m a really open person, so ultimately, I just respond to and respect people who respect my space. I’m turned off by someone who tries to consume it, man or woman. But I’m a flirtatious person as well, and I think that’s really healthy.
Do you have any girl-crushes?
Oh, Jesus. Hmm. They’re all sort of the same — you have your Angelina Jolies, Jessica Biels, Eva Mendezes. They’re all gorgeous, strong, and talented, and I think I’m just attracted to that in general.
When did you first feel a connection with the gay community?
I have since I was really young. I grew up in a squat in the Lower East Side of New York, so I grew up around alternative lifestyles. That’s why it was really important to me when I did Rent. You’d see people in drag, you’d see male couples holding each other’s hands. I have a transgendered friend, Chloe, who I grew up with. She’s six-foot-something with blond hair, miniskirts, and a little poodle that she’d walk around with in Tompkins Square Park. I just idolized her and thought she was the perfect woman. I wanted to be her when I grew up. My uncle’s gay, I have a lot of gay family, and my mom was close friends with a really strong lesbian couple that we’d spend every Thanksgiving with. My first Gay Day parade was when I was 10 in San Francisco, and I’ll never forget it. There was this guy wearing just bits of leather and a codpiece, and he had these whip marks on his back, and this guy turns to him and says, “You had fun last night!” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, what’s going on here?” But I’m loving the whole thing.
You’re practically an honorary homo.
I do feel at home being embraced by that community, and I’m glad — and I’ve worked with GLAAD! I’ve spoken out about drug use in the gay community and how that’s spreading HIV and AIDS; I’ve talked about how many gay kids are pushed out onto the streets because their families won’t accept them. I’ve tried to do a lot, because I care about anybody who’s taken down for who they are. For me, there’s such bravery, more so than in the heterosexual community, that comes from being out and proud, risking abuse or negativity. So I’m very protective of that.
You were thrust into the spotlight at a young age. Were you ever as wild as today’s rehab-hopping Hollywood jailbirds?
No, I’m really boring. From a very early age I’ve been a bit of an old soul. My mom got pregnant with me at 16, she shaved her hair into a Mohawk for her 40th, and I got her pierced for Mother’s Day. I’ve heard all the stories of her partying at the Palladium. My uncle had a band, my aunt used to be really good friends with [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, and they all had these crazy lives. I have heroin addicts in my family and all kinds of crazy shit. Then it comes to me, and I walk into a club, and the first thing I did was notice how sticky the floor was from all the beer and how unattractive the lowlifes were. So I never got sucked into it. I’ve always just been a watcher. My uncle’s HIV-positive and his husband’s not, so I also grew up with people being really mindful and respectful of their bodies and appreciative of their mortality. So there’s an adultness to myself that I’ve never been able to shrug. I care too much.
If you were to go to jail, what would be the crime?
Well, I did go to jail! I did this movie called This Revolution  and I was wearing a mask, running around the [2004 Republican National Convention], and we were getting footage, and the cops arrested us thinking we were actual terrorists. I wish there had been a camera in there — I had blond cornrows, and I was hooking out my cornrows in the sheet metal they have as a mirror. It was kind of awesome, actually. But I wouldn’t want to go back again.
Finally, as his wife in Oliver Stone’s epic, weigh in on the debate: Colin Farrell’s Alexander — too gay or not gay enough?
You know, I have to see the last cut. I think a lot of that [gay content] was put back in, which is good. There’s a lot of history out there that’s honest about his sexuality, and when we first started we were really secure about pushing that and making sure that was a big part of the film. Then people got a little scared, and that bummed me out.
The Advocate, September 2007; extended online version.