Exclusive: Rosario Dawson Talks Gimme Shelter, Sin City

Rosario Dawson discusses transforming to play a crack addict in Gimme Shelter, as well as working on another Sin City and He Got Game.

When I met with Rosario Dawson earlier this week, she reminded me that this summer will mark 20 years of film acting for her. While her first movie Kids (co-written by Harmony Korine) was not released until 1995, it will be 20 years in June since she shot the picture. And one can immediately understand why Dawson’s prolific career continues to be so strong. Eloquent and energetic, passionate and poised, Dawson has been a constant highlight in many of her films, often dealing with subject matters important to her. She has worked with filmmakers as varied as Spike Lee (He Got Game, 25th Hour), Ed Burns (Sidewalks of New York, Ash Wednesday), Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof), and Tony Scott (Unstoppable). She’s also extensively immersed herself in charities and public outreaches, including Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Voto Latino, and the RESPECT! Campaign, designed to help stop domestic violence. For her latest film, Gimme Shelter, Dawson has found a film at a crossroads of her work. The story of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens), Gimme Shelter is based on the true story of an unwed pregnant teen who is all but abandoned by her crack-addicted mother and is ultimately forced to seek refuge (and hope) in the Several Sources Shelter, founded by Kathy DiFiore in her own home. Dawson plays the drug-raddled mother in a raw performance that required her to transform herself into a woman with rotten teeth and an even more rotten sense of indignation so profound that she’d rather attack her own daughter with a razor in her mouth than let the girl leave her for a shelter. In our interview, we discuss how Dawson prepared herself mentally and physically to embody that character, as well as speak of her upcoming projects, which include Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, Cesar Chavez: An American Hero (in which she plays labor and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta), and possibly even a sequel with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington to He Got Game. Den of Geek: Given your character’s persona in this movie how did you get into her headspace for the role? Rosario Dawson: It was interesting actually, because I thought I wouldn’t have to do that much research on this. I think being a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s—I was born in ’79, so I’m still a ‘70s baby—and growing up in New York during the crack epidemic and sort of seeing it with family members who struggled with heroin and crack addiction, I just figured I knew so much about it since a very young age. My mom was a teenage mom. She got pregnant with me when she was 16. She worked in shelters growing up. I continue that work now, as I’m on the board of a lot of organizations. So, I just felt like I had so much history and research done, but I still wanted to throw myself into the character and push that all aside and be in her shoes. It really was a revelation. I think I intellectualized certain aspects of a drug addiction and certain things about the dynamic between a mother and child, and what that looks like when circumstances get the best of you. Just saying the words that June said, and really seeing that she believed them—she really did believe that the world was against her, that it wasn’t her fault. She took no responsibility for her actions whatsoever. That denial and self-pity and righteousness was really surprising, and it made me feel for her so much more. How difficult it must be to transcend your own demons to make a better choice. I get now why you can’t take someone who has a drug addiction and just place them into rehab. They really have to choose to do it themselves, because they have to face the ugly in them to get better. I understood suddenly just how much more difficult that is. You said righteousness. Actors need to define the humanity and sympathy of a character for themselves. Yet, June is the antagonist of this story. How do you thread that needle while finding the righteousness underneath? It’s interesting, because there are so many aspects to her as a person that you don’t really get to know. You don’t know what she’s good at, what she was talented at, what she dreamed of being. You don’t get to really know her very much at all.  You just see her as this woman who is abusive and is a drug addict. But that’s really narrow as a definition of a person, but you don’t get to explore anything else. You don’t get to see her evolve or change. The only thing you see is we reveal more and more of just how awful and how willing she is to be worse. This is interesting, because this is a person who may not get it in this lifetime. You don’t get to have the beauty of an epiphany for her. What you do get is to see her daughter transcend. You get to see her daughter make different choices, even though she has the exact same circumstances, she’s able to choose something different. That’s what reveals June’s humanity. [You say,] “Wow, had June met Kathy? Had June had a chance to go to the shelter? How different her life and Apple’s life would have been.” That’s really interesting, because as much as Vanessa and I were acting at each other—like physically, mentally, spiritually—I mean, there was no collaboration in our behavior, but because of that the relationship shows up so clearly; the performances end up being quite complimentary. So, even though you don’t get to see me transcend, by virtue of seeing Apple transcend, you go back around to June and go: okay, she behaves like a monster, but she was neglected a lot. She didn’t see or understand or appreciate other options for herself, but she too could make a choice today that could change her life and get her back on her feet. There is actually no such thing as being too far gone. You don’t get that at all from June but by seeing Apple’s transformation, you feel somewhat hopeful for something like that to happen to June. Maybe watching her daughter and now her grandchild have a different relationship and dynamic than she was able to have, maybe that can inspire her. Maybe. Well midway through the movie, June insists to Apple that “you are me.” Apple at least in this scene rejects that, but do you see June as [an older Apple] who just didn’t have the opportunities that Apple did? Yeah. I think you also see for Apple how easy it would be if Kathy didn’t exist and her father had thrown her back out on the street: it would have been really simple to get caught up in the system, really simple as well to lose hope herself. It’s not really until she finds the shelter, because she’s just that angry. She’s still acting out and behaving in a lot of ways like her mom. She’s not really aspiring to be better than her mom; she just doesn’t want to be with her. I don’t think she really saw herself as being able to find a family, of being able to trust people again, of being able to relax and feel vulnerable and safe with people. As much as she rejects her mom, I don’t think she really ever saw herself having the dream either. She was sort of in that weird limbo. And that’s the power of influence. That’s the power of people seeing each other and going, “Hey, you really have no reason to trust me, because if your own mom threw you under the bus and abandoned you, why would you trust me? I’m a complete stranger. But I promise you, I’m for real; this is for real. This is my home, and there’s a warm bed in there for you if you want it. You’re going to have to trust me and you’re going to have to choose it back.”  That’s just an amazing opportunity she gets to grow and to develop herself as a person. She’s just lucky, because she knew she was running away from something, but she didn’t know what she was running towards. It’s really quite beautiful when someone can help you and guide you in that way, and that’s something June didn’t have. So, I think it’s quite interesting, because statistically Apple should exactly turn into her mother. That’s what the cycle of violence and abuse does. That’s why we have these statistics, unfortunately, because they are perpetuated so often. I think it’s really powerful to see someone transcend that and break that cycle. Just to take a step back for a minute, something I thought was a bold choice was the teeth that you had in this movie. Was that your idea or was it Ron’s? How did the physical transformation come about? I think we all knew what we were doing. We all showed up on the day, and it was just really clear that you’re playing someone who’s been a crack addict for years. There’s just no way of doing that and having my teeth [like this]. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it. One of the things I think is great is Ron comes from a documentary filmmaking background. He worked with Kathy ad nauseum, he stayed at the shelter, he interviewed the girls, he spent a lot of time with them—the scene where I’m attacking Apple in the church with a razor in my teeth, he was actually in the church and witnessed one of the girls being attacked in that exact same way. He didn’t make that up, that’s actually a real situation that happened. We all knew going in, what movie we were making. I think that’s the great thing. On Day One, it was all clear: grease in my hair, deteriorating skin, putting this enamel, basically like nail polish, on my teeth. It was the same thing for Vanessa showing up. She gained weight for it; she cut her hair. We were all making the same movie, and that’s really cool. [When people ask,] “Were you really frightened when you saw each other?” I was like, “No, actually we were relieved.” Because I’ve seen crack addicts my whole life, unfortunately. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it. And if I’m going to that level by putting on the whole make-up and getting into it, and she wasn’t going there, I would look cartoonish. It’d just be silly. But I think it helps to compliment what she’s doing, because I transformed myself into that monstrous specter of a fear, of a future, she didn’t want to have for herself. That’s something for her to actually run away from. I think you need to have that to propel the story. That’s based on those realities these girls are going through. This is real. It’s not like you get pregnant and your mom takes care of you. No, you get pregnant, and you get kicked out on the street, and you have to depend on strangers. That’s real. We all knew we had to keep that almost docu-drama style in this. It was interesting, because there was a moment on the first day of shooting, we were shooting at this motel in New Jersey, and this crack addict came on set. He came up, and we started talking. Apparently, according to him, we had met before at some party a couple of years earlier. It had been a different life, I think he had been a banker, and now he had just deteriorated. And it was crazy, because I was pretty much looking at a mirror image of myself, except I was wearing make-up and he looked like that for real. It was really disturbing and really sad, but again kind of made all of us go, “This is important.” It’s good that we were willing to go there as a team, because you don’t get to see this in films very often. I think it could be really helpful and healing for people to see that this is not some small problem that exists only in your family but is something that’s in our society that we need to deal with. [Speaking of roles that say something] why did you want to play Dolores Huerta? I have a voting organization that turns 10 this year called Voto Latino. We’ve been doing voting registration, census initiatives, and all types of things for many years. So actually, I got to meet Dolores a couple of times before this film even came up, which was really amazing. I met her the first time for this MSNBC special town hall that we did on immigration with [Voto Latino President Maria Teresa Kumar] and Laurence O’Donnell. And she was one of our panelists, and it was incredible. So for me, I just look up to her. She’s a really remarkable human being. That was probably my scariest role that I’ve ever done to date, because she’s in her eighties, but she’s still doing it. She comes to our summits, and she’s doing speeches, and getting the kids to sign petitions, and she’s sitting in on our panel classes for social media. She’s just in it. She’s like, “Twitter? Okay.” And she’s in her eighties, and she’s going to watch this movie! She just watched it, and it was amazing to talk to her about her life. We’re dramatizing her life! You get a creative license as an actor quite often, like [Gimme Shelter], but it’s not like I hanged out with the mom. I had an ability to play it the way I wanted to, to a certain extent. But when you’re playing a real person who’s lucid enough to be like, “Um, that’s not what happened!” [Laughs] It would be little things like that. I remember talking to her, and I’m showing her “Oh, I’m doing this scene, I’m pregnant.” She goes, “I never showed! I had 11 children, and no one ever knew I was pregnant.” And you’re like, “Well, okay, but we have to show the belly for the movie version.” Just little things that would kind of come up. And I knew she got it; she’s savvy. She gets it, but it’s got to be so different to be there and be like “that’s not what Kennedy said! Or Martin Luther King wrote this letter.” …I think Dolores could absolutely, completely have her own film. She’s such a remarkable human being. But she said that she always wanted Cesar’s story to come first. So, I think she was just really happy to have that opportunity to see that in her lifetime, and for it to be done so well, and so thoughtful. [Director Diego Luna] I think did an incredible job. He’s a really incredible director and man, and he really came about this the right way. He’s telling a great American hero story. That’s what he’s telling. It’s not even about he’s Mexican-American. This is fabric of our history that’s very compelling for all of us to watch. When [Chavez] went on his fast, Martin Luther King wrote him a letter. Jesse Jackson was there. This is all happening during an era of time we think we know everything about, but it was right in the center of all of it. And we marginalize way too often. Historically, if you ask kids, and if they don’t see it in our history books, they don’t know it. This is an opportunity to kind of clarify and make sure that’s in our history books. They deserve a chapter. Could you talk a little about Sin City: A Dame To Kill For? I can’t, no. But I’m so excited that we finally got around to doing it. I was getting nervous. I was like “I don’t know how much longer I can fit into these outfits.”[Laughs]  And I was sad, because Brittany [Murphy’s] gone, and Michael [Clarke Duncan’s] gone, and it’s eight years in the coming, making this film. It was sad that we couldn’t all come back for this film, but it was great to work with Robert [Rodriguez] again. I’m excited for that. I’m excited for Clerks III with Kevin [Smith]. And Spike [Lee’s] also talking about maybe doing a sequel to He Got Game, so it’s kind of cool, because you don’t get to do that very often where you get to work with people again and again in this industry. You sort of feel like an Army Brat; you’re always just moving along. So, it’s really nice to come back around. We’re all still doing it; we’re all still challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves. I don’t get to go back to a character very often. But I do know that Josh Brolin is playing Dwight in Sin City 2, but I also know from that book he gets plastic surgery in the story… Well, we talk about that in the first film. “I gave you a new face, and I see you.” So is there any chance we could see Clive Owen again in that role? I have no idea [smiles]. I really don’t know. I think if I actually said anything, the cyanide pill that was probably slipped to me in the barbecue that was ever present on set would probably take me out before I could say it. I get in trouble with Robert. He’s like, “You’re not supposed to say that!” [Laughs]. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!