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Chameleon, Rising

Rosario Dawson's ability to play a range of characters and ethnicities is propelling her to larger roles

July 07, 2002|CLARE KLEINEDLER

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong character--In a July 7 Sunday Calendar profile of actress Rosario Dawson, her character in the movie "Kids" was described incorrectly. Ruby was streetwise and sexually aware, not a naive girl who contracts the AIDS virus.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong character--In a July 7 profile of actress Rosario Dawson, her character in the movie "Kids" was described incorrectly. Ruby was streetwise and sexually aware, not a naive girl who contracts HIV.

"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

"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?"

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