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Romancing Rosario

AT THE MOVIES

Dawson makes her leading lady debut with a nervous Will Smith in 'Seven Pounds.'

December 18, 2008|Chris Willman

America might be facing severe job shrinkage, but once in a while you still find a position opening up that hasn't been available for some time. Like this one: "romantic leading lady in a Will Smith drama." That vacancy has been filled in "Seven Pounds" by Rosario Dawson, who's better known for her prominent roles in indie films than her smaller ones in studio pictures.

The film, in theaters Friday, pivots rather crucially on Smith's deeply cynical character falling hopelessly in love. But the romance at the heart of "Seven Pounds" isn't exactly familiar filmic territory for Dawson. The 29-year-old actress has appeared in 40 features over the last decade without ever being a romantic lead before now. Well, with one possible exception.

"I look at [2006's] 'Clerks II' as a romantic comedy -- my kind of romantic comedy," she said. Which is to say, one that has her discussing sexual hygiene ethics in her first scene. The lewd talk in Kevin Smith's movie didn't exactly go as far as the Will Smith film might in establishing her as America's sweetheart, but Dawson said it did cement her appeal among one particular audience: "It definitely won me some more fans at Comic-Con."

Dawson is, in fact, a geek-girl extraordinaire. She might show up for a Beverly Hills lunch interview in a determinedly feminine pink sweater, but her one-of-the-boys status is confirmed as soon as talk drifts to her appreciation for Marilyn Manson, splatter cinema and "Occult Crimes Taskforce," the comic book she co-writes.

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An unlikely start

Dawson was 15 when Larry Clark literally picked her out of the crowd for his controversial indie breakout, 1995's "Kids." She worked on the film for only four days and "didn't think anything was going to happen with it" until she got a surprise phone call to come out for the premiere. Excited by the prospects, her grandmother enrolled her at the Lee Strasberg Institute right out of high school, but Dawson didn't care for it and dropped out to take classes at Columbia instead, still thinking she wanted to become a marine biologist.

She got on a serious acting path when Spike Lee signed her up for 1998's "He Got Game." There was a bit of initial stereotyping: "Everybody assumed I was like that character in 'He Got Game' and 'Kids.' I got a lot of scripts after 'He Got Game' that were that same kind of hoochie-mama girl, and I was like, I already played a chickenhead, and she was awesome, and I did it with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington -- why would I want to do that again with you?"

Then came the years where she was "kind of all over the place, not knowing what I was doing," supporting actors such as Eddie Murphy in "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" and, yes, Will Smith -- to a more limited degree than their new picture -- in "Men in Black II." She did a period role in Oliver Stone's "Alexander." She did the noir sex-bomb in "Sin City." She sang in "Rent," which had a secret typecasting element.

"I grew up in a squat on the Lower East Side, so that movie was very cathartic for me, because it was so about my childhood -- and also really frustrating, because I wanted it to be gritty." Recently, she's specialized in hyper-conversational roles in such films as "Clerks II" and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." "That's because both of those movies I have to talk really fast, and that's something that I'm very used to doing. It's like stunt acting."

When it comes to "Seven Pounds," she has to be uncharacteristically terse: The studio is encouraging everyone involved to avoid spoilers, hoping that some of Smith's motivation for helping Dawson's character, a patient in need of a heart transplant, remains a surprise to audiences.

"It's hard," she says, "to sell a movie on 'It's really mysterious, we can't tell you what it is, but you're going to love it, it's going to be an emotional journey -- just go see it.' With Will, at least, you have a little bit of goodwill, where people are sort of like, 'All right, I'll roll with him because he's awesome.' "

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A little tenderness

If "Seven Pounds" does soften up Dawson's image and earn her more conventional roles, "Seven Pounds" director Gabriele Muccino will no doubt be owed some of the credit.

"When Kevin Smith's being, 'Yo, what's up!' on set, that's what he saw in me and wanted to bring out more in me," Dawson said. "Gabriele saw something very different, and it was much more gentle. Gabriele is a very emotional, masculine Italian guy. He was always yelling at Will, 'You need to touch-uh her face more gentle-uh!' "

"Rosario is extremely beautiful," said Muccino, "but I didn't do anything to underline that beauty. I tried everything possible to bring out her inner beauty, strength, wit and cleverness, which are part of her real persona."

Still, perfecting the romantic chemistry between Dawson and Smith took time -- or, actually, procrastination.

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