Rosario Dawson had no acting experience prior to her breakout performance in the 1995 controversial film Kids. Director Larry Clark spotted Dawson while she was sitting on the stoop of her Manhattan home and cast her in his unrehearsed cinema verité-style film. Kids is a fictional look at the sexual exploits of New York inner-city youth and was heavily criticized for its explicit subject matter.
"It was quite a shock to be put in that project," she admitted. "It was more of a shock to see it afterwards and realize what it was. I don't think I thought about it as much when I was doing it. I was like, OK, this is a cool script. It made waves in the industry, and it definitely opened doors for me."
After completing the film, Dawson moved from Hollywood to Texas for some normalcy. "I was gone for a year. I didn't do anything after that movie. I was 16 and in Texas. I still had the mentality that I wanted to go to college, and I was going to figure out what it is that I want. There were so many other things besides acting that were going on in my life at the time. I was like, Whatever."
Indeed, Dawson approached everything with this blasé attitude—that is, until industry insiders informed her she was being heavily sought after since the film's release. "Suddenly I'm getting calls from agents—people who wanted to represent me and be my manager. I was like, 'Well, I was thinking about not doing this, but you're actually telling me I can go to auditions today and maybe get a job and do it tomorrow? Cool!'"
With a newfound interest in the business, Dawson moved back to New York City to give acting a "real shot." Her grandmother encouraged the teen to make the commitment only if she was serious about the craft. She supported her granddaughter's career choice by enrolling her in classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. "I went there for two semesters because my grandmother read about it and said, 'That's the place you have to go.'"
Since then, Dawson has appeared in such films as He Got Game, Light It Up, Down to You, and Josie and the Pussycats. Currently she's staring in Sidewalks of New York, a romantic comedy about six Manhattanites trying to get their love lives together. The actor explained how she got involved in the project: "I did an audition with Heather Graham for a different movie. I didn't get the part. But in the scene I did with her we just clicked. A year later, while she was dating Ed [Burns], she told him, 'Ya know, you should hire Rosario for this role in your movie because I think she would be very good.' So he looked me up and said, 'I think you're great. I don't know you, but you came on high recommendations and I think you'd be great for this movie.'" Dawson's delightful performance as Maria, a newly divorced schoolteacher, is one of the film's highlights among a cast that includes Burns, Stanley Tucci, Dennis Farina, and Graham.
Dawson credits her work with various Hollywood directors for her growth as an actor. "I've been really lucky to work with some amazing directors: Larry Clark on Kids, Spike Lee. But I've worked with a couple of people who are just not there, and it wasn't until then that I realized how much I count on a director. There is a bunch of people who may have great resumés, but you don't know who they are. And you've got to be very raw and vulnerable when you give your performance, and you hope there is someone there you can trust."
Upcoming projects include parts alongside two of Hollywood's biggest male stars: Eddie Murphy, in Pluto Nash, and as the love interest of Will Smith in Men in Black 2.
Through it all, Dawson maintains candor not typical of performers her age. She enjoys throwing herself into the filmmaking process by watching the work that goes on around her. "It's real easy to sit in your trailer and say, I wanna be on set but I don't want to get in anybody's way. You can also adopt the lazy attitude of other actors around you, but I have to be out there learning and having conversations and getting what I need to get. I want to get what all of this is. I am not above any of that. This is such a transient business. Everything changes all the time. You have to grab anything that comes your way because you don't know if this is going to be your last movie."