When Rosario Dawson walks into a room, every heterosexual male head turns to her. It’s hard for her co-star Adam Pascal to compete with that kind of magnetism. And it was hard for him to compete with her ability to answer the hell out of questions. The woman can talk!
Dawson is new to Rent, taking on the role of the smack-addicting exotic dancer Mimi, while Pascal returns to the role he originated, Roger, a former smack addict and current PWA (that’s Person With AIDS, a term that no one seems to use anymore).
Q: What gave you the chutzpah to go ahead and give this a try?
Dawson: What gave me the chutzpah? I have a lot of incredible family members who kind of take on everything with the same kind of attitude that made me go running with the bulls in Pamplona. It was probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. It was like, ‘All right, I’ll try it.’ I don’t usually get scared about something until I try it and realize, ‘Oh, that was really scary.’ So that was kind of how I approached this, but I was actually really nervous when I went into the audition. It’s one thing to go against some other actors for this part, but I was going against actors who originated these parts; people who have been nominated and had gotten Tonys for it; people who know it inside and out and who knew Jonathan Larson as well and had totally the inside track. And I had never done it before, but I was really excited because I knew I could do it even if I was delusional. I easily could have been delusional.
Q: When did you know you could do it?
Dawson: I just knew I could. I just knew I could. I love singing and I love dancing. I bought my first song when I was six. I’ve always been really flexible. It’s really the only thing I ever wanted to do. I was discovered into acting. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but singing and dancing has always been my dream, my fantasy. Some kids want to be a ballerina, or a princess, but I’ve always wanted to sing and dance.
Q: What took you so long to do it?
Dawson: Because I got into acting and I fell in love with acting and that became my thing and I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of theater. I didn’t see the original production of Rent for that reason. I didn’t have the money to go see it. It wasn’t something that I got into. The only musicals I ever saw were on film. I really loved them, but it was sort of like that dream thing where I could never imagine myself actually doing that. I saw my uncle doing West Side Story and that’s what got me excited about the idea of doing something like that. When I saw the movie, it was the first time I imagine I could never do something like that. It really is a dream come true.
Q: Who was the uncle in West Side Story?
Dawson: My Uncle Gustavo. It’s actually really funny. He was one of the Sharks and he died and my brother was 4 and I think I was 9 when I saw it and when he died, my brother jumped up and went nuts, in a good way. That was one of the things where I could see with music and with dancing and using your full body in that way and how you could really emotionally get people; even my little brother was 4 and maybe he wasn’t following the story that well, but you really get caught up in it. At recess, I remember singing all the Ariel songs from The Little Mermaid. I’ve always loved stories and song together. It’s been so important to me, but that’s because it’s so personal. I never thought that would be something I would do.
Q: Did this character resonate with you?
Dawson: Absolutely. I grew up in a spot in the lower East Side and my mom is so much of what Mimi could have been or was. She was a young woman and she was struggling and she moved into a building with no heat or water or electricity and thought that was a better opportunity for her even thought her family thought that was crazy because she was an idealist and it helped to think that this is what she can do with her life; even if it was a struggle, she knew she could build it from her own hands. She wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel but she was trying to make a life for her that she felt comfortable in and could rest at night. We moved into a spot with no running water or electricity so she became a plumber so she could put the sewage lines in. My dad did construction and when we first moved in, there was this huge gaping hole in the floor and a firewood door with a chain; we had an extension cord that went across the courtyard for the one refrigerator we had for the entire building and that’s how we lived for awhile until they build the place around us. She was the only person who had kids doing that and for her and my dad, that was better than living in the railroad apartment with the slumlord down the block.
So, it was an interesting way to grow up, but doing something like Rent and discovering it when I did, a few years after it had come out, gave me the articulation to look back in my life and be really proud of what it taught me and where it puts me now; so I have the gratitude, especially after playing Mimi, whom I’m so encourage by and so inspired by vitality and her chutzpah and also knowing that she is doom and so needy for love and attention and for all the things that I’m not starving for. I have all of that and so grateful for it. She was 19 and I’m 26. I’m doing all right. I’m feeling no day but today; not from the idea of being HIV positive and I’m a heroin addict. I’m so grateful for what I have in my life and the opportunities I have and I see that every morning and I’m grateful for that. I love Mimi, but I’m also glad that I’m not Mimi.
Q: Adam, was it easy to invite Rosario into the family considering she was one of the new people joining the core ensemble?
Pascal: For the most part, all of us who were in the film have not done the show for at least 8 years; so it wasn’t like we were welcoming someone new into this family that has been on stage for so many years together. It had been a long time since any of us had been involved in this project; so it was certainly long enough to accept someone new and it wasn’t an issue whatsoever. Rosario (Dawson) and Tracie (Thoms) were the best possible people for these roles and I’m thankful and I think the audience will be thankful that they are in this movie. All of us, as soon as we got together and met, our chemistries clicked. We were all so excited to be a part of this project.
Q: Do you miss Daphne?
Pascal: Of course. Daphne was a huge integral part of the original production and it was unfortunate that she couldn’t be a part of the film. That’s not the way the stars lined up. This is the way they lined up.
Q: How does it feel to come back to the role?
Pascal: To return to it was great because I had had such a long break from it. The material was ingrained in me it was always there but it was also very fresh; and also the fact that the medium was different, that made a completely new experience. What was so wonderful was that those of us who are coming at this project from a predominant theater background and those of us from a predominant film background, the marriage of the two worked so well that this new family that was formed; those of us from the original cast and Rosario, Tracy, and Chris, again, it was all about the perfect alchemy. The chemistry of all of us together was, I felt, the same chemistry that I did off-Broadway between the cast, Michael Greif and Jonathan Larson. We had that same chemistry making this movie. Everybody was on the same page. Everybody had the same vision of this film and the same way that I put all my faith in Michael Greif when I was doing it on stage, I did the same with Chris Columbus and I was not let down.
Q: What is it about this piece that leads you to keep finding that alchemy, as you have in the workshops, on Broadway and with the film?
Pascal: I mentioned something about the stars lining up. Look, there have been lots of casts all over the world and that chemistry isn’t always there. The show isn’t always so good, but I think the original Broadway cast, this original off-Broadway cast and this movie (cast), it needed to be right, and for whatever reason – Jonathan is watching us – it was right. If you believe in that kind of thing, he brought us all together because now this is on film, this is forever. The legacy could have been it was a Broadway show that’s still running, but the movie sucked. Look at Phantom. Phantom is still running. I loved it. But the movie was terrible. We didn’t want to have that same issue with this. There was so much riding on it.
Q: When Rent opened it was very timely. How timely is the show now?
Pascal: For the movie, we pre-dated it to when the show was dated. The show took place in the early 90’s, but now that it’s 10 years later Chris felt that it needed to be pre-dated just a little bit because it’s very important for the audience to understand that these characters who are HIV-positive, because it was true, that they were going to die very soon. And in the late 80’s that was the case. If you were infected with AIDS you were going to die. You could take AZT, you could prolong it to a certain extent, but eventually it would kill you.
Dawson: But that medication didn’t work for a lot of people, especially women. It actually gave them a lot more problems, if anything, and kind of expedited the process for some people.
Pascal: And now AIDS is so under the radar here in this country and in industrialized nations. The only visions of AIDS that kids in America see today are of these poor, dying people in Africa. Growing up, the only pictures I even ever saw of African people were of these poor people dying of whatever they were dying from. You become so desensitized to it. Kids need to realize that these characters who look just like them, these young white kids, can get this disease and did get this disease, and that back in the 80’s it was a death sentence. It’s not so much of a death sentence today. There are great drugs. You can live with it. But, hopefully, for the movie to be believable, the audience needs to realize the fear. The fear has to be real. The audience has to get and understand why there’s such fear about having this disease.
Dawson: It was a visible disease then, with people walking around with lesions on their face. You could see it. Now it’s so under the radar you have people like Magic Johnson doing press about, ‘Hey, I still have it, people.’ Before it was only this big moral disease and it only affected homosexuals, and so if you stayed away from a lot of these sweaty little places, then maybe you won’t get it. Then it went under the radar and you couldn’t see it anymore, and now it’s only something that’s happening in Africa and we need to go and save (people) there. It’s interesting how it’s turned into all of these different ideas, except for it just being a disease. It’s a disease that’s affecting humans across the world and we need to treat it like that, and that’s why it’s spreading. I think if we had the heat of that and the idea of it, especially when put this play out and it was so present for people to look at, it shows you 10 years later it’s spread so rampantly since then and we haven’t taken it seriously in that way. We haven’t said, ‘This affects everyone and we need to not tolerate and we need to take care of it,’ because it’s become a pandemic now, and that’s because we haven’t paid attention. So hopefully putting this out there (will help). But there are so many other things about this movie. It’s not an HIV movie. It’s not an AIDS movie. It’s about people. But, it is a part of our lives, just as much then as it is now. We need to take responsibility for it and we need to look at it straight in the eye because it’s ugly. But it’s something that we can handle. So, if we look at it like that, then there’s something we can do positively for our future. Putting it in the hands of the teenagers who are going to be seeing this, for a whole new generation of kids to see it, it’s going to be, I think, very powerful.
Q: Adam, where does the movie stand so far as you playing the role, as far as the whole Rent experience?
Pascal: Well, it’s certainly my best performance as Roger. That, I can tell you. It’s an incredible sense of closure that I’ve been given to have been able to have originated it and come back 10 years later.
Q: Would you play Roger on stage again?
Q: Has it opened up films for you?
Pascal: It hasn’t yet.
Q: Rosario, what do you have coming up?
Dawson: I just finished working on The Passion of the Clerks, which is Kevin Smith’s sequel to Clerks. I play the manager of Moobie’s. It’s actually really quite funny and probably going to be a different kind of press situation after this, talking about it. But I think it’s just really funny. Sin City 2 is a possibility. I just finished, also, another film, Kill Shot, with John Madden, based on Elmore Leonard novel, up in Toronto. And the day after the premiere (of Rent) I am starting production on the film I’m producing with my company and with my producing partner, Talia Lugacy, which is titled Decent. It’s a rape revenge story.
Q: You sound incredibly busy. Are you able to focus at all on your life?
Dawson: Not so much! There has definitely been a little bit of suffering in my personal life, not so much, obviously, with my boyfriend or the very close people in my life, like my family. But extending out, it’s a little bit hard. Like my godchildren, it gets a little bit difficult because I just moved out to LA and they’re out in Queens. But the film I’m producing is being shot here in New York. It’s six-day weeks, which is pretty rough, but on my days off I plan on spending time as much as possible with my family.
Q: Do you worry about being put into the sexy girl pigeonhole in your career?
Dawson: No so much. I’ve done over 20 films and maybe four or five of them have been quite sexual, but the other ones not so much. I’m excited about the one I just did with John Madden. The character itself is supposed to be in her 50’s and they cast me. So I was like, ‘OK, I’m playing a woman in her 50’s, who lives in a trailer home and loves Elvis. I’m gonna channel that through Rosario?’ So we did a lot of things. I have this really bad, curly hair with a ponytail on the side of my head. I have no makeup or anything, except for pockmarks on my face. You have to see something about her, that she has low self-esteem about herself and imagines herself in a situation where she can be in a room with Mickey Rourke and Joe Gordon Levitt and being abused and feeling like she doesn’t have any hope or any other options.
So I’m excited about being able to play a lot of different characters. I think as sexual and young and sprightly as someone like Mimi can be, you also see how insecure she is and how needy she is, and I think that shows so much. Just because you have that beauty on the outside doesn’t mean that it’s always working on the inside because otherwise she wouldn’t be taking heroin every five minutes. So I think I’m lucky and I’m blessed to be able to show a diverse group of characters. I don’t just have to be a character actor because nobody wants to hire me for the pretty girl, and I also don’t also have to always just play the pretty girl. I’ll do what I can for as long as I can. I said that on Alexander. The nudity worked for me. I thought it made sense for the character and also I’m glad that I can look at in my 80’s and be like, ‘I was hot!’
But I don’t feel pigeonholed into that because I don’t pigeonhole myself into that. After I did He Got Game every script I got was playing some guys girlfriend who was hot, and that was it. I was like, ‘I’m sorry. I did that. And I did it really well, with Spike Lee.’ I don’t want to do it just randomly because it’s not an interesting character for me to play. I guess also coming into this industry and not wanting to be an actor, it doesn’t ever make me feel like I HAVE to do these different things in order to be successful because I don’t want it that bad. I just am enjoying myself. And something like the film I’m doing right now, it’s not an explicit film, but it is a very harsh films. It reminds me more of Kids than anything else. And it has a lot to do with race. That’s something that I’m taking on in that film. That’s really exciting for me and I hope that that also, like Kids, breeds a lot of conversation and communication. That’s the stuff that’s interesting to me
Q: What did you make of Rent when you finally saw it?
Dawson: I had seen it before. I just hadn’t seen it with the original cast. I was 17, I think, when it first opened and definitely could not afford to see it even if I wanted to. Also, it being such a similar mirror of what I’d experienced growing up. I was like, ‘OK, it’s a bunch of bohemians living on the Lower East Side in squats, struggling, starving and dealing with HIV. Hmm, I know that really well. I don’t see where there’s anything to sing and dance about.’ So I was thinking it was, ‘Let’s just make a really interesting characters on the Lower East side. No.’ I was actually quite insulted about it and specifically didn’t see it. When I finally came across the soundtrack my uncle had, my Uncle Gus, actually, I was so moved by the articulation of these characters and finding out, when I finally did get to see the show, how beautiful and respectful it was, and what a human story it was, and about the relationships. It’s not about exploiting the characters, like we have on a lot of our TV shows, where it’s like, ‘We’re gonna have a little drag queen and the little Latino will be spicy and have funny little lines.’ It wasn’t like that at all. He wrote it about his friends and there’s this resonant true that’s in it that really moves people. I dare people to watch this movie and not be moved when you see Angel die. I don’t care if you respect his lifestyle or not, that’s a lot of human being to lose, and that’s beautiful, and that’s something that can really breed conversation and breed tolerance, which I think is a really powerful thing. That’s not why he did it. He was doing it to celebrate his friends, and I think that comes across. It is a celebratory movie. Even in the midst of heartache and death and sadness and being broke and being hungry and cold, there was beauty there between these people because they supported each other. They didn’t just survive together, they thrived together. And that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s why we watched Friends so much, because we want to have relationships like that, where people are going to be there for you good, bad and ugly. I think that’s what’s going to be so moving about this. That’s what was moving about this for me. It gave me the articulation to look at my past. So I’m very excited to be able to talk about it and to bring it out to more people.
Q: America has changed a lot since the world has changed a lot since the play opened. Do you think with today’s current conservatism that the movie will be embraced outside of the big cities?
Dawson:I’ve gotten asked about that, like ‘How are going to accept this film with liberal issues?’ And I don’t see where the liberal issues are. This is about people and relationships and living. A lot of scenes and dialogue were cut where it was very specific talking about the HIV and AIDS and the situations. It’s not a preachy film at all. I don’t think it’s trying to make you anything. I think you’re just watching people’s lives unfold, and you’re watching it over a year’s time. The things that moved me are like the montage, when they’re all together, just laughing, at New Year’s. I don’t know about you, but when I think about my life I want to be around my friends, having that kind of joy together. And that’s how the memories strike me. When you have music the way that this music is, and it’s so moving… these people are either going to be people you recognize or people that you want to know. I think that’s a powerful thing. Whether you want to exclude one or two of them, there’s still something in there for everybody. Everyone of these characters, first of all, they wouldn’t normally be protagonists in any story, and that’s why I’m so proud of Jonathan for putting it out in the first place. But, two, each of these individual stories would be a movie unto itself, and he didn’t just do that. He showed a mixture of people, and that’s New York. I think that’s what is so attractive about it. It’s New York City and the diversity of what it is, and it’s all possible.