PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rosario Dawson

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rosario Dawson Rosario Dawson didn't always know she wanted to be an actress—she was discovered, after all, sitting on an East Village stoop by filmmaker Larry Clark, who was scouting for talent for his 1995 film "Kids"—but she's always known she liked to sing and dance.
Rosario Dawson in Two Gentlemen of Verona
Rosario Dawson in Two Gentlemen of Verona Photo by Michal Daniel

This year, she's gotten more than enough opportunities. She recently concluded filming on the movie version of Jonathan's Larson's "Rent," in which she plays Mimi (the film will be released Nov. 23), and currently she is making her stage debut in the Central Park revival of the 1971 musical Two Gentlemen of Verona. The motormouthed actress, who talks virtually nonstop and with great enthusiasm, took a break at a recent rehearsal to talk to Playbill.com about the joys of musicals, both on stage and on screen.

Playbill.com: How did you get cast in Two Gentlemen of Verona?
Rosario Dawson: I was stuck out in California when they were first hiring and casting for this. Notoriously, I think, they had a lot of issues hiring for this character [Julia] back in the '70s. Raul Julia was really strong, everyone was really strong, but they had a couple different Julias. I remember it being kind of an issue. I think they assumed it would be now as well, and thought maybe they should find someone that they could break out, and maybe get a special performance from, but not necessarily someone that they know, but that they could make sure could sing and handle the Shakespeare and all that stuff. So, it was a question of getting someone who was an actor, but would have a name, and could sing, but not necessarily be a singer. There's been a lot of talk ever since my being cast in "Rent": "Can she sing? Can she do it?" And it's really opened up a lot of doors, which is exciting, because it's something I really wanted to get into and never really had the chance.

Playbill.com: Singing, you mean—doing musical theatre.
RD: Yeah. I've talked to many people over the years who said doing plays were the most incredible things, but the one thing I always wanted to do—because I was discovered into acting, and I had never wanted to be an actor before—was I loved dancing and singing. When I was on "Rent," that was the most fun I could have. I'd come in and just dance and sing, playing a dancer. I'm like, "You're paying me for this? This is fantastic! This is the best ride of my life."

Playbill.com: Between "Rent" and Verona, you'll probably have no problem being thought of as a singer now.
RD: Right. It's such a great opportunity and I felt I really want to jump on this [Verona], even though it's a really scary prospect. Six shows a week—I know that's not the normal eight shows a week, but it's nothing I've ever been trained for. I don't want to take the challenge and not be able to come through on it. I'm up against the boy that just came out of friggin' Juilliard [co-star Oscar Isaac]! I'm up against Renee [Elise Goldsberry] who came from The Lion King, and Norm Lewis, period!

Playbill.com: So, The Public reached out to your agent, and they sent the Public footage from "Rent"...?
RD: Yeah. I was still out there doing "Rent." They [The Public] said, "Is this something that she'd even be interested in doing, and that she could actually do?" It was a big, big question. There was a lot of talk about it and communication. It's a lot to handle for my first play ever. It's Shakespeare, it's a musical and it's outside! But if I was ever ready before, I'm ready now after "Rent." It's been six months of working together with really incredible people who have built up my confidence, who really challenged me and pushed me. Playbill.com: You are one of the few leads in "Rent" who was not part of the original Off-Broadway and Broadway cast. What was that experience like?
RD: Me and Tracie [Thoms, who plays Joanne Jefferson]—the newbies. It was a very personal thing for me to do, having grown up in a squat in New York and having lived that lifestyle and understanding what that was. One of the reasons I hadn't seen it [Rent] when it first came out was because I couldn't imagine someone making a musical about people who are suffering with HIV and who are struggling artists in a squat. You can't get that right.

Playbill.com: Where was the squat you grew up in?
RD: In the East Village. I can't imagine that being something to sing and dance about. When I finally did see it, it was revolutionary. I didn't see it with the original cast. Tracie saw it with the original cast. I was the only one [in the film's cast] who hadn't. Once I had seen it, I was butt-kicking myself for not having seen it with the original people. I heard how fantastic it was and how strong it was—and to have this opportunity all these years later to be with them and perform with them and live out the fantasies I'd had about it. Also, it's the 10-year anniversary for me of having started in the business. Thinking that I was discovered on the stoop of that building and that ended up being the experience I'm tapping into for this film—I never expected that would be something I could source for acting.

Playbill.com: What sort of experience are we going to have watching the film of Rent?
RD: From everyone I've talked to, the first three-quarters is just a kick-ass rock opera. It's just incredible. And then the last quarter you're just crying.