Flash forward to a not-so-distant dystopian future, where a trigger-happy misfit and his ragtag band of renegades have taken over the White House, zombies rule the land, and Rosario Dawson is an Elvis-loving vigilante who drives a monster truck called “Big Fat Death.”
Such is the premise of Dawson’s new action flick, “Zombieland: Double Tap.” And in a can’t-make-it-up twist of fate, the actress fêted its premiere last week, alongside her boyfriend, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has his sights set on the real White House in 2020.
It’s been a wild ride for Dawson, who was discovered on a Lower East Side stoop at age 15 and cast in Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s era-defining film “Kids.” Today Dawson is a mother (to 15-year-old Lola, whom she adopted four years ago from the foster care system), star of USA’s crime series “Briarpatch,” and co-founder of clothing label Studio 189 (with fashion executive Abrima Erwiah).
The actress, 40, has seen her father through a cancer struggle and continues to advocate for organizations like the Lower Eastside Girls Club and Voto Latino, which she co-founded at age 25.
Right after our Alexa shoot in LA (where she’s based), Dawson is headed to catch a red-eye to New York for more movie press. “I’m a multitasker,” she says. “If I get a little too still, I don’t think that’s as great for my mental health. There was a moment I was receding [from my work] because I thought that I needed to do that, but the relationships I have in the industry are really life-affirming. It’s not just work for me.”
When Woody Harrelson, a longtime friend, asked her to join him in the hotly anticipated “Zombieland” sequel (out Friday), she didn’t hesitate: “That monster truck was one of the big yeses for me, it was like ‘OK, I definitely want to do this!’”
She may have had another casting advantage with Harrelson, an outspoken vegan. “We have these kissing scenes, and I’m mostly vegan, I mostly follow a plant-based diet. He didn’t want to worry I’d been chewing on ribs between takes,” she laughs. “He was eating mostly raw food on set, and doing all these stunts. He’s in his 50s but we’re all huffing and puffing beside him. He definitely leads the charge and is a beautiful person inside and out.”
Dawson is reflective about how she’s landed here — the daughter of a writer-singer mother (who had her at age 16) and a former construction worker dad — she’s now raising her own teenager and helping to care for her father. “It’s been a really, really challenging few years where a lot of mirrors got put up for me,” she says. “I haven’t won every battle, but I’ve felt so grateful in this moment for my career.
“I had imposter syndrome for years. I was like, ‘The Apollo hook is going to come and yank me off the stage and someone with a Juilliard degree is going to take the part.’ But it’s been 25 years of rigorous work, and I have that working-class kind of mindset, and now I’ve gotten to this position where I can ask for things. I can carve out that time for family, or for the issues I care about. I am just in my gratitude.”
She’s also gotten to this point by being resolutely herself. Early in her career she defied would-be starlet conventions, often turning up to Hollywood auditions clad in a sweatshirt.
“I don’t know that I even put that much thought into it. I grew up in New York, and it’s that hip-hop and skater culture … [following] tomboys like Aaliyah that I loved so much. But in the industry, there was this expendable kind of quality where actresses were measured on some outrageous, unattainable idea of their bankability. You’d hear these crazy kind of stories of the most stunning actresses in the world being cut from a film because of one bad paparazzi photo. It was ‘You are lucky to even be here.’ I just didn’t play that game.”
“And then, God’s got jokes, and is like ‘Boom, here’s your man — you’re in love, and guess what? He’s running for president.’”
Dawson has been equally outspoken about politics in the past, and in the run-up to the 2016 election, she endorsed Bernie Sanders. When he failed to secure the nomination, she says, “then I didn’t endorse anyone. My Wikipedia says I endorsed Jill Stein, which is not true. But you see the comments and how angry it makes people, just the vitriol behind it; because I was a Bernie person, I must be anti-Hillary.”
The actress subsequently decided to take a step back from getting quite so personal in politics, instead focusing on broader issues like voter suppression. “And then, God’s got jokes, and is like ‘Boom, here’s your man — you’re in love, and guess what? He’s running for president.’”
Though Booker (whom she met at a fundraiser) is considered a long shot to win the Democratic primary, he recently met a funding benchmark that will keep him in the race, and Dawson plans to be there to support him in any upcoming debates. In the past, she’s faced criticism for missing some due to her work schedule. “Seriously? I’ve got stuff going on. I’m a working mother,” she says.
But she plans to be more public in her future support. “We’re about to be a year [together], literally talking every day, and he’s kind of become my best friend. He’s someone who gets that we’re both doing something we’re really passionate about. I support this incredible human being who’s living his purpose and professing some really beautiful solutions to the problems we’re facing with grace and love and kindness, even when he’s exhausted and he’s been in his fourth state of the day. I’ve been really impressed, and I’m grateful that his voice is still in this race.”
No less impressive is Dawson’s own command of issues — from climate change to immigration — and her ability to stay true to her values amidst the glamorous and often distracting swirl of Hollywood. Though she grew up loving fashion in her own way, idolizing the original ’90s supermodels and finding inspiration from Madonna and Punky Brewster (“If I can wear polka dots and stripes and paisley in one outfit, I’m good”), she is quick to add, “With fast fashion we’re consuming 60% more fashion than we ever used to, and it’s clogging landfills.
“When I grew up, we didn’t have means, it was all hand-me-downs except when my uncle who worked at Macy’s could use his discount.”
Sustainability is important to her, and her closet is now filled with pieces from her own line, Studio 189, which is made by a collective of women in Africa; the label recently won the Franca Sozzani Fashion 4 Development award and was featured in Vogue.
Earlier this year, Dawson celebrated her 40th birthday in low-key fashion and says she doesn’t give a second thought to aging.
“My cousin died when she was 26. I’m 40 and people are like, ‘Are you going to do something about your grays?’ I just don’t have that vanity. There are so many people I grew up with who didn’t have that privilege. I hope to remind people of that, because so often a tragedy has to befall us before we recognize that.”
And with the news cycle barreling on full throttle, Dawson adds, “I appreciate that anything could happen.” President Rosario, anyone? It’s no doubt she’d be a zombie-slaying force to reckon with.
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