You grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and you were 15, sitting on your stoop, when the director Larry Clark asked you if you wanted to be in a movie. That movie was ‘‘Kids.’’ Had you wanted to be an actress?
Oh, no. I was going to finish high school. I wanted to study engineering or marine biology. That was my plan. ‘‘Kids’’ was a fluke — it’s only in the past couple of years that I haven’t been waiting for the hook that will pull me off the stage. Coming from my background, I certainly didn’t think this would last. My mother had me at 16, and I was raised by her. It’s crazy to look at early photos — my mom’s a baby with a baby. I don’t know my biological father — I grew up with my dad being the man my mom married when was 1. My biological dad came back when I was 4 years old. He said, ‘‘I don’t have anything to offer.’’ He made the decision to go back into the ether. I’ve made lame attempts to look him up, but the truth is, I’m not missing anything: I have so much family as it is.
Did your parents encourage you to act?
They encouraged me to be serious about the work. My family is a trip — they’re amazing, but they’re a case study unto themselves. My way of rebelling in life is to be conservative in my behavior because my mom is so radical. She’d go to P.T.A. meetings with a huge nose ring and I used to say, ‘‘Can’t you just wear the stud when you come up to school?’’
My mom told me so much about sex at an early age that she scared me: I didn’t have sex until was 20. I got into trouble at school because one of my friends said, ‘‘Lesbians do it with straws.’’ I said, ‘‘I can tell you how lesbians do it, and there are no straws involved!’’ But I think all that talk of sex put me off. The first time I had it, I think it was in a head-to-toe rubber. I was terrified of getting pregnant. My mom was planning to get an abortion when she was pregnant with me. She was at the clinic waiting for her appointment and she felt me move in her stomach. I always tell her it was probably gas. I thank God for gas.
Was your mother a disciplinarian?
My mom licked me — that was her punishment. If I was a little uppity or if I didn’t listen or if she wanted to get my attention, she’d lick the side of my face or under my armpit. My mom’s a six-foot-tall amazon and she’d say, ‘‘You came out of my vagina and I own every part of you,’’ and she’d lick me like I was her wee pup and she was a lioness. It was humiliating and really intense. Very primal. It’s not spanking, but it definitely works.
Growing up, did you watch a lot of movies?
Some. But when I was 16, I saw ‘‘Reservoir Dogs’’ over and over. I came home from school and watched it every day — five times in one week. Everything about that movie was remarkable to me. It was inspiring. Three years ago, I got to work with Quentin [Tarantino, who wrote and directed ‘‘Reservoir Dogs’’] on ‘‘Death Proof.’’ I had to audition three times for him — I sold myself so hard and he finally gave me the part. I cut my bangs really short for that movie. It was my homage to Bettie Page. I wanted to dye my hair a cranberry color, but Quentin drew the line there.
After ‘‘Kids,’’ you were cast by Spike Lee in ‘‘He Got Game.’’ You played the girlfriend of an aspiring basketball player.
I auditioned 18 times for that movie. I’d been accepted to U.S.C., but I had also taken classes at Lee Strasberg’s acting studio. I hated acting class so much. I was surrounded by people with résumés and photos. They knew what they wanted. I wasn’t sure about acting until I was cast in ‘‘He Got Game.’’ That made me serious. I committed — said no to U.S.C. — and then I didn’t get another job for a year after that.
It’s a clichéd question, but does your ethnicity limit you in terms of roles?
There are scripts I’m not even allowed to read. That’s hard. But, on the other hand, I can be Moroccan, Iranian, Egyptian, Puerto Rican, black and more. I blend. And when they hear me talk, they realize I’m not just some sort of street kid. I have never felt sorry that I’m not blond haired and blue eyed.
For years, a young Latina was automatically cast as the love interest. And the characters you play are often very sexy. Do you have trouble doing nude scenes?
The only sex scene I’ve done that caused a fuss was the one I did with Colin Farrell in ‘‘Alexander.’’ That scene was intense. I thought it was necessary to the movie — in life sometimes you’re naked. But it was not soft porny in any way, which would have been harder for me. My brother, who D.J.’s in a strip club, was relieved when he saw it. He said he was happy that I ‘‘was fit.’’ He didn’t want to be embarrassed around his friends.
In ‘‘Seven Pounds,’’ which came out this past Christmas, you have love scenes with Will Smith. Was that scary?
Before our first major kiss, he said, ‘‘Let’s go — I’m going to nail this scene. I want to go home.’’ [Laughs] But he focused. Kissing can be more intimate than nudity. You have to take your time.
Your character is also gravely ill, awaiting a heart transplant. Was that difficult to play?
My mom was sobbing when she came to the set. She said, ‘‘I don’t like seeing you like this.’’ I’ve never had trouble watching myself, but in this movie, it was hard. I couldn’t help but think about my own mortality. And it made me that much more aware of how lucky I am.
In 2006, you moved to L.A. Do you ever miss the Lower East Side?
Sometimes, but my old neighborhood has changed. When I visit, they probably think of me as yuppie scum. I think, Young urban professional — yes, that’s me. When did I become the enemy?
New York Times T-Magazine Screen Test
Rosario looking fabulous at the Vanity Fair Post Oscar Party
Source Rosario Dawson Online