There’s a reason why Charlie Rose booked Rosario Dawson on his show this week. She’s gorgeous, smart and hugely engaging, all of which are on ample display in talk-fest “Top Five,” triple threat Chris Rock’s latest comedy as a writer-director-star. It was the hit of Toronto, where Paramount scooped it up for 2014 release (December 12).
Rock collaborated with his old friend on the film and lets her run as a sharp, talented reporter interviewing his on-the-ropes star (this is yet another examination of the pitfalls of art and commerce) for The New York Times. They find mutual attraction and cover a lot of ground as they talk through myriad issues. Dawson’s performance is awards-worthy, but so far SAG and the Hollywood Foreign press seem to be hung up on Rock’s raunchy comedy style. Never mind: the movie will be a huge hit.
We started out on video (see below) and continued with a text interview, here:
Anne Thompson: You like being transparent, and you like connecting with your fans directly.
I do! I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook. I like chatting with people. I don’t answer every single question. Sometimes people are pretty outrageous but when you have time and you can talk with someone, I think that’s pretty cool. I’ve always been that person since I was a little kid. I’m not going to blank the person sitting next to me. I’m a conversationalist. And I’ve learned so much that way, to take that opportunity in that place, in that moment. It doesn’t mean I don’t like my privacy sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I don’t put my headphones in and actually want to read my book on the plane. I don’t have to talk the whole time. I’m open. I’ve always been open to those conversations and you never know where they’ll take you and I love that.
Are there journalists that you used as a model for this character?
There’s actually a really good friend of mine who I met when I was 19 who really vibed with it because some of the references and the way she talked reminded me of her. And she’s my friend who first introduced me to the reality of who Justin Bieber was, Britney Spears. She said, “I’m interviewing this girl who did this hit ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time!'” I thought, “What a title!” She was the editor-in-chief at RollingStone.com, she’s working at CNN right now. I met her when she was a freelance writer at Complex when I was 19, she was just kind of getting her thing straight out of college. We’ve been friends for a really long time. I’ve watched her grow and develop and it was just really fun to give her the script. I asked different types of things: How do you make someone feel comfortable? How aggressive do you get in different moments? Do you let it go or keep pushing to get an answer? As a fan, how would you feel?
There are ethical elements as well that you get into. When is it appropriate to use something, not use something?
I think there’s that idea of something being transparent and being honest but is there full disclosure? There are differences between that. Is there dishonesty if it’s not full disclosure? What does that really look like? It’s interesting. It begs a lot of those questions. Hopefully it gives a bit of insight into an arena that most people don’t really witness in a movie or recognize when they’re reading these different articles, that there is a voice behind that article.
You’re also getting into all these issues of social media and different areas of play. It isn’t just print anymore.
There are all these people with an opinion who wouldn’t even necessarily call themselves writers. It has really broadened. We’re not in the Ernest Hemingway times of journalism trying to be super objective. Some people are really calculated and manipulated about how they’re doing it. Are they going for smut? Or are they going for reality, or traffic? There are a lot of different things: pressure from their editor, having a mouth to feed at home, or not even seeing the movie or liking it. There’s this big press conference for the movie within the movie “Uprise” and we have all of these real journalists who were there interviewing and they were barely debriefed on what the whole scene was, and they all went right into the action. I’ve definitely been in a situation more than once or twice where I’ve been next to someone and go, “That’s such a generic question. I don’t even think you saw the movie! You watched an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ last night rather than come to the screening, didn’t you?” It’s really funny. It was interesting to see that side of it as well because it’s a job.
In terms of women characters, this is, as I said before, one of the richest women characters I’ve seen. Bar none. And if you look at “Zero Dark Thirty,” that was an unusual case with Jessica Chastain where we recognized that we don’t get to see this.
And often it’s only when it does come from a female director or voice, and I thought that was remarkable. I mean, I collaborated with Chris on Chelsea, but he created that character. He created this space for her to exist. This was his idea. He has been writing the script for three years.
Do you think his experience with Julie Delpy helped him?
Absolutely. He talked about that. That was one of the things that really inspired him. The inception of “Top Five” was one of his daughters being absolutely obsessed with “Cinderella” and having this idea about a woman interviewer and this comedian trying to turn serious actor, and following them around all day getting to know each other. That’s all he had, and he built everything else around it. That’s always where he was coming from. There were some scenes where I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t want to say that,” and we took a couple of lines out where I was saying “bitch this” or whatever. “We’ve got to be consistent about who she is, and where she’s coming from.” I’m a feminist and he’s like, “I’m a feminist! Are you kidding? Here I am. I just do it in my way, you do it in yours. Let’s make it happen.” And I was, like, “Alright, let’s do that then!”
Were you improvising a lot on set or following a script?
Both. We did a lot of rehearsal. That was a big deal for Chris because he’d also just come off “The Motherfucker with the Hat,” the play. He really had an amazing experience and really felt like an actor. It was really pushing him as an actor for the first time onstage. So he hired this guy Larry Moss, who’s the creme-de-la-creme of acting coaches. He works with Leo DiCaprio. This is the guy behind a lot of amazing performances. He hired him, and he was ego-less about it. “I don’t want to be Chris Rock. I want to be Andre Allen, and I want to figure out who that is without the pressure that I’m also the writer, director and producer.” That’s how he was really inspired by Julie Delpy. She’s an amazing writer/director/actress, and that’s what he was really going for. He wanted it to feel real.
And there’s a Linklater aspect to it.
Absolutely, with the walking-and-talking. Very “Annie Hall.” Woody Allen’s his favorite director. You go into his office and it’s all posters of Woody Allen movies.
The other film you did recently is “The Captive” by Atom Egoyan, which I saw in Cannes.
I got to work with another remarkable director, who I’ve been a fan of for a very long time. We shot that in Sudbury and in Niagara Falls and in Toronto. That was after “Sin City.” I already had my head shaved. I had to wear a hairpiece in that movie because it didn’t really vibe with my character.
Having had this experience, are you spoiled? How are you going to top this great role?
I wasn’t surprised at all. I almost didn’t do the movie because I was feeling so burned out and needing to take a break and I’m so glad that that ended up being the last film I did. After that, the only film I followed with was “Daredevil,” the Netflix miniseries. Still I’m glad that they’re both over and I’m really looking forward to having some space to just be still. I’ve got a fashion line that I’m working on in Ghana called Studio 189. We’re going to be in stores next year. After “Top Five,” I didn’t work on another film. I don’t know how you top that, not just working with a friend who’s so amazing but being able to collaborate and being able to feel like I could be smart on a set.
How do you fight for that?
It wasn’t just “Here’s your lines, stand there and regurgitate.” We went back and forth. I was like, “Listen, Chris, we get to this moment too quickly” and we reshot a scene three times and ended up having to come back a year later and reshoot because he was like, “Rosario, you’re right, we get to it too early. We need to add another scene.” That’s where we added the scene where I walk around inside the liquor store. That wasn’t originally written. That was after we edited together and it still needed more space. My thing is not that I told him what to film, but this is my timing that I feel, this is what I’ve learned from Spike and Quentin and so many. I’ve had great directors. I’ve learned a lot over these years and sometimes I just sit there and think, “I wish someone would ask me because I feel like I know the answer. Pick me!” It’s hard to make a movie, let alone a good one, and you would think you’d want all the information you could possibly have, because this is your moment to make it happen.
You sound like you might be ready to head into Angelina-land.
I might very well. Who knows! I got to do that on “Seven Pounds” with Will Smith. I got to make that character into something that people really loved. That’s my validation. That’s a Will Smith movie but I can tell you if anyone else had played that character, it would be very different. That’s my job as an actor and what I take a lot of pride in. I want people to go, “I can’t imagine anybody else in that role.” Really owning it, and not everybody actually gives you the space to really own it, which I find incredibly frustrating.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.