In early 2020, Rosario Dawson was acting in “DMZ,” a dystopian adaptation of the DC Comics series about a war-torn version of Manhattan in the midst of a second Civil War. When COVID shutdowns hit, “DMZ” was put on hold, and by the time it resumed last year, Dawson had already acted in “Dopesick,” another timely miniseries about tears in the fabric of American society. By the time she took the stage after the premiere of the first episode of “DMZ” at SXSW last week, she had spent so long contemplating such consequential themes that the weight of the moment overwhelmed her.
“I’m so emotional right now,” she said, welling up. “This is so real for so many people in the world around us.”
A few days later in a phone interview, she reflected on that moment. “It’s crazy to me the opportunities I’ve had to speak to people on issues and stories that mean so much to me,” she said. “At the premiere, that just left me overwhelmed.”
Countless stars make overtures to political activism. Dawson got there nearly 20 years ago with Voto Latino, the non-profit she co-founded focused on registering young Hispanic and Latino voters, but the mentality is also sublimated into her recent work as she becomes more visible than ever. Watching “DMZ,” as Dawson goes from concerned mother to community leader, it’s no grand stretch to see it as a dry run for genuine political ambition.
“My summoning in life is to do a lot of what my heroes have done — what Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem have done — to keep pushing democracy forward in a way that galvanizes people,” Dawson said.
These are lofty goals for any celebrity in an age of soundbites and a divisive political landscape, but Dawson’s recent work suggests she’s cracked the formula for uniting her professional and personal impulses through the lens of popular culture.
Even the upcoming Disney+ series “Ahsoka,” in which she takes centerstage as the resilient Star Wars Jedi, reflects a conscious desire by the actress to play characters enmeshed in struggles that reflect the world around her — the challenge and the sacrifice of doing the right thing for the sake of a troubled world. The work functions as an activist manifesto in disguise. “It’s this idea that you have to continually make a choice about where you stand,” Dawson said. “It’s not like you train to be a Jedi and that’s it. You can go to the dark side. It’s a constant, perpetual choice.”
Courtesy of HBO Max
In “DMZ,” Dawson plays Alma Ortega, a medical officer who returns to the demilitarized island to find her grown son, only to become enmeshed in a high-stakes battle for control of the region between the leader of the Spanish Harlem Kings (Benjamin Bratt) and a Chinatown boss (Hoon Lee), both of whom knew her before the war. The pilot, which was directed by Ava Duvernay, finds Dawson in tough survivalist mode, even as her character finds a deeper calling in the needs of a neglected underclass. The subsequent installments of the four-episode arc continue that balance, with director Ernest Dickerson and showrunner Roberto Patino (who previously worked on “Westworld”) blending the milieu of a grimy post-apocalyptic action-thriller with genuine kitchen-sink realism: Think “The Warriors” by way of Ken Loach.
“As someone who grew up in the Lower East Side, I saw what neglect and abandonment looked like in a community,” Dawson said. “ I saw poor people helping poor people, never with the expectation that anyone would come to your rescue. You had to build community on your own.” As with the characters in “DMZ,” she developed an acute awareness of the impact that local governance had on daily life. “Growing up in New York in the 80s and 90s, I watched how we were changing our policies, watched how people were being ostracized for everything from having HIV to addiction,” she said. “It has taken us a really long time to find any humanity in those spaces. Politics has been far behind. It has cost a lot of people their lives and livelihood for generations.”
Dawson was drawn to “DMZ” in part because Patino was Colombian-American. “When you have an international perspective, you realize that we have always been at war,” she said. “People say it’s so hard to be celebrating with what’s happening in Ukraine, and it’s terrible what’s happening in Ukraine, but also: You had no issue when the bombs were being dropped in Aleppo? There’s a cognitive dissonance that’s been going on for a long time.”
Despite her more recent prominence in leading roles, Dawson said she first saw the potential for impactful performances almost 28 years ago. That was when, at the age of 15, she scored a bit part as a horny teen in “Kids,” the naturalistic look at youth culture that became emblematic of 90s teen rebellion. “It was remarkable to me that ‘Kids’ could focus on a bunch of latchkey kids like myself who are up to all kinds of things that could really determine their life directions,” Dawson said. “It encompasses drug abuse, HIV-AIDS spread, rape. I was just so moved and blown away by that. That was when I realized that these starving artists I grew up around were onto something.” At the time, Dawson had grander ambitions than her onscreen persona. “People really believed I was this sexually promiscuous, outrageous character,” she said. “I was nothing like that. I was a babysitter, I was a virgin until I was 20.”
Of course, her foul-mouthed Latina wasn’t the centerpiece of the movie. “We were side characters,” she said. “I feel like there is definitely a progression when I see something like ‘DMZ,’ with the people I grew up with as protagonists.”
Dawson’s mother had her at the age of 18 and she grew up in an affordable housing building in the East Village, though she briefly lived in Garland, Texas with relatives before her acting career took off. “My whole plan was to get a college degree and get out of this insanity I grew up around,” she said. “I never got a chance to go to college but I’ve been able to keep telling these vital, important stories instead.”
Dawson admitted that not every project on her docket was imbued with social consciousness. In addition to “Asohka,” for instance, she also has Kevin Smith’s “Clerks III” in the pipeline. “Yeah, I do funny, silly things here and there because I love the medium and want to work with certain people,” she said. “I get the entertainment and distraction aspect of it. I do think that’s important. Try to get through a pandemic without art.”
Still, Dawson’s tendency to speak in rousing terms about the need to unify society’s broken components points to her broader raison d’être, and that’s not only because she became a potential First Lady when New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, her partner at the time, ran for president in 2020. Voto Latino continues its work as the midterm season looms. “We’re only continuing to move forward and keep making inroads, which we need to do as we’re seeing redistricting and gerrymandering,” Dawson said, noting that the organization registered 600,000 people to vote in the last presidential election. “There are horribly restrictive voting bills being put up across the nation. That is still such a critical aspect of the process and I’m very engaged in it and committed to it. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Does that mean she might follow the trajectory of her “DMZ” character and entertain a run for office? President Dawson isn’t the most radical concept given the recent history in the Oval Office. She laughed when it came up. “It’s one thing to ask people to vote for themselves and another to ask them to vote for you,” she said. “Who knows? But it have to be many, many years from now once I’ve slowed down in this other space so I can think about that.”
In “DMZ,” Alma finds herself thrust into a leadership role by the community she tries to help, and that may be the template for Dawson’s own potential next phase. “Like this story, it’s going to be a question of necessity. Sometimes you are championed by the people around you. Those are the greatest politicians and heroines that we’ve had — the ones who have been summoned and pushed forward.”
“DMZ” is now streaming on HBO Max.