Rosario Dawson talks sexism in Hollywood

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Anna Brech
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Rosario Dawson is a real woman's woman.

Within minutes of meeting at London's Soho Hotel, she's grilling me about where I got my shoes from and giggling over the handsome allure of her two co-stars in crime thriller Trance.

There's a lot of chat surrounding Danny Boyle's latest offering, not least because Rosario dated the director for a brief period during filming and their body language on the red carpet has been scrutinised to death in light of the recent break-up. Does she look tense? Are they still on speaking terms? Is it awkward for them to stand so close together?

If the hype bothers Rosario, she's not showing it. Rosario is full of praise for Danny, who she says convinced her to take on the role of Elizabeth, a hypnotherapist and woman of mystery tasked with helping con man Simon (James McAvoy) recover a stolen painting after he suffers amnesia during a daring art heist. The plot is complex and fast-moving, with frequent leaps between reality and fantasy and multiple twists and turns.

"It’s a risky film, so (Danny’s direction) was something that was a big draw and a big comfort," she says. "Because it was like, ‘I don’t totally know how this is going to look later but I’m going to leave that in your hands and I’m going to put myself out there and I just know you’re going to catch me.’

"Danny can take you visually on a journey that most other people are not capable of doing on such a high level, with the sound, with the editing, with the kind of story-telling that he does. It’s a full experience all the way around."

Rosario's character appears in several explicit sex scenes and I wonder whether she was concerned about being typecast as the sultry female lead.

"There’s a lot of people competing for the sexy lead in this film!" she laughs. "James McAvoy and Vincent Cassell were just the most gorgeous, wonderful people. I think they really took it up a notch."

As for being the only woman in the film, "I’ve been caught in that situation before. You’ll find that in a lot of scripts they’ll be multiple great male roles but it’s highly unusual to see that many great women who were as poignantly written as my character was.

"I think that’s what makes it work so well because we have all these suppositions of a woman in a male space and in a guy’s movie and it was fun playing on that expectation."

What Rosario isn't quite so sanguine about is the treatment of women in Hollywood. The 33-year-old actress made her debut in Harmony Korine's 1995 film Kids and has created an impressive main steam résumé since then, including blockbuster hits such as Men In Black II, Sin City and Death Proof.

But the emphasis on body image in cinema does not sit easily with her, to the degree that she used to turn up to auditions in baggy sweaters just to challenge the status quo.

Today, she says, she's given up on being rebellious but the situation for female actors is worse than ever.

"I’ve gone into meetings and you see producers on websites and they’re looking at people’s paparazzi pictures. And they’re going 'I'm looking for inspiration.' And I’ve heard about those 'inspirations' being something that can lose someone a job," she says.

"And you’re going, this is a brilliant actress that you’re looking at right now, and you’re going to see if she looks alright with her new haircut. She’s brilliant – she can do anything. But she’s got a bad paparazzi picture out there and suddenly they’re re-considering her for the part.

"I’ve heard from a friend of mine about this actress who is really one of the most beautiful actresses on the planet," she continues. "And she almost lost a huge job because suddenly the head of the studio got freaked out that she had a bad paparazzi photo out there. And you’re like, ‘Are you serious?’ That’s just crazy. And she was great in the role and luckily this producer got talked off the ledge."

"You hear stuff like that and you’re trying so hard to be an artist and craft something and create an audience that appreciates your work in the same way as a director or a writer, or whatever it is.

"That’s what you’re still doing as an actor, is hoping that people will want to suspend their disbelief with you. You’re creating a relationship. And it can be thrown away because someone takes a bad paparazzi photo. It’s so dismissive and disrespectful but it’s a reality. There’s nothing you can do."

It's an issue that clearly strikes a chord with Rosario.

"I’m not as childish now about going into stuff and saying, ‘I’m going to wear sweatpants and if you don’t see me then fine.’ That was a reaction that I was having but the reality is still the same. I’m just a bit different about my approach to it now. I feel bad for younger actresses coming in. I think the scrutiny is actually much worse than it was when I was younger and I was trying to rebel against it. I’m glad people talk about it and I try to bring it up, because I think it’s really wrong and it would be great for that to change."

I feel bad for younger actresses. The scrutiny on looks is much worse now

Rosario's approach is refreshing, I say, especially in the context of Hollywood and at a time when many people regard feminism as a dirty word.

"Women themselves are sometimes afraid to attach themselves to feminism, because they’re afraid of what that could mean for them," she responds. "The whole conversation’s changing. It’s not feminism of the past it’s what’s happening now. It’s not even necessarily just feminism, it’s just reality. It’s how we’re treating each other and what we’re acknowledging something or not. And just because you don’t acknowledge something doesn’t mean it’s not happening."

Trance tackles the theme of domestic violence, a topic Rosario has addressed time and again in projects throughout her career. She has hope that social media and the internet will bring greater transparency and discussion surrounding the issue.

"The amazing thing about being alive and seeing where social media is, is that we’re not as dependant as we used to be on higher powers talking about something," she says. "We can help each other and talk about it ourselves. I’m seeing a beautiful rise of that kind of thing happening and I’m really connected to that. There’s always going to be people fighting the good fight."

"It’s wonderful when you see men standing up to being feminists as well. (Star Trek actor) Patrick Stewart came out recently doing a whole anti-domestic violence campaign. I was so blown away that he did that. He was like, 'I’m a man, I love women. I’m not a man that hurts women and I want to stand up and talk about that. There’s no reason that because I’m a man I can’t talk about it.' If we don’t talk about it, it keeps happening so let’s do something about it."

The more we talk, the more it's clear that Rosario really knows her stuff when it comes to empowerment. In this respect, she's more activist than actress.

"We have not broken through the glass ceiling in a lot of places," she says. "Changes are not easy to bring about and it takes people bravely going into it and fighting for it. Collaborating is really the key. So often in the places where women have been able to rise, that opened up the door for other women to come through.

"All the statistics prove that with more girls in school, more women in certain positions, it’s a better situation for the entire planet. We have a billion women who are going to be raped, killed or beaten in their lifetime.

"That is not good for the planet. We have to start thinking about all the different ways we can relate to each other better and help ourselves because we’ve got a lot of issues to work on and it would be really great if we were collaborative in dealing with it, rather than putting it on any one person’s shoulders."

Wise words, but if it were to be placed on any one person's shoulders, Rosario's would be a good place to start.

Trance is out in UK cinemas on 27 March. Watch a trailer, below.

Photos: Rex Features, Words: Anna Brech


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.