Rosario Dawson’s acting career has spanned a dynamic range of roles in film and television, but her interests haven’t been limited to acting.
In a phone interview earlier this week, tied to a recent ad campaign she’s leading for Quaker Oats on the importance of heart health, Dawson spoke to Business Insider about several phases of her career, including her role on the upcoming USA drama series “Briarpatch,” from Sam Esmail, the creator of “Mr. Robot.”
Dawson is starring in and producing “Briarpatch,” an adaptation of a Ross Thomas novel of the same name. She’ll play its lead role in Allegra Dill, a Washington DC-based investigator who returns to her Texas hometown to help search for the murderer of her younger sister.
Our conversation touched on her perspective of her early career, including her first acting role in 1995’s “Kids” and how her work with Spike Lee has influenced her approach to the craft.
She also gave her take on the burgeoning field of Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election, including the then-potential (and now-official) presidential run of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, whom Dawson is rumored to be dating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
John Lynch: What drew you to this partnership with Quaker?
Rosario Dawson: I’m always excited about learning new things and new ways I can incorporate healthier practices into my day. Heart health has incredibly impacted my life, with heart issues in different family members over the years that we’ve struggled with, and I’m amazed that one of the things that we’ve been taught for so many years has worked is one of those things that really does work. So I want to share that with people. And it’s Heart Health February, so let’s take a chance to grab everybody’s attention in the direction of what’s going on in their own bodies, as much as we’re talking about what’s going on outside.
Lynch: The video series is great, but I wanted to ask about your upcoming USA series, “Briarpatch,” with Sam Esmail. What are you most looking forward to about that? The premise sounds incredible.
Dawson: Oh! It’s exciting that we’re finally able to talk about it, and I’m excited to get into the writers’ room. It’s already been an amazing experience working with such incredible people. I got to meet so many people that I love so much, now, and I’m looking forward to us being able to see each other again. You know, it’s one of those things where you start off, and you don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. It’s weird, I don’t think I’ve ever really … well, when we shot the pilot of “Daredevil,” I think we knew we were going to keep going. But yeah, this is like, I’m still kind of reeling from it. I’m just hoping we feel like everything we’re putting into it is worth it.
Lynch: What sort of opportunities or challenges does this character present for you? What excited you about it?
Dawson: You know, right now she’s still being developed, so I’m excited to explore her moving forward. This is someone who’s strong and smart and capable, who’s about to be pushed to her limits in a way that I don’t think anyone could fathom. Right now, she’s doing it with grace, and she’s doing it with style. But I don’t know how that keeps going on. So that’s really fun, and a major part of creating her, is this sort of perfectly controlled exterior, and it’s not stagnant.
Lynch: You’ve steadily done more work in TV throughout your career. Do you find at this point that you prefer TV over film at all, or vice versa?
Dawson: I mean, I just really love stories that mean something to me. And I think that comes across even with this video series [for Quaker], with heart health, energy, digestion, and all of these different things we’re talking about, because the characters I play are real, and I’m a person out there in the world [laughs], who’s struggled with heart health in my family. When I get to do a film, it’s that, and it’s fun that this also gets to be part of what I can share with people in storytelling.
That gets me really excited, because we have an opportunity now to make learning about these things fun. And they’re not just commercials or PSAs. They’re just great, little, short stories, the kind of things I loved watching as a kid and just going, “Oh! That’s helpful” [laughs]. In the same way that I want someone to laugh, or go, “Oh! That was entertaining,” or “that was moving,” or made me think about this thing differently. I want to just share different kinds of stories, and I really enjoy being able to generate that in some kind of way. I guess that’s probably why I’m always working [laughs], because I find a lot of things interesting and exciting.
Lynch: On the topic of real life, I believe your daughter is the same age you were when you starred in “Kids.” Do you reflect on that role any differently now, having a kid the same age you were when you starred in it?
Dawson: There are so many stories and experiences I still haven’t even shared with her, and she has such a different life. You have to think about me working at her age, and kind of feeling a pressure to contribute, to a certain degree, just because of how our economic situation was so different than it is for her now. So it’s not just the stories, but we were watching “Rent” again last night and talking about AIDS and talking about HIV, and talking about squatting on the Lower East Side. That was my childhood, and these issues are still real.
So it’s wild to look back on times anyway, but especially to go back and watch and go, “Wow, she’s 15, and that’s when I started acting. What a completely different world it is.” I mean, you watch “Kids” now, and it’s so dated. They use a payphone at one point. It’s like this time capsule of a New York that doesn’t exist anymore, and trying to share that with her is always a challenge.
Lynch: I’m a huge fan of the work you’ve done with Spike Lee. You’ve worked with a lot of great directors throughout your career, but Spike has a distinctive approach. I was wondering, how does your experience of working with him compare to your average director?
Dawson: I was on set with Spike at 18 [for “He Got Game”]. I had auditioned for him multiple times when I was 17, in my high school senior year. And it was so profound, because my mom had gotten pregnant with me when she was going to Lincoln High School [where “He Got Game” is partially set]. My mom went there, my uncle went there. She had to drop out, so technically speaking, I had been in that school, and then all these years later, 18 years later, I’m working with Spike there. And he’s making me feel the pressure of really being a part of that kind of level of storytelling. I needed something like that because I was so young and inexperienced, and his belief in me and pushing in rehearsal, just really the seriousness with which we approached it, was just really impactful.
And I’ve gotten to do that twice with him, working with these incredible actors, the people he puts together, and just how far he pushes so many different kinds of stories. The structure of how I approach work is very much influenced by him, the kind of rehearsal and the way you kind of build a whole space around a story, with the different films you watch, books you read, and conversations you have, so that you can really be as present as possible to make that art remarkable.
Lynch: It’s so crazy to me that he’s just now getting his first best director nomination.
Dawson: Insane. Insane. So long overdue.
Lynch: In closing here, as an outspoken political advocate, what do you make of this crop of candidates building for 2020?
Dawson: I’m so excited. I think that we’re in store for some really smart, provocative expressions around how we can make some positive changes and show up to make those changes, you know? There’s just going to be great discourse and debate. I’m looking forward to that. I think we’ve just had a lot of not that in a lot of ways, for a while now, since Obama.
Lynch: Do you hope Cory Booker will run?
Dawson: I don’t know … [pauses] um … how to respond to that [laughs]. I do. I hope that there’s a lot of people who are potentially going to be running. I hope that we get an opportunity to have people like him in that conversation because he brings a lot of grace, and intelligence, and experience, and I think we need that to be what’s reflected in these debates and in these spaces that have so often been dominated by hateful rhetoric, and debasing each other.
I think there’s an opportunity for us to really kind of rise above that and actually just get really specific about sharing what your vision is, and allowing us to show up for it. To have something to vote for, and not against, you know what I mean? So I look forward to that. I think we’ve seen that a lot already with the people who’ve declared themselves, and I’m really excited. It’s a great group.