Born and raised by a single mother in New York City and having watched family members struggle with heroin and crack addictions, Rosario Dawson feels a personal connection to her latest role in Gimme Shelter. In the film, Dawson transforms into June, an abusive and strung out lowlife who arguably stalks and violently beats her pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Apple (Vanessa Hudgens). Dawson, who is almost unrecognizeable in the film, had never before played such a role, and it served as an awakening. “I’m used to doing my scene and then hanging out by the coffee table chatting, but everybody was flinching away from me,” Dawson told us. As for filming the fight scenes that literally made us flinch? “I was perpetually grimacing for 24 hours afterwards. I felt like Gollum,” she said. We spoke with Dawson about dealing with June’s resentment, preparation to play such a tough role, and her lasting impressions of the experience.
What led you to want to play this role?
Well first off, it was an unusual introduction. I was with Vanessa and my manager, who represents both of us, and we were going to Cannes. We were on the plane and he just leans over and shows me his phone and is like, “Read this scene. Vanessa’s doing this movie and there’s a part for her mom. I think you’d be great for it. What do you think?” It’s this scene where I’m attacking her and it’s horrible. I’m like, “Okay, thanks for thinking of me for that!” [laughs] But you know, I thought it would be fun and unusual. I’d never played a character like that before and I really appreciate the themes in the film. I’ve had family members who struggled with drug addiction. My mom was a teenage mom. I work with shelters. She worked with shelters. I feel like its something that’s in my bones, so I thought, “Sure.” But I really had no idea just how heavy and dark it was actually going to get.
The relationship between [Apple and June] ends up being really important because you can’t see this transformation in Apple without seeing what she’s running from. I think you get to see the monster that June is and her humanity by watching her daughter transcend and get the opportunities that maybe she wasn’t exposed to. They’re complementary performances as much as they’re acting at each other. It was so heartbreaking and so intense. It’s a lot of cynicism to carry in your body. I think it was quite revealing to me. I gained a lot of compassion for her. It wasn’t just this practicing my crack-walk. It was getting into the darkness that all of us are susceptible to. When we don’t handle our demons we become one.
How did you get into that darkness and how did you deal with being in it?
I think a part of me intellectualized the idea of watching family members who struggled with heroin and crack addiction, and then looking at the perspective of rest of us—their children who grew up fatherless, the wife they left behind, the career they squandered and how much that will reflect over many, many years. I’ve always looked at it from that perspective, then I suddenly had to see it from the perspective of the addict. I had to be in that person’s shoes and argue on their behalf. In order to do that you have to believe it to a certain extent, you have to speak it as your truth. It was interesting to grapple with that because I completely disagree with [June]. I’m the exact opposite—take responsibility for yourself, grow, evolve. That’s my whole mission in life and here I am playing this woman who is in complete denial, who is righteous in her self-pity and lets her circumstances take her down. I felt bad for her, but I felt compelled because I understood it’s not just selfishness. It’s not just ignorance. It’s fear.
How did you prepare to play this role?
I had to push all of my history aside because I’ve looked at it from the outside. I’ve looked at it from a caretaking position. I was raised by a teenage mom, but totally under different circumstances. My grandmother did not kick my mom out. As much as we were the statistic, I was raised that I was loved, that I was cared for. I had to imagine being in the same circumstances that I grew up in, but what if my grandmother had made the choice to kick my mom out? What if my mom was so resentful of me that she couldn’t look at me and blamed me for sacrifices she made? It was an interesting journey of appreciation, but then rejecting it because I had to.
It was looking at [June] from this dark place and imagining everything being a fight. I kept thinking of playing Mimi in Rent. I was like, “This is Mimi not having gotten HIV/AIDS, but actually getting pregnant. This is her not finding her chosen family, but being out on the street.” It’s not the romantic musical version of drama. It’s the actuality of going, “It’s rough out there.”
What’s one experience on set that was a formative part of you playing June?
The physicality and the abuse. The actual girls from the shelter were performing in the film and they’re not traditional actors. We were doing this fight sequence—I went home bruised and battered. I’m in this fight with these girls and I’m like, “My leg don’t bend that way!” To do this role I had to be very protective. I’m beating up this girl who’s my daughter, but in real life it’s Vanessa and I’m trying not to hurt her. But when you’re doing the take over and over again and to sell it, you really have to hit each other. It was this weird thing of abandoning myself into this person who is so caustic, cruel, violent and abusive. It was hard because you can’t have that thought about what you want to do the next day. You only have these couple of hours to get it right, so you have to go full in. As horrible and disturbing as all of these scenes are, all throughout it we were loving each other. That made it palatable to go through. Otherwise, it was really dark.