Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


In her own words: Rosario Dawson talks about playing Vanessa Hudgens’ drug-addled mother in “Gimme Shelter”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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For June Bailey it’s a not so wonderful life. But there is hope even for a woman who consistently made seemingly wrong choice a person can make in life. And that’s Rosario Dawson found playing the self-centered drug-addicted that pregnant teen daughter Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) flees in the powerful new film Gimme Shelter (read my review here).

I was at a press event in advance of this opening weekend in which the 34-year-old actress reflected on how her character reflects people she knew growing up on New York’s lower east side in the eighties and nineties. Here’s what she had to say, in her own words:

Q: Can you talk about the intensity and desperation of this woman?

ROSARIO DAWSON: Desperate people will do desperate things. It was incredible, actually, to kind of actualize a lot of things that I had experienced since I was really young. I mean I’m a ’79 baby so grew up in the eighties and nineties crack epidemic that scoured my neighborhood and (was) my landscape.

My manager — who represents Vanessa and I were on our way to Cannes. We were on the plane and he just shows me this scene (from the script) on his cell phone. He’s like “Hey, we’re doing this movie. Want to (play) her mom? And this is the story. And I’m like, okay, my mom was a teen mom. I work with a lot of organizations. I’ve grown up sort of (around) a lot of different shelters and things. So, it all touches my heart. I grew up (around people) that were drug addled…(but) I had no idea the depth of getting into it, what that was going to do and how upsetting (it) was. But I was glad that we were all making the same movie. (Writer/director Ron Krauss) came from kind of a documentary background. It was really important for him to be realistic and clear and honest with this information. He really rigorously made sure that we were really using the proper language, that we really were telling the story. You know, when I attack (Apple) in the church with the razor…that wasn’t something he made up. He was actually in that church and witnessed this girl get attacked by her mom with a razor. It’s like you can’t make up this stuff.

I think shooting in the actual shelter, having a lot of girls who were in it, there was no question about…vanity. It was actually just about we’re making this movie and we’re gonna tell it to the best of our ability and be clear about it because this affects real people. This is something I’ve personally been affected by. I’ve had family members who had heroin and crack addictions and all types of things…It was really distressing and it was really hard but it was a pleasure to really show that type of human being and that struggle because I think we can all really relate to it. I think that’s really necessary.

Actually, I remember the first day, Vanessa and I felt really relieved, actually. (I was) watching as she put this weight on. She’d cut her hair. We were really kind of getting into it. Here I’m putting this enamel on my teeth. And I think we just looked at each other like “Thank God!” You know, to do this story you gotta get into it. It would be terrible if I’m going through all of this transformation or she’s going through all this transformation and the other one isn’t…It was real too. I remember the first day we were shooting. This crack addict came up to me and it was like looking in the mirror — like, just in case, we felt like this is too much or…is this gonna look weird on camera? This person walked up to me and it was like literally looking into the mirror — the deteriorated skin, the…teeth. It was like “Oh, yeah. This is what happens with years of drug abuse. This is what you actually look like.” We were able to transform me into that in a half an hour but that’s what it actually looks like.

Was it hard to turn off the character when the camera went off?

RD: Incredibly so. It was interesting. I never really experienced that before. You know, it was like you hangout. You’re filming all day. It takes a lot of time between setups and things and you can’t really chat with people…They’d all be flinching. It was very isolating, actually. I had a hard time eating and drinking anything anyway just because of this enamel on my teeth. So, you know, I couldn’t really just lounge around the craft table. I remember actually going home with the hair and makeup on. I was so bruised and battered after this I was just like “I want to go home” and I’d show up and it like New Yorkers are not even flinching or blinking an eye. People are stopped at stop lights and people are just going “Anyway, “whatever)…”  No one cared at all! But I remember going home and I thought my family would be like “Wow! What a transformation!” and be into it. They were not. My brother was really upset. He was like “Take that off! I really am having a hard time looking at you!” My parents were really disturbed by it. It was really interesting and I was like “Yes! We got it right!”…It was trippy.

Were you able to spend time in the shelter before the production started? Did you spend time with (shelter founder) Kathy DiFiore?

RD: Yeah, we got to meet right when we were doing it. That’s the interesting thing. I tend to do a lot of research for a lot of the roles that I play because it’s great to build the character and just get kinda into it. I mean everything still goes to the actual written word and what it is that I’m saying with as much vulnerability or honesty as possible.  But, in this one, it felt like I had already done a lot of research. I was raised by a teenage mom. I (saw people) struggle with drug addiction and watching the effects of that over many years on the children and their spouse and their career and everything…Again, I had been (around) shelters since I was ten years old and watching poor people helping poor people and strangers reaching out to strangers. So, I grew up with all of that. It was just really remarkable to put all of that aside and realize that almost made me intellectualize these issues…I had to really get into it and that was really a struggle. It was really challenging to go “This woman really believes that.” She really believes that her circumstances define her and that she’s actually righteously indignant about her self-pity and her choices in life. That was really upsetting. It made me understand deeper why you really can’t just take someone who’s got a drug addiction and just put ‘em in rehab. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t choose it for them. They have to choose it for themselves — because that’s scary. It’s really hard. I mean we have a hard time facing things of our own things that we’re guilty or feel upset about or distraught choices that we’ve made that we’re not so proud of. Imagine that times a gazillion. Someone who’s really going “I have to look at my ugly?! I have to really look in the mirror and take responsibility for my choices?! No, you know what?! I just want to get high again and go over there and not think about it.” It’s so much easier to do that than how scary it must be to see who you actually are and take responsibility for it. Denial is an easy place to live in.

So, that was really interesting because all that research that I had done my whole life, to a certain extent, those are all the thoughts that come after the issue, the problem, the circumstance.  So, my whole life I’ve been thinking about those extra steps. June? No. Like the thought stops here. Like that’s it. That’s all she’s got. That was actually really compelling and distressing actually and disturbing.

What was your process for handling that very emotional razor blade scene?

RD: I had witnessed that. I mean I grew up in the Lower East Side and saw it since I was a kid. So, I’ve witnessed since I was a kid a lot of that violence and abuse. It’s the reason why I’m on the board of (the anti-women’s violence group) V-Day. It’s why I work at the Lower East Side Girls Club. It’s always compelled me to try and do something to correct and help that aspect of our society and our humanity.

In this one, again, there’s nothing for me to get from talking to the girl who actually experienced this because then that would be empathy. That would be compassion and that’s not something June has. June has resentment and anger and she’s just violent and abusive and she’s got all her blinders on. The fact that (she) could even do something like that I think just shows the level of how dark and cynical and lost she is. So, it was really about going into that. It was about really blocking out any thought of what a normal caring person would do in that situation and actually just being completely inside your own — not even selfishness but — lack of self-awareness.

She’s just really a child. She really just was acting out like a kid. There was just no maturity there whatsoever and that was what was really kind of scary and crazy. Like, who do you have to be to do something like that and feel good about it — like feel like “Yeah, that’s what I’m doing today. I woke up this morning and I prepared a razor because this is, like, what I’m gonna do because I’m so angry that you got it better than me. Like, I sacrifice everything — I think — for you and you’re rejecting me and are throwing me away and making better choices. How dare you?!”  I’m (playing) who that person (is) which is such the antithesis of how I grew up.

My mother’s mother always told me mom “If you get pregnant, you’re out.” But then my mom came home at 16 years old pregnant and my grandmother was upset. She was scared for her but she took care of her — (and the baby) which was me. I was raised in a house of love. I was wanted. I was never treated like I was regretted. My mom never resented me. She never talked about her sacrifices in a way that was against me and I’m just realizing how important that was. It was really interesting. Because, both Vanessa and I — Vanessa had her sister there every day, her parents there — and I was going home to my parents every day and just recognizing (that), yeah, my parents are not perfect. I grew criticizing how imperfect they were — but suddenly just being like “But you loved me.”

I never went to sleep ever — not one night — maybe we went to sleep hungry — but I never went to sleep feeling like I wasn’t loved. I always had just that caring hand. You realize that all those stories that you read about babies that die because they’re not being picked up and touched, just how important that is. June has been neglected. Yeah, she made bad choices but each of those choices marginalized her more and more and more and made it more and more difficult for someone to reach out to her but that’s what she really needs. The idea that it takes a village is not just for the baby. It’s for the parent. And she needed that village. And, clearly, her mother didn’t accept her and take care of her. So, it’s understandable to an extent that she couldn’t do that with her child.

Did June see Apple as a welfare check?

RD: Absolutely, in a lot of ways. I think to a certain extent. I think early on maybe that was her anchor and her lifeline — or so she thought. But I think she really was really disturbed and distressed by a lack of care. She was abandoned by the man that she thought was gonna help her. You don’t hear about it but (she) had no other resources. And that’s the interesting thing with June is we really don’t know anything about her. We don’t know what her likes, what her tastes are, in anything. I don’t know if she was good at singing or dance or math. I don’t know what she could have been. I have no idea because all we know about her is her addiction and her failures. You know, so it’s really interesting that we don’t get to paint a (complete) picture. She just comes off as this monster in a lot of aspects.

But I think that’s what is made up by Apple and Apple’s transformation because we get to slowly see a bit of who Apple is — not just being defined as being the daughter of an abuser and someone who has been caught in the system and can be really violent herself. You get to start to see her compassion and humanity because we get to be on that journey with her. We don’t see that with June but the more you see the transformation (and) how Apple transcends and breaks that cycle of violence and abuse that she statistically is supposed to assume, the more you go back to June every time and go as (bad) as June (is) “(if only she) had met Kathy…(if only) someone stepped up.”

And still, at the end, even to the very end, you go there’s still a place for you. There are still shelters. There are still rehabs, there are still people who are going “I will help you. Make a choice today maybe that you couldn’t make yesterday — but the choice you make today could make your tomorrow better — IF you choose to do that.

As much as I don’t get to do an arc for this character, I think Apple’s arc makes you go back to June and go “There’s still hope for you, actually.” There really still is and maybe Apple figuring it out for her daughter can give (June) that second look at life and the chance to go “It’s worth it to face my demons.” Because when you don’t face your demon you become one.”

Note: I’ll have an interview with Kathy DiFiore, the founder of Several Sources Shelters, on Monday.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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