Rosario Dawson Plans to Run for Office: 'My Friends Call Me Senator Dawson'

“Would you like me to get you something?” Rosario Dawson asks as she rises from the dining table at the luxury 18th-century hotel where she is staying in The Hague, Netherlands. At first I’m taken aback—interviewees don’t usually offer to fetch journalists breakfast. But then I remember it probably wouldn’t cross the New Yorker’s mind to treat another person as anything other than an equal.

After all, Dawson is as known for her fearless activism (she was arrested in 2004 at an anti-Iraq war protest and again in 2016 during Democracy Spring) as she is playing tough characters like HIV-positive heroin addict and stripper Mimi Marquez in Rent. I suspect that in the “nerdy activist” circles she tells me she hangs out in, being kind is cool and politics is about showing your values, not just talking about them. 

In the current political climate, having an opinion has almost become a marketing tool for celebrities. Even the famously apolitical Taylor Swift recently revealed how she is voting in the midterms. But like actress and trans rights advocate Laverne Cox and #MeToo whistleblower Rose McGowan, Dawson is part of a set of celebrities who were radical before it was "cool" are unafraid to be the first to put their heads above the parapet.

As a woman of Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban, Irish and Native American descent, Dawson found politics to be something she couldn't choose to ignore. Her childhood unfolded on a foundation of extreme poverty and was punctuated with ingenuity in the face of adversity. Her mother and stepfather raised her in a squat on New York’s Lower East Side (a neighborhood touched by homelessness, heroin addiction and the AIDS epidemic) that they fitted with electricity and fashioned into a home.

Rosario Dawson Actress Rosario Dawson at the One Young World Summit at The Hague, Netherlands, on October 18. One Young World

Dawson fell into acting when screenwriter and film director Harmony Korine spotted her on her stoop in the city and recruited her for his first movie, Kids. Since then, she has had one foot in movies and TV (most recently playing Claire Temple in the Netflix Marvel collaborations) and another in politics, including co-founding the voter registration nonprofit Voto Latino.

Even at 9 a.m., running on a couple of hours of sleep after schmoozing at the One Young World youth leaders summit where she'd spoken onstage about sexual violence, Dawson, 39, is hungry to tear into issues as varied as voter registration and her ambition to run for office.

As we chat, she twirls pieces of smoked salmon onto brown bread, barely breaking eye contact. Articulate, measured and brimming with optimism, after an hour of speaking she hasn’t lost a puff of steam.

A year on from the #MeToo movement going mainstream, what has been achieved? Has the atmosphere at Hollywood parties changed?

I’ve never been one to go to a lot of Hollywood parties. But we're hitting a tipping point and a critical mass where technology and access to the global conversation is allowing us to revisit our history.

It’s a constant, perpetual conversation that's going on and that's happened with everything from food to gender violence. It's happening with gender identity, it's happening with farm workers and sustainability in fashion. Climate change, refugees, all also feed into the conversation. 

I think where the conservation has shifted, it’s not just about raising awareness now. We're shifting to asking what are the actionable things we could be doing to really change narratives so younger people won't be vulnerable to the same problems. We are asking, what laws are going to be put on the books? What business practices could we change? There's a consciousness, and there are questions being asked.

Why are you so optimistic that progressive ideals will prevail when there's a sense that democracy is under threat and we are witnessing a rise of nationalism around the world?

We had presidents who had slaves. When you look at it in that context... I think that's one of the reasons why I constantly bring up the past and the great heroes of the past. A lot of erasure happens when we say “it’s so bleak.” Tell me a time when it wasn't.

When you look at [The Vagina Monologues playwright and activist] Eve Ensler creating One Billion Rising five years ago and V-Day 20 years ago, that presents a completely powerful and different narrative, by combating the issue of sexual violence in saying, "Let's hit the streets and be in celebration and dance." People’s agency is missing, and their joy is missing, because people are afraid and scared and vulnerable. Let's transform that and show us in our power.

There is a huge legacy that this moment is being built upon, except we don't celebrate it enough. Like the people of the Underground Railroad movement who go nameless and faceless. Those were people saying, "I disagree. And we should be talking about freedom, not slavery." That's really radical and part of our history in this moment right now. And we're building off of that. That's why celebration needs to be a key part of this moment we're in. 

[After #MeToo] boys are already acting differently. I saw a girl talking on social media about how she'd come out of a pool and some guy whistled at her. But one of his friends hit him and said, “Dude, we don't do that! Say sorry.” That's progress.

GettyImages-529035932 Rosario Dawson attends the Mitu T.A.C.O. Challenge in Los Angeles on May 7, 2016. Dawson co-founded the voter registration nonprofit Voto Latino in 2004. Rachel Murray/Getty Images for mitu

The midterms are days away.  What have you learned from co-founding and working with Voto Latino, and speaking to people who say they don't want to vote? 

We generally see a big drop-off during the midterms, and people don't vote. Then the next big thing is the census, and that counts for $10,000 per person.

So when you don't fill out that census, the disparity between communities only grows. That's why the citizenship question is a really tricky one. By scaring people from wanting to fill out the forms, those roads, those schools, those hospitals in their communities will not get that money in relation to the population.

The tactics being used right now—for instance, in North Dakota, where you have to have a street address to register to vote when we know full well that people on reservations use P.O. boxes—we've seen these types of strategies to suppress votes for a really long time. People are spending millions and billions of dollars on candidates and hoping those candidates will vote according to the things they want to happen. They want to do that as precisely and risk-free as possible. And getting all these new voters in there talking about a different way of running our country is counter to that strategy.

So that's why you've got be vigilant and know that the millions of people who stood out of the last election did so understandably. The candidates aren't necessarily speaking to them, literally and figuratively. Then we have the electoral colleges. We’re a republic, not a democracy. There is not one vote per person, and people know.

claire temple night nurse rosario dawson Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, a.k.a. "Night Nurse." Marvel / Netflix

Having said all that, have you ever considered running for office?

I've thought about running, but years from now.

For what? President? Governor of New York?

I've had people tease and call me "Senator Dawson" in the past. At some point, absolutely. I take it back to the conversation of civic duty: that all of us at some point, in some shape or form, should contribute to civil society. But from my experience and what I’ve learned in the past few years, I'd really be grateful to be able to apply that in some way to being an advocate in the room where it happens, in the years to come.

But I don't know about right this second. I’ve got a kid in high school, and I want to stay focused on that. I think eventually maybe at some point I’d like to go back to college. There are lots of things I’d like to do and create. I really hope I'm here long enough to achieve those different goals, but that's definitely one of the things on my bucket list.

Join the Discussion

Editor's Pick
Polish minister Jews Goebbels Holocaust

Poland Leader Compares Criticism of Ruling Party

Law and Justice "is fanning political divisions further by spewing conspiracy theories and using language that plays on people’s emotions and strengthens a sense of victimhood,” Zselyke Csaky, an expert on Central Europe at Freedom House, told Newsweek.