One night several months ago in a deserted Oakland, California, train station, a tango was getting underway in fits and starts. Director Chris Columbus was shooting his film version of the smash-hit musical Rent, and working hard to perfect this showstopper of a number. The takes were frustratingly—though necessarily—short, featuring about fifty glamorously dressed performers (sharp nylons and little black dresses for the ladies, black slenderizing suits for the men) snapping to attention for a few short bars of angular, athletic motion. With a Steadicam swooping, dodging and eyeing them coolly—seemingly mocking them with the effortlessness of its movement—the actors gamely repeated their routines; and when the cameras stopped, they slouched with obvious exhaustion. Hoisted outside, blazing kliegs poured light through the big windows, to give the illusion of mid-afternoon.
Rent star Rosario Dawson—who wasn’t in the scene but had come by to watch—entered the big space like a dervish, making ebullient greetings, and catching the light and wearing it well. She took in the expansive tableau, enthusing about the tiny details. “It’s, like, movie dirt so they sterilize it,” she said of the filth that encrusted the extras playing the movie’s homeless. Several truckloads of garbage, employed weeks earlier to help make a San Francisco street look like one in New York, also stood ready nearby. With her coltish frame concealed by jeans and a sweatshirt, and her Chuck Taylors, thick-framed glasses and black bandana, Dawson‘s presence was as muted as it can be, which is not very much.
When another take was done, she clapped immediately. “Isn’t this great?” she asked of no one and everyone. If all you knew of Dawson was her character in Rent, you’d likely think that, for an HIV-infected heroin addict, she seemed to be in good condition and spirits. The cast of the film is for the most part the original Broadway cast, with a couple of important exceptions—Dawson is one of those exceptions. But she could easily make you believe that the character she plays, Mimi, was created just so that one day Dawson could portray her in the movie. She could also make you believe it really isn’t her fault that, in a room full of “centers of attention,” she becomes the center of attention.
Earlier that day at Café Gratitude, her Mission District haunt during the shoot, Dawson fielded compliments and held court. Everyone knew her, or wanted to, and she enjoyed having an audience. Though not a household name, if Dawson were to meet you and tell you she was a movie star, you’d probably reply, “Oh, of course. That makes sense.” But Dawson wouldn’t be likely to make such a statement, of course, and this is a large part of her charm. Another part is the way she has of opening up about her experiences.
The day before the tango shoot also included a trip to San Francisco’s Richmond District for a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) at the Balboa Theater, one of the city’s great independent movie houses. En route, Dawson used the stereo to blast some of the preliminary recordings from the film version of Rent, sheepishly qualifying them with disclaimers of her relative inexperience as a singer. These comments were ridiculous; she sounded terrific and, if anything, all the more genuine for not seeming overtrained. After dinner she ran into a homeless man outside a taqueria and bought him a burrito. He had no idea who she was but it made his day, and he told her so. Later she said the experience of shooting Renthad sensitized her to the high percentage of homeless people that had been disowned by their parents for coming out of the closet.
As the night of the tango shoot wore on , Dawson retired during a break to the trailer of costar Tracie Thoms. Thoms is the other new addition to the Rent cast and she too is gorgeous, talented, magnetic and winningly humble. She told Dawson that she wasn’t satisfied with her dance sequence, and felt frustrated that time constraints wouldn’t allow for another take. Dawson listened, consoled, and said to Thoms that director Columbus ”isn’t Bob Fosse.” This wasn’t meant as an insult, but was an astute analysis. Thoms took her counsel to heart.
Dawson later confessed to sometimes wishing that this treatment of Rent had been approached differently. “Maybe I’d make it rougher,” she said. She spoke often of “Jonathan” (Jonathan Larson, Rent’s originator, who died before its theatrical premiere) and of what he might have wanted, as though she had known him as well as the other cast members. She spoke of the true spirit of the show manifesting itself at its most genuine during its scrappy early off-Broadway run, long before she had become involved. The true spirit of the show, many people avow, has to do with seizing the day, and with a group of young people “measuring their lives in love.”
Well past three a.m., Dawson was still bouncing, waving and grinning her way around the set. Columbus, wearied but jovial, had moved from Diet Coke to Diet Red Bull and he gathered the cast around a video monitor to play the completed opening scene—an overture version of the song “Seasons of Love”—the editing of which had just been completed. The scene was rousing and was received with hugs, applause, teasing, laughter and more hugs, most of which were initiated by Rosario Dawson. “You guys, she said, “we are fine.”
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve’s film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.