Byline: Elena Romero

NEW YORK — Actress Rosario Dawson has proven that age is nothing but a number.
At 21, when most young adults are looking to enter the “real” world, Dawson has already established herself with a promising career that includes some 13 films and counting. But it’s her latest flick, “Josie & the Pussycats,” which premieres next week, that could serve as her ticket to stardom. Dawson co-stars with Rachel Leigh Cook and Tara Reid in the latest release from Universal.
“It was a great experience working on the film,” said Dawson, sitting in her Manhattan home. “It’s given me more attention than I’ve ever had before and given me much more of a voice.”
The charismatic actress plays one of the Pussycats in this live-action comedy based on the Archie Comics series, which will make its Hollywood premiere April 9 at the Galaxy Theatre in Los Angeles and hit theaters nationwide on April 11. With the release of this potential box-office smash, expect to see a strategic merchandising blitz that will include everything from lip gloss to actress-replica dolls around the trio of cat women.
“A lot of times, people get the chance to do kids’ movies and get nothing out of it, but I only plan to do a kids’ movie once, and I got a doll out of it,” Dawson quipped.
If she hasn’t already done so with parts in films such as Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids,” Spike Lee’s “He Got Game,” “Light It Up,” costarring with Forest Whittaker, Vanessa Williams and R&B singer Usher, or “Down to You,” which featured Freddie Prinze Jr., Dawson will soon become a much more familiar face with movie-goers.
In her latest movie, she plays musician Valerie Brown, who sings, plays the bass guitar and makes a hair statement with her immense afro — “I changed physically; I wore a big, huge ‘fro,” commented Dawson, who had to chop her hair over 12 inches after the film.
“I had to cut it because it was permed for the movie and got damaged,” she said. “When I first cut it, I felt naked. It was a huge adjustment. Now, I love it. It suits me.”
She’s quickly adjusted to her new look, as she has also begun to realize that she’s blossomed from a young lady into a woman.
“It really hit me more with Josie,” she said. “I had been in Canada for five months filming ‘Pluto Nash,’ and four days later shooting ‘Josie.’ I had all that time to myself, reflecting, missing home and figuring out who I am. It finally caught up with me.”
Words like makeup, which were not common in her everyday vocabulary, now are, and even planning what to wear to public appearances is being given a bit more thought. Regardless of the occasion, Dawson looks to comfort when addressing her style. She considers her look to be simple and classic, while at times leaning more toward conservative.
“I like the sophisticated look. I use that to push off a little more of that older edge,” she said. “It makes me feel womanly, strong. Then, I also like to mix it up with something loud and colorful. I don’t like to only wear black. That kind of bothers me and makes you look like every other publicist. I love color — red, yellow, gold, silver, as well as classic colors such as gray, green and beige.”
Dawson likes shopping at thrift shops, where she feels she can find one-of-a-kind items.
“I don’t like wearing something 300 other people are going to be wearing,” she said. “I like finding that individual something, even if you have to fix it up a little bit. I’m lucky enough to know a couple of designer friends who help me out in that department.”
Dawson noted that’s particularly important because of her body type.
“I love clothes, but I hate shopping. It’s hard for me to find something off the rack and be comfortable,” she said. “I have small hips and big boobs, and it’s really difficult to pull a dress off the rack and have it fit me unless a designer has my fit in mind.”
Dawson said she’s just as comfortable in a Thirties dress or something she designs herself with the help of people such as costume designer Salvador Perez, whose work includes movies “Light It Up,” “Titanic,” “Soul Food” and “Men of Honor.” “When I buy something that is almost perfect and needs to be altered, he’ll help me with that.”
She’s making plenty of room for her wardrobe in her under-construction apartment in Manhattan’s Alphabet City — a neighborhood she is very familiar with. All of her furniture is currently being purchased online, and Dawson has made sure to have left no stone unturned. From a custom closet to a Jacuzzi and steam room, her first apartment will have the makings of a great bachelorette pad.
“The first closet is like a mud-room closet,” she said. “On the opposite side, it will have a bench on chains that will flip down so guests can take off their shoes and coats before getting into the house. With the main closet, I decided to use the height. I will have two rods and will have shelves so I can see all my shoes.”
Renovation is scheduled to be completed in late spring.
Among the things found in Dawson’s closet are her favorite pairs of jeans, including Jill Stuart and Helmut Lang, as well as tops by Dolce & Gabbana. Whether its classic or punk, Dawson said she always puts her own touch to it.
“I just can’t throw on an outfit that I bought, walk out with it and be happy,” said Dawson, who two years ago took a crack at modeling, appearing in Ecko Unlimited’s 7th on Sixth runway show. “It’s the only way I’ll feel it’s my outfit.”
Growing up and gaining popularity has its advantages — like driving — and challenges — such as finding and furnishing her first apartment, as well as dealing with the inevitable invasion by the media of your private life. Dawson’s name has been linked romantically by the media with rappers Q-Tip and Jay-Z, and even actor Stephen Baldwin.
“At first, it was funny, like dating Jay-Z. It doesn’t hurt anybody, but when people start writing about my friends that are married…that was written tastelessly,” said Dawson, referring to a recent New York Post article claiming Baldwin and she were getting too cozy at a party.
“She was with her mom, two uncles and an aunt,” her mother, Isabel, added to set the record straight. “He was whispering in her ear and it was misconstrued. They are friends.”
Dawson was discovered at age 15 on a stoop in Alphabet City for the film “Kids,” which depicted a day in the life of a group of New York City teens. The other youngsters featured in the film were also pulled from New York streets, as opposed to being professional actors.
“When the film came out, it was a big deal because of the content and the way it was shot. It looked like a documentary and it really made an impact.”
The Brooklyn-born beauty reflected on the surprising direction her life took at such an early age: “Film was a really shocking thing for me. Growing up meant going to junior high, then high school, then college, and then you figure out who you were going to be, pay off your school loans and then be what you were supposed to be. It didn’t happen that way because life hit me first.”
And it hit her fast. According to Dawson, who is of multicultural lineage — Puerto Rican, Cuban, Irish and Native American — there were a number of firsts around the time she was discovered.
“I had a cast of my face, arms and legs done for this Native American exhibit that is still at the Custom’s House, downtown by Battery Park,” she said. “That same weekend, I danced in this Vibe commercial. That’s why I was outside in the first place. One of the grips was really cute and I had my first crush.”
Since then, her career credits have also included “Trigger Happy.” She’s also acted in a short film directed by Ethan Hawke.
On tap are “Sidewalks of New York,” set to be released July 20, and “Pluto Nash,” due out in 2002. She’s also produced a 15-minute short entitled “Bliss Virus,” written and directed by Talia Lugacy. Dawson hopes to produce Lugacy’s first feature film sometime in the next year.
“I’ve learned so much from film to film,” Dawson said. “I’ve been in a position that I’ve been rejecting stuff because I didn’t want to be typecast or the material did not speak to me. I always want to be excited about it.”
She is currently filming “Ash Wednesday” in New York and later this month will commence shooting “The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest,” in which she plays the love interest of actor Adam Garcia.
Last but not least, she’ll be starring as Will Smith’s girlfriend in the “Men in Black” sequel, which also stars Tommy Lee Jones.