Wearing sky-high heels and a gilded leather tank top that shields her torso like superhero armor, Rosario Dawson raises her arms, flexes her sculpted biceps and curles her lips into a sexy snarl.
"Oh my God," gasps photographer Art Streiber as Dawson strikes another power pose, arching her back low enough to limbo and shooting one arm up like Nike, the winged goddess of victory.
Dawson clearly trained hard for her role as the ambidextrous ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano, a wise warrior who wields two lightsabers in the newest Disney+ live-action Star Wars series, Ahsoka, debuting August 23. For several months, she honed her martial arts skills two hours a day, seven days a week, with fight coordinator Ming Qui.
"By the end I was muy macho," Dawson says during the emmy photo shoot. "My arms were so big!"
Leading an iconic franchise's new show by playing a fierce female warrior is a dream job for Dawson, an actress and activist who has championed the rights of women and other marginalized groups for years.
"Dream role? More like fantasy," Dawson says. "There's no way that I was trying to manifest this to happen. It's unbelievable. I grew up loving action-hero women, with that Terminator kinda thing and Ripley [from Alien]. I can't believe I'm playing someone in that sphere."
Dawson credits fan artist Kode Abdo (known as BossLogic) — and the magic of The Force — for helping her land the part. After he tweeted an image of her as the character, Dawson responded, "Ummmm ... yes please," and that caught the eye of Ahsoka creator Dave Filoni, who had executive-produced Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, animated series featuring the Ahsoka character.
"The Force is really strong on those projects," says Dawson, who played Ahsoka in episodes of The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett before landing her own series. "Who knows what would've happened if BossLogic hadn't made a fan-cast of me? Dave loves to be like, 'You didn't just get this job because of a tweet.'"
It's been a long journey to Disney star (she's also in Disney's summer film Haunted Mansion) from the Lower East Side stoop where director Larry Clark first discovered a fifteen-year-old Dawson and cast her in his 1995 film Kids — a gritty portrayal of unsupervised teens that earned her $1,000.
She's been acting almost nonstop ever since. But despite having more than a hundred film and TV roles under her belt, helmed by directors including Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, it wasn't until Ahsoka that Dawson felt she could finally take a breath.
"I've been working my butt off for a really long time, but when Star Wars came into my life, it finally made me feel like I could be okay," she says. "I felt a bit more security because I was now part of a family" — one with a loyal fan base. "The community, we can take care of each other. There's just this magic there."
Though she's been a star for decades, this moment of career security never felt like a given. Keeping up an unrelenting pace over twenty-eight years as a multi-heritage (Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban, Irish and Native American) actress of color is not the norm, she says.
"It's not always up to us as actors to be able to say, 'Oh, I made these incredible choices.' It's what was actually available for us," Dawson says. "There's this whole A-level, top-level kind of script that will never even get passed down to someone like me. It's such a select few. It is a tiny percentage of people who can really survive and thrive."
So even as Dawson worked steadily, "The hunger and the working-class background that I came from [meant] never assuming that it was going to last," she says. "I was like, at some point the Apollo [Theater] hook was going to yank me off the stage. I dunno how you snuck in here, but this Juilliard kid is going to take your place now. Thank you so much. It's time for you to get a real job."
That sense that the ground was never solid is understandable, given not only the vagaries of showbiz but also the instability of her early life. Dawson's mother got pregnant with her at sixteen, gave birth at seventeen and married at eighteen.
At age five, Dawson learned that her father, Greg Dawson, was not her biological father, a revelation that opened her mind to the concept of "chosen family," something she has embraced. "I told my mom at five, 'I'm not going to have kids — I'm going to adopt, and I'm going to adopt older,'" Dawson recalls. She adopted daughter Isabella in 2014, when the girl was eleven and in foster care.
Dawson was born on Coney Island, but her family soon joined squatters living in a dilapidated Lower East Side building in the midst of the HIV and crack cocaine epidemics. "My tenacious, wild parents thought, 'Let's move into this abandoned building that has no water heater, no electricity, plastic for the windows and plywood for a door.' My parents were so young, they were like, 'We can put in sewage lines.' My dad did construction. My mom's like, 'I can learn some electrical.'
"I grew up with poor people helping poor people," Dawson says. "It was never like someone was going to come to the rescue, you know?"
Back then, parents didn't have cellphones to track their children. Five years ago, during the height of the #MeToo movement, Dawson spoke on a podcast about being sexually assaulted as a child. Despite those traumas, she says her youth was filled with "magical New York moments" that altered the trajectory of her life.
"It's not unusual for some random, totally outrageous thing to happen right in front of you, and then you just keep going on with your day," she says. "My whole life is like that."
During her senior year of high school, she was cast in Spike Lee's He Got Game. After filming the summer following graduation, she made the difficult decision to pursue acting rather than attend college.
"The fact that it was art that I was doing was very scary because I grew up around starving artists," Dawson says. "I was like, this is not a good life choice. I really want to have a different experience than what I grew up with. I had strong aspirations to go to college — I was going to be the first one in my family to graduate."
She spent the year before He Got Game was released second-guessing herself. "I deferred going to college, and then I didn't work for a year," she recalls. "For years, I was like, 'I messed up. I did the wrong thing, and this is going to disappear at some point, and I'm not going to have anything to fall back on.' That's why I worked so hard."
But after He Got Game was released, Dawson landed an agent — and never had another down year. "This is actually the first time since then that I've had this much time off," she says — if you call promoting a TV series while running your own Ghana-based fashion line and juggling multiple personal passion projects "time off."
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 08 under the title, "A Force to Be Reckoned With."
The interview for this story was completed before the start of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.