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Rosario Dawson takes on the role of activist Dolores Huerta in 'Cesar Chavez'

Rosario Dawson at the New York City press junket for "Cesar Chavez"
Rosario Dawson at the New York City press junket for "Cesar Chavez"
Carla Hay

Directed by Diego Luna, “Cesar Chavez” is a dramatic movie that chronicles the birth of a modern American movement led by famed civil rights leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez, played by Michael Peña in the movie. Torn between his duties as a husband and father and his commitment to bringing dignity and justice to others, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in his struggle for the rights of farm workers.

His triumphant journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one individual's ability to change the system. “Cesar Chavez” also stars America Ferrera (as Cesar’s wife, Helen) and Rosario Dawson as National Farmworkers Association/United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. Here is what Dawson said at the New York City press junket for “Cesar Chavez.”

With immigration being such a hot-button issue, what do you think the legacy of Cesar Chavez is?

This is someone who was a farm worker, whose wife was a farm worker, who had his own children as well working in the fields. He was not well-educated. He was not privileged. And he saw that there was a space that could be filled with people who were organized, even if they were poor people helping poor people, that they could be powerful, that they could make a real change. And it didn’t matter if they were documented or undocumented. They were working. They were contributing to this land.

And that was the thing that was most importance to him: that they had the dignity of the people who were providing the most cheap and most inexpensive and the most readily available food that we enjoy, literally, in the world. And understanding that in cutting that cost, because there has to be a price somewhere, that it’s on these people’s livelihoods. Like it said in the film, it’s not OK for someone to providing food for the entire country and not be able to provide food for his own family. I think that is something that holds true for today.

The union only covers about 20 percent of farm workers. So that’s 80 percent of people out there who are still going and contributing. And they say that 70 to 80 percent of those people who are working are undocumented. So this is still a very resonant issue.

So I think when you can see the humanity of the situation in a film like this, when you can provide access to people who can go, “OK, this man Cesar Chavez”— you’ve seen the street, you’ve seen the boulevard, you’ve seen the mural, but do you know the scope of what he was able to achieve? Making a noise in Delano that ended spreading across California and spreading east across America, into and through the White House and beyond. That’s a really big deal and a really big story, and it’s relevant to today.

This film is not just a celebration of a historic moment in our time. It’s not just a history lesson. It’s a provocation, and hopefully it’s an inspiration to go, “OK, the next meal that I sit down at, I’m going to think about where that came from,” because it touches all of our lives.

Who touched this food before it came to me? What’s this process and what does it look like? And because of his work and because of people like him and Dolores and all of them, we have in our daily vernacular “fair trade,” “fair wages,” “food justice.” Those are all things that we even think about because of the work that he did.

And I think that’s what his legacy has been. And I hope that we can be inspired, because this film is like Activism 101: what it really takes to make a noise, to make it happen, and make moves. They really went viral in a time before that was even a word.

You’ve got a very young demographic right now. The millennials are 77 million strong. The baby boomers were 78 million, so you can see how relevant it is to talk about them as a group. And they are inheriting trillions of dollars of debt. They are drowning underwater in student loans. They are being treated solely as consumers, not innovators. And I think this is an opportunity to inspire them, to say, “What legacy are you going to leave behind? Are you going to join this movement or what?”

How was it for you to portray a real person who is still alive?

It was crazy. I had met Dolores before through my work with Voto Latino, when she’d come to our summits, and she would have people signing petitions, and coming and sitting down on our social-media panels and learning how to tweet better. It was incredible.

Not that she had to learn how to do legislation or run for office or do voter registration. It was interesting how active and in it she is. When she’s out there and petitioning, she gets all the young people but she also gets all the staff. She sees everybody. She recognizes everyone.

She sees the potential and power of all of us. And she’s always done that. She had 11 children, but she’s never said that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose. She’s stood up for LGBTQ issues. She still condemns pesticides being used. It’s just across-the-board protests.

She’s got the Medal of Freedom while we were filming. So it was an honor to portray her and celebrate her work, but at the same time, it was nerve-wracking. This is not some little old biddy going, “Oh, that’s nice. You’re making a movie.” She’s in it, like reading the script and being really savvy about it and giving notes and talking and sharing with her. It’s intense.

Luckily, she is super-savvy and can recognize that we’re trying to squeeze [her] life into a movie — only 10 years of [her] life, first of all, being done through the perspective of Cesar and his family and the whole movement and the people who were part of it. It’s not a perfect three- or four-act structure of the way that you’ve lived your lives, so even trying to make that fit into a film is going to take some work. It’s not a documentary. She gets it. She’s with it.

She gave the approval for me to portray her. She tweeted me and said he liked my performance. She’s just really remarkable. It’s interesting. I’ve been acting 20 years now, this summer, and you get an artistic license when you’re portraying other types of roles, but when you’re playing a real person, the heat is on.

I think I’m only breathing calmly now for the first time after all of these years, because we shot this [“Cesar Chavez” movie] in 2012. I’m finally relaxing because she likes the film. It doesn’t even barely skim the surface of her contributions, but hopefully some of the stuff we did shoot that got cut out will be in the DVD extras …

I think the first cut [of the “Cesar Chavez” movie] that Diego did was three hours and 50 minutes. He’s said that he could easily make three more films, based on the footage that he’s got. And that’s just really real.

There’s a lot that went on. They had a lot of pitfalls; they had a lot of challenges. There were a lot of marches. There was so much to be put into it, but if the film does well, that gets me excited.

That gives it the potential to do more stories like this, including [Dolores Huerta’s] own story, because she’s still writing it. She’s in her 80s, and she’s literally still writing it. She’s literally still on the front lines.

We’re going to have a screening [of the “Cesar Chavez” movie] in D.C. for Voto Latino and then at the White House. And she can’t make it because she is busy. She tried to cancel her plans and she’s like, “I can’t.” One of her daughters is coming. She really tried.

I saw her at South by Southwest. She had gone to Berlin. She’s gone to Berkeley. She’s gone to a couple of places that she’s been able to go to. She’s got to do her thing. I love it. I really admire her a lot.

Just going back to the immigration conversation — that’s why I think, she and Paul Chavez and the whole Chavez family and the union and all the people at the foundations who are still doing this work every day are so excited about this. [First], to educate all of us. I think there’s a lot of people who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s who don’t necessarily know this history. And it shows how remiss we’ve been in making sure that we do understand that. We are teaching that in our schools.

This is a man who had a non-violent movement that reached across the planet, like Ghandi’s, like Martin Luther King’s. Martin Luther King wrote him a letter when [Cesar Chavez] did his first fast. Jesse Jackson was there when he broke his fast. These were all people who knew each other and supported each other, because the civil-rights movement was going on just as the budding feminism was just starting. This was all happening at the same time.

We know certain pockets of that history, but a lot of us don’t know the man behind that mural. And that’s shameful, because it’s so relevant and pertinent to today. And what’s exciting about what film can do is that we can present it to a whole new audience who can learn their history and maybe be a part of it.

What’s exciting about that is that millennials are the most diverse group we’ve ever had. They’re almost 20 percent Latino, 14 percent African-American. They’re the most bilingual group they’ve ever been. Two-thirds of them support gay marriage. Two-thirds of them support legalizing medical marijuana.

They support the Dream Act. They support Dreamers having access to education. It’s a whole other group of people being able to retain their citizenship. And there’s this conversation, “Do we change the amendment that says if you’re born here, do you get to be an American?” They’re like, “Absolutely! Of course.”

This is a group that is not about “tolerance,” which I dislike as a word. [She says sarcastically] I’m so grateful you tolerate my age or my sex or my race or whatever.

They’re accepting. I think that’s really remarkable and bodes well for our future in these ongoing conversations that we continue to have and so often seem so narrow-minded, so narrowly focused. I think that they are, out of necessity, going to broaden the conversation in a way that can be really transformative. And that’s really encouraging.

How did you get your role in “Cesar Chavez”? Were there any moments when you had doubts about portraying Dolores Huerta in this movie?

She did her blessing. They offered me the role. I think Diego had already had that conversation. What was funny about it, actually, Diego said in the press that came up that I interviewed him when he came to offer me the role. Well, I guess I did, because I wanted to know why he was doing this movie and why now.

And how did he get permission from the [Chavez] family when the family has always said no? It’s such important material. It’s a really critical story that needs to be told well. I think it’s really beautiful that it’s been the perfect storm to create for it to be this moment, because I think it was Diego’s voice that needed to tell the story, and it’s really powerful. I’m really proud of him. I’m really proud to work with him in this way. I don’t know what it’s like to act with him. I’ve never done that, but I know him as a director, and I think he’s remarkable.

And so, it was fun besides being nerve-wracking and scary because I adore Dolores. It was a whole other process, and it was awesome. We were shooting in [Mexico] in 117-degree weather, really feeling what we’d known intellectually, and feeling really privileged that we were the ones who got to tell this story and to share it and learn more about it and to have that be our job to research this and more about this and to present it to others. I love storytelling. It’s the oldest tradition we have on the planet. And there are moments like these where I get very excited to be a part of that tradition.

If Cesar Chavez were alive today, what would you want to ask him?

There were a lot of resources, like his son and his wife and obviously Dolores as well. If he were still alive today, I’d want to talk about politics today and what he feels about how the movement has grown or not grown and what the legacy has been and the work that is to be done. It’s interesting. Paul Chavez, Cesar’s youngest son, did a panel at South by Southwest called “What Would Cesar Chavez Tweet?” And then, of course, they had this whole conversation.

And finally, I think literally, the last question was someone going, “Is someone actually going to answer that question? What do you think Cesar Chavez would tweet, Paul?” And he said, “Si, se puede!” [Spanish for “Yes, we can!]

So I think that’s where he’d be at. I think it would be interesting to ask him about [Barack] Obama, especially that whole “Yes, We Can” [motto] being used for that whole movement to get him elected, and what he thinks and how we can get focused, especially with the technology and leverage we have today to make an impact. Again, he was bale to go viral around the world, just by word of mouth, person to person, individual to individual. Imagine what he could do today. So I think my first question would be like, “What are we doing first?”

How familiar were you with Cesar Chavez when you were growing up?

Slightly. We didn’t really learn about it in school so much, but my family, my grandmother was really moved a lot by the movement. She was someone who used to translate march pamphlets into Spanish so more of the community could be a part of it. My great-grandmother was part of the Ladies International Workers Union. My grandmother used to march and protest for labor rights and union rights. She used to bring my mom. And my mom used to bring me to all of these different things.

Activism was passed down through the generations in my family. And people like [my grandmother] and Dolores wee part of that. For me, personally, that was one of the harder parts of filming the movie. When we were shooting it over that summer, it was the anniversary of her [my grandmother’s] passing. And of all the things I had done, I know one of the things that made her the most proud the work was my work with Voto Latino, and to be able to be a part of this, and if I had been able to introduce her to Dolores, I think it would have been a really remarkable moment.

Sadly, I don’t really have the stories of the impact that she had on our life because we didn’t really talk about it in later years. So I feel bad that I didn’t have that conversation with her, because I’m sure she would have had a lot to say. That was her moment. That was during her time. Dolores was in New York, so I know my grandmother was affected by that, specially because she was inspired by it.

She clearly passed that down to us, and that made me sad but also really exciting because I love Dolores. She’s welcomed me into her family … I remember I went up to her foundation. She was with Richard Chavez, Cesar’s brother who passed the summer before we’d started filming.

And they had been together for years and started this golfing tournament to raise money for the foundation. We kind of hung out. She worked with the Voto Latino shirt and taking pictures with all the people who donated and playing a little bit. It was really fun. I drove her around on the golf cart, although she did drive me around Bakersfield in her car, because she drives still in her 80s. She’s awesome.

But then, that night, we all went out and had drinks, and it was like four generations. And to see her with he children and grandchildren dancing, and she was having a little drink, it was awesome! It just reminded me so much of my grandmother because my grandmother was that person.

I remember going out just a couple of years ago. We were in Miami in some club. They’re allowed to smoke in the bar, and she was like, “This is awesome!” She has whiskey and drinking and smoking a cigarette.

There are random girls in the world who have pictures of my grandmother, this white-haired woman. They were so enthralled with her. “Can we take a picture with you?”

I don’t think anyone even recognized me. No one wanted to take a picture with me. They wanted to take a picture with my grandmother.

And I just think about these photos that are in existence out there in the world. And so, I think it was that grandmotherly/motherly spirit was awesome to portray in Dolores, but it’s rally great to have an excuse to spend more time with her.

Can you talk about how Michael Peña inhabited the role of Cesar Chavez? What did you learn?

Michael had just come off of “End of Watch” with America [Ferrera] as well, when he was all super-fit and looking good. And he had to put weight on to portray Cesar — which he did in, like, four days. It’s easier to go in that direction. And then he had to lose weight because he was fasting and stuff. So there was a lot going on.

I don’t know if you ever met Michael, but Michael is very enthusiastic. I think he’s in his late 30s. He’s so fun. He’s super-goofy. He feels like my primo. We’re very like, “Yo, you’re my cousin!” There’s some awesome energy about him. He was so good about this because his whole demeanor is the antithesis of Cesar’s.

We’d be all out after work, so grateful that the sun went down, and that 117-degeree weather has cooled down, so we’d be all outside drinking and playing poker. You know when you’re on location, no one’s going back home to their families. They’re all together.

We would just have so much fun, and he’d be super-good. “No, I’m going back to my room and practice my cadence.” In the last two weeks before filming, Diego was like, “I think you should do the voice.”

I literally was just talking to Diego about this downstairs and saying it’s been so fun, because I haven’t seen Michael pretty much this whole time, and it’s been awesome hanging out and doing press together, because I kind of forgot. I’ve been watching the movie, and I get so caught up.

He did a remarkable job with this role. He’s incredible! And then you hang out with him, and you’re like, “Oh my God! Even better!” It’s such a difference of personality … And you’re going, “Wow, you really transformed. Congratulations.”

He went all in. He was really dedicated. It’s beautiful. I’m really proud of him because he’s a really great actor and he’s a really awesome musician and an awesome person. And I think he’s come into it in a really interesting way. He’s got really far to go.

And it’s cool because Diego was like, “He was part of my first list, but I still looked for six months, because there’s not a lot of young Latino males out there that we can go to for a role like this.” And he killed it! I hope to see him in many, many more.

For more info: "Cesar Chavez" website

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