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Rosario Dawson transforms into a mother from hell in 'Gimme Shelter'

Rosario Dawson
Rosario Dawson
Roadside Attractions

In the feature-film drama “Gimme Shelter” (based on a true story), a teenager named Agnes “Apple” Bailey (played by Vanessa Hudgens) runs away from her drug-addicted and abusive mother June Bailey (played by Rosario Dawson) in search of the father she never met: a successful business executive named Tom Kirkpatrick (played by Brendan Fraser). It’s around this time that Apple finds out that she is pregnant. Forced into the streets in a desperate journey of survival, Apple discovers a new meaning of family and life at a local teen shelter where she bonds with a group of girls just like herself.

Rosario Dawson at the New York City press junket for "Gimme Shelter"
Carla Hay

Gimme Shelter” was written, produced and directed by Ronald Knauss, who actually lived at a New Jersey shelter (founded by Kathy DiFiore) for teenage girls, and the shelter serves as the inspiration for the movie’s story. Ann Dowd plays DiFiore in “Gimme Shelter.” The Apple Bailey character is based on two girls who lived at the shelter. Hudgens and Dawson both went through dramatic physical transformations to play their respective characters in the movie, but “Gimme Shelter” also changed them emotionally. Here is what Hudgens said when I caught up with her during a roundtable interview that she did with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “Gimme Shelter.”

Can you talk about the lack of vanity required to play June Bailey and the desperation this character has?

Yeah. Desperate people do desperate things. It was incredible to actualize a lot of things that I experienced when I was young. I’m a ’79 baby, so I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s crack epidemic that scoured my neighborhood and was my landscape then. As soon as my manager, who represents Vanessa and [me], we were on our way to Cannes. We were on the plane, and he just shows me the scene on his cell phone. He was like, “Hey, we’re doing this movie. Do you want to do this cameo for the mom? This is the story.”

I was like, “OK, this mom was a teen mom.” I work with a lot of organizations. I’d grown up sort of in a lot of shelters and things. It all touches my heart. I grew up with family members who were drug-addled. I was like, “Cool, no problem.”

But I had no idea, really, the depth of getting into it and what that was going to do and how upsetting and raw it was. But I was glad that we were all making the same movie. I think as you can see from Ron [Knauss], he came from a documentary background. And it was really important for him to be realistic and clear and honest with this information. He really rigorously made sure that we were really using the proper language, that we were really telling the stories.

When [June] attacks [Apple] in the church with the razor in [June’s] mouth, that’s not something he made up. He actually witnessed this girl attacked by her mom with a razor. You can’t make up this stuff. Shooting a lot of stuff in the shelter, having a lot of girls who were in it, there was no question about there being vanity. It was actually, “We’re making this movie, and we’re going to tell it to the best of our ability and be as clear about it.”

This is something that affects real people, and this is something that I’ve personally been affected by. I have family members who were have heroin and crack addictions and all types of things that were really so strong for me. It was really a pleasure, in a lot of ways. It was distressing and hard, but it was a pleasure to show that type of human being and that struggle, because I think we can all relate to it, and I think that’s necessary.

I remember the first day, Vanessa and I felt really relieved, actually. She put this weight on, she cut her hair. We were really getting into it. And here I am, putting this enamel on my teeth. I think we looked at each other and were like, “Thank God.” To do this story, you have to get into it.

And it would be terrible if I’m going through all this transformation, and she’s going through this transformation, and the other one isn’t. And suddenly, you look cartoonish. You are making a movie. It’s like, “No, we’re trying to share something more than just that.” And I think that was really quite great.

And it was real too. I remember the first day we were shooting, this crack addict came up to me, and it was like looking in the mirror. In case we felt like, “Is this too much?” I grew up with it. It was like, “Is it going to read weird on camera?” And this person walked up, and it was literally like looking in a mirror: the deteriorated skin, the distraught teeth. This is what happens after years of drug abuse, what you actually look like. They were going to transform me in a half an hour, but this is what it actually looks like. That’s important to put that in there.

Was it hard to leave the character of June Bailey behind after you finished filming?

Incredibly so. I’d never really experienced that before. You’re used to filming all day. It takes a lot in between set-ups and things. And you can’t really chat with people. No one really wanted to chat with me. They’d all be flinching. It was very isolating, actually.

And I had a hard time eating and drinking anything anyway, just because this enamel on my teeth, so I couldn’t exactly lounge around the crafts table. And I remember going home with the hair and makeup on, because I’d be so bruised and battered. I was like, “I just want to go home.”

And I’d show up, and New Yorkers are not even flinching or blinking an eye. I’m in this vehicle. We’d stop at stoplights, and people would be like [she says in a nonchalant voice], “Anyway …”

But I remember going home and I thought my family would be like, “Wow, what a transformation!” I thought they’d be really into it, but they were not. My brother was really upset. He was like, “Take that off. I’m having a really hard time looking at you.”

My parents were really disturbed by it. It was really interesting. I was like, “Yes! We got it right!” It’s really important. Yeah, it was trippy.

Kathy DiFiore’s New Jersey shelter for homeless teenage girls was the real-life inspiration for “Gimme Shelter.” Did you get a chance to meet her or any of the girls from the shelter before you made the movie?

Yeah, we got to meet right when we were [filming] it. That’s the interesting thing. I tend to do a lot of research for a lot of the roles that I play, because it’s great to build the character and get into it. Everything still goes down to that written word and what it is I’m actually saying with as much vulnerability and honesty as possible.

On this [movie], I felt like I’d already done a lot of research. I was raised by a teenage mom. I had family members who struggled with drug addiction and watching the effects of that over many, many years and their children and spouse and career and everything. My mom worked at Housing Works here [in New York]. My mom worked at Women’s Inc. in San Francisco, so I’ve been in shelters since I was 10 years old, and watching poor people helping poor people, strangers reaching out to strangers.

So I grew up with all of that. But it was just really remarkable to put all that aside and realize it made me almost intellectualize all of these issues too much. I had to really get into it. And that was really a struggle.

That was really a challenge to go, “This woman [June Bailey] really believes that her circumstances define her.” She’s actually righteously indignant about her self-pity and her choices in life. That was really upsetting.

It really makes me understand deeper why you really can’t just take someone who’s got a drug addiction and just put them in rehab. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t choose it for them. They have to choose it for themselves. And that’s scary.

We have a hard time facing our own things that we’re guilty about or feel upset about, choices that we made that we’re not so proud of. Imagine that times a gazillion. Someone who’s really going, “I have to really look at my ugly. I have to look in the mirror and take responsibility for my choices. No. You know what? I just want to get high again and go over there and not think about it.”

It’s so much easier to do that than how scary it must be to really see who you actually are and take responsibility for it. So that denial is an easy place to live in, and so that was really interesting. All that research I’d done my whole life, to a certain extent, those are all the thoughts that come after the issue, the problem, the circumstance.

So my whole life, I’ve been thinking about those extra steps. June? No. The thought stops here [for June]. That’s it. That’s all she’s got. That was actually really compelling and really distressing actually and disturbing.

What was your process for handling that scene where June cuts Apple’s face with a razor blade?

The script and the director and also I’ve witnessed that. I grew up on the Lower East Side [in New York City] in a squat, since I was a kid. I witnessed a lot of that violence and abuse. It’s the reason why I’m on the board of V-Day. It’s the reason why I work at the Lower East Side Girls Club. It’s always compelled me to do something to correct that and help that aspect of our society and our humanity.

There’s nothing for me to get to talk to the girl who actually experienced this, because that would be empathy. That would be compassion. And that’s nothing that June has. June has resentment and anger. She’s just violent and abusive. And she’s got all her blinders on.

The fact that you could even do something like that shows the level of how dark and cynical and lost she is. So it was really about going into that. It was really about blocking any other thought of what a normal, caring person would do in that situation and actually being just completely inside your own selfishness but just that lack of self-awareness. She’s just really a child. She was just acting out like a kid. There’s just no maturity there whatsoever.

And that was really what was kind of scary and crazy. Like, who do you have to be to do something like that and feel good about it? Like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m doing today. I woke up this morning, and I prepared. I got my razor. This is what I’m going to do because I’m so angry that you got it better than me. I sacrificed everything, I think, for you, and you’re rejecting me and throwing me away and making better choices. How dare you?”

That is literally the antithesis of how I grew up. My grandmother always told me mom, “If you get pregnant, you’re out.” But then my mom came home at 16 years old, pregnant. And then my grandmother was upset, she was scared for her, but she took care of her [baby], which was me.

And so, I was raised in a house of love. I was wanted. I was never treated like I was regretted. My mother never resented me. She never talked about her sacrifices in a way that was against me. I was just realizing how important that was.

Vanessa had her sister there [on the set of “Gimme Shelter”] every day, her parents there. I was going home to my parents every day. And just recognizing that, yeah, my parents are not perfect. I grew up criticizing how imperfect they were. But suddenly, just being like, “But you loved me.”

Maybe we went to sleep hungry, but I never went to sleep feeling like I was unloved. I always had just that caring hand. Those stories you read about babies who die because they’re not being picked up enough or touched, just how important that is.

June has been neglected. Yeah, she made bad choices, but each of those choices marginalized her more and more and more and made it more and more difficult for someone to reach out to her. That’s what she really needs.

The idea of “It takes a village” is not just for the baby; it’s for the parent. And she needed that village. Clearly, her mother didn’t accept her or take care of her. So it’s understandable, to an extent, that she couldn’t do that with her child.

Do you think June sees Apple as a way to make more welfare money?

Absolutely. To a certain extent, that was maybe her lifeline, but I think she was really disturbed and distressed by the lack of care. She was abandoned by the man she thought was going to help her. You don’t hear about it, but she had no other resources.

And that’s the interesting thing about June: We don’t really know anything about her. I don’t know what she likes, what her tastes are in anything. I don’t know if she was good at singing or dancing or math. I don’t know what she could’ve been. I have no idea, because all we know about is her addiction and her failures.

It’s interesting that we don’t get to paint a real picture. She just comes off as this monster in a lot of aspects, but I think that is what is made up by Apple. We get to slowly see who Apple is, not just being defined as the daughter of an abuser or someone who’s been caught in the system and can be really violent herself. You get to see her compassion and humanity because we get to be on that journey with her.

We don’t see that with June, but the more we see how Apple transcends and breaks that cycle of violence and abuse that she statistically is supposed to assume, the more you go back to June every time … you just go, “Oh, had you met Kathy, had someone stepped up … there’s still a place for you. There are still shelters. There are still rehabs and still things of people going, ‘I will help you make a choice today that you couldn’t make yesterday but today can make your tomorrow better, if you choose to do that.”

As much as I don’t get to do an arc for this character, I think Apple’s arc makes you go back to June and go, “There’s still hope for you, actually. There really is.” And maybe Apple looking at her child can give her that second chance in life to go, “It’s worth it to face my demons,” because when you don’t face your demons, you become one.

What’s next for you?

“Cesar Chavez” comes out in late March. I play Dolores Huerta. And then “Sin City 2.”

For more info: "Gimme Shelter" website

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