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As the star of two high-profile Disney projects within a matter of weeks, Rosario Dawson is grateful to be spending her summer in the Magic Kingdom.
First up is writer Katie Dippold and director Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion, which turns Disneyland’s beloved attraction into a supernatural horror-comedy that tackles grief and loss in an accessible and relatable way. Dawson plays Gabbie, a single mother who’s acquired the titular mansion in order to turn it into a bed and breakfast, all so that her son (Chase Dillon’s Travis) can become more adept at social situations. However, she quickly realizes that she’s going to need a team of eccentric characters to help remedy the ghost-filled mansion that she bought sight unseen.
One of those oddball characters, Professor Bruce Davis, is played by Danny DeVito, and one day on set, Dawson decided to honor the actor’s birthday in a way he’ll never forget.
“Jeff (Kurland), our really brilliant costume designer, got a Stormtrooper outfit so that he could design the Coat of Arms (character). So I saw that he had it there and I just had to wear it,” Dawson tells The Hollywood Reporter prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “And then I drove around on a golf cart, telling people, ‘May the Force be with you,’ which was very confusing. And then I went and sang Happy Birthday to Danny, but I did the Marilyn Monroe version. He loves the bizarre and the weird, so I wanted to give him something like that.”
Dawson is also the eponymous character in August’s highly anticipated Disney+ Star Wars series, Ahsoka, and she’s now looking back at an amusing day on set in which a former collaborator called her to catch up.
“I got a call from Spike (Lee) while I was in my Ashoka makeup, minus the head tails, and he asked me if I was shooting The Lion King,” Dawson recalls with a laugh.
Below, during a conversation with THR, Dawson also discusses revisiting her Haunted Mansion character for a recent State Farm commercial, before diving deep into Ahsoka’s filming process.
Well, the days of studio-exclusive contracts are over for actors, but having already cast you as Ahsoka, do you consider Haunted Mansion to be Disney’s way of saying that they like being in the Rosario Dawson business?
(Laughs.) I hope so! I definitely felt that when I got the call for this role. People keep asking me if I’m gonna be on Daredevil: Born Again, and I’m always like, “Well, (Disney) knows where I am.” So it’s been a pretty remarkable journey to be at this place now and just working at this scale. We walked into the studio and saw an entire mansion built inside. It was really special. When we walked onto the Ahsoka set, I would say, “We’ve come a long way from Sin City’s tape on the floor to the volume,” and it’s been pretty remarkable watching how all of the tech and the ways we do it change. Even the way that we do our storytelling has changed, and who we cast and who’s on set. The energy on set has changed with such good people around. You don’t feel like you have to work with jerks in order to have brilliance. You don’t have to forgive mental health abuse. Coming from DMZ with Ava DuVernay and her leading with such emotional intelligence and nonviolent communication, it was just like, “Wow, this is great.” So I just feel so grateful for all the things I’ve graduated to, and it’s been quite the journey.
At the time of this conversation (July 11), I’ve yet to see either of your upcoming projects. I’ve only seen your State Farm commercial with you as Gabbie from Haunted Mansion. So who is Gabbie and what problem does she have?
Gabbie is wonderful. It was great to get to embody her again (in the spot), actually. She is a single mom from New York. Her family on her mom’s side is from Louisiana, and she’d always wanted to go back home and start a bed and breakfast. She thinks it might be a great way to introduce people to her son, because it’s just her and him. She gets this house sight unseen, and it’s more cobwebbed than she would’ve expected. She loves antiques, and she loves a good challenge. Her son, played brilliantly by Chase Dillon, gets it right away that this is not a good situation, but it’s not as easy as just leaving. So Gabbie has to hire a tour guide (LaKeith Stanfield), a psychic (Tiffany Haddish), a priest (Owen Wilson) and a historian (Danny DeVito) to help her and her son with the house. And in the case of the State Farm commercial, she needs her insurance guy’s help with property damage. She’s gotta get her good neighbors to help her out with these what-if moments that happen when you buy a house, sight unseen.
It’s certainly an interesting way to reprise a role.
Yeah, I really loved being able to get back into the character of Gabbie again. Justin (Simien) called me and texted me about how excited he was for me to be in this commercial. He even shipped Gabbie and Jake from State Farm (actor Kevin Miles), and he didn’t do that with Gabbie during the entire movie. (Laughs.)
Going from Harmony Korine’s Kids to a State Farm commercial as Gabbie, did you ever expect to be a spokeswoman in this fashion?
In a lot of ways, I’ve always been a spokeswoman, but it’s been for a lot of different issues or things that I care about. And I don’t feel like that is missing at all in this case, especially with Justin Simien at the helm of Haunted Mansion. There’s a lot of intention and consciousness around the storytelling and the casting and the perspective and the protagonist that is really quite special and quite brilliant. So it’s been nice to see that evolve, as a lot of folks are inspired by that (‘90s) indie moment, and people from that indie moment are still working. With Ahsoka, I saw Jon Favreau on set; I saw Robert (Rodriguez) there. I got a call from Spike (Lee) while I was in my Ashoka makeup, minus the head tails, and he asked me if I was shooting The Lion King. (Laughs.)
So it’s a bizarre connection and tether to my origins in this industry and the storytelling I got to be a part of. I grew up in an abandoned building, and now, with Haunted Mansion, this mansion is my character’s house. Yes, it’s haunted, but this mansion is now my character’s house. This ride that I’ve rode since I was a kid — and is my brother’s favorite ride — is somehow now a part of my life story. It is all very remarkable and kind of fantastical, and I couldn’t have imagined it at all.
Have you had any experiences that you would consider haunted?
I think I’ve had several. I had one at The Bowery Hotel, but that has a cemetery in the back, so it’s not that surprising.
You shot Haunted Mansion at Trilith in Atlanta, not Manhattan Beach or Pinewood where Star Wars projects are typically filmed. So how did you wind up serenading Danny DeVito in a Stormtrooper costume?
(Laughs.) Jeff (Kurland), our really brilliant costume designer, got a Stormtrooper outfit so that he could design the Coat of Arms guy. So I saw that he had it there and I just had to wear it. And then I drove around on a golf cart, telling people, “May the Force be with you,” which was very confusing. And then I went and sang Happy Birthday to Danny, but I did the Marilyn Monroe version. I love Danny. This is my third project with him. He’s a really brilliant, wonderful human being, and he loves the bizarre and the weird, so I wanted to give him something like that. I enjoyed crossing the stream, so to speak.
A stellar new trailer for Ahsoka dropped today, and overall, the series has been described as Rebels season five. I believe you quoted Dave Filoni as saying that. For those of us who haven’t seen a frame of Rebels, will the show still hold our hands throughout the season?
Oh my goodness, yes. Natasha (Liu Bordizzo) said something to that effect, and there was some fanfare about it. But it’s important. With Star Wars fans, there’s folks who really just watch the films, but now and especially with The Mandalorian, more people are watching the live-action shows. And then there are people who watch the animated shows. There’s an even tier beyond that with all the books and fan fiction. So there’s different levels to the Star Wars family, and it’s always been very highly considered to make sure (everyone can watch it). Dave has done a really brilliant job, and knowing the universe so inside and out — and having created so many of the characters and spaces within that universe — he just knows where to start. He knows what needs to be alluded to, and he is just really brilliant at figuring out how to make it for both. So it made a big impact and difference having him on set.
We filmed in tandem the whole time. It was a six-month shoot, and it probably would’ve been a year had we not had two different crews filming multiple different episodes at the same time. So it was a lot, and it was constantly being jumbled around, but Dave made pre-vises or pre-animations for the entirety of each episode. He brought that over from his animation work, but he wouldn’t let us really watch it. So I haven’t seen anything of Ahsoka either, but that’s not surprising. It’s a very weird project to be a part of, as it’s one of the biggest things, so they’re like, “See nothing, say nothing.” But Dave had it down, and the different directors kept that connection.
So it was beautiful to just craft this thing as itself. It is a new part of the journey, but you don’t need to know the previous part of it to get engaged. And that’s one of the things I’m excited for people to see and experience. We got so excited when we were doing our table reads. We had it revealed to us episode by episode; we didn’t have it all in advance. And then Dave used our voices (from the table reads) and put them in the pre-vises that they watched. So we had these little animated video game characters of ourselves on these sets that they were starting to design and build, and you would watch these mini episodes. So it was pretty remarkable. But they figured it out, and they had many test opportunities to figure out if it was gonna work for both the dedicated old-school fans and the new.
Did you and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have a moment where you said something to the effect of, “Gosh, we’ve come a long way from hanging out in a parked muscle car while a creepy Kurt Russell character targets us”?
(Laughs.) I definitely said that it was nice to see that she’s okay. That’s always been the question, because we definitely left (Mary’s Death Proof character) behind to go gallivanting in this car. So, clearly, it worked out. But I ask her more about singing. Mary and Ewan (McGregor) have this beautiful little baby that would come to set and have no issue whatsoever with having these iconic Star Wars characters as parents. (Laughs.) And she said that they sing to him all the time. They harmonize at night when they sing for the baby, and I think that’s just the cutest thing. So that’s what I talked to her about, because whenever I think of Death Proof, I think of Mary’s beautiful voice.
Have you challenged Ewan to a lightsaber duel yet?
(Laughs.) No, I saw how he treated my master (Anakin Skywalker), so we’re not getting into that.
Ghosts have been a theme of this conversation, so it’s only fitting that we talk about Becky Scott.
We talked around her fate at the Clerks III junket, but were you okay with the decision once you realized Kevin Smith wanted to reunite Dante and Becky in the afterlife?
When Kevin first asked me about Clerks III, I thought we were going to do a Force Ghost Becky, but we didn’t have the budget for that. But I’m just so grateful that we have Kevin still. He had a widowmaker heart attack, and we could have lost him. He had a previous Clerks III script that I never got a chance to read, so I have no idea what her fate was in that one. But in this one, he went to some really intense places, just talking about grief and loss, and we actually got to do the same thing with Haunted Mansion, which is really cool. Both are done in ways that make you laugh and cry, and I think that’s important.
But (Becky’s fate) was shocking. I was upset, and I tried not to take it personally, but then I got it. So I really loved the movie, and the response to it has been really amazing. Brian (O’Halloran) also killed it. Oh my God. Seeing what Kevin has done as a filmmaker over the years, I was also really proud of how meta it was. I’m potentially doing something with him again, and I just love him so much. I actually realized recently that my best friend, Rosalie, and I are probably Jay and Silent Bob. She would be Jay and I’m definitely Silent Bob.
Haunted Mansion is now playing in movie theaters. This interview, conducted prior to the July 13 SAG-AFTRA strike, was edited for length and clarity.