The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rosario Dawson has a new TV show, a penchant for activism — and she’s dating Cory Booker

Rosario Dawson prepares for the Studio 189 presentation during New York Fashion Week. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — There, on the sidelines of a run-through for a show at New York Fashion Week, is a lone figure, dancing and whooping and singing. Stony-faced models file by, but Rosario Dawson, the actor who co-designed the clothes they’re wearing from the Ghana-based fashion line Studio 189, is throwing off enough light and energy for all of them.

“You know those charity dances where you have to dance for, like, 30 hours straight? I could totally do that,” she says, not at all out of breath, before running backstage to give out hugs and motivational speeches.

“I am fa-reaked out! Y’all look so beautiful!” Dawson tells her runway walkers: kids, grandmas, actual models, friends and bare-chested female dancers in gold body paint. All around Dawson and Studio 189 co-founder Abrima Eriwah is a rainbow of skin tones and gender identities and jubilant patterned fabrics reflecting the collection’s inspiration: They called it “Heritage” to mark the 400th anniversary of the first slave ships departing Africa for Virginia.

Were Dawson a politician instead of a longtime activist who’s dating a guy who’s running for president, these would be her constituents. She’s doing the Elizabeth Warren selfie line, except she’s the one who wants pictures with everyone.

Fantasia was there, along with Jay-Z protegee Young Paris, Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, and a packed house of some 800 people. But not Sen. Cory Booker, or “noted boyfriend of Rosario Dawson,” as New York magazine’s feminist website the Cut likes to call him.

Their first anniversary was Oct. 14, and the year has been a mishmash of convoluted schedules. In September, the senator from New Jersey was prepping for the third Democratic debate in Houston during her fashion show. And by the time he took the debate stage, Dawson was already back in Albuquerque on the set of “Briarpatch,” the neo-noir anthology series for USA network that she stars in (as an investigator having an affair with a senator!) and which just wrapped a 3½ -month shoot.

“I laugh because it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re flying and connecting through here. Maybe we can meet at the airport hotel,’ ” Booker said in an interview last week, calling in from the campaign trail. “It has made for great adventures of, you know, making seven hours together be magical.”

Dawson is also working on several social justice documentaries; voicing Wonder Woman in an animated feature; promoting the big-budget movie “Zombieland: Double Tap”; and working as a board member for Voto Latino, the voting rights organization she co-founded with María Teresa Kumar 15 years ago. Not to mention her personal obligations as a single mother of an adopted teenage daughter and the Hollywood success story in a big Puerto Rican family from New York’s Lower East Side.

As recognizable as Dawson is — she’s starred as Claire Temple in the Netflix Marvel universe and gets mobbed by fans — it is interest in her relationship with Booker that is currently dominating her story. He’s the only unmarried Democratic presidential candidate and potentially the first modern bachelor president. She’s the young Jane Fonda of the Afro-Latinx world (or, perhaps, labor leader Dolores Huerta if she’d also starred in “Sin City” and the movie version of “Rent”). They are the rare power couple capable of fascinating political analysts, Hollywood gossips and your mother.

Until now, they’ve rarely been seen together in public. Instead, Booker has gushed about her on talk shows, and they drop little windows into their relationship on Dawson’s Instagram, through cute videos or screenshots of text messages she posted of Booker’s buddies congratulating him for having a girlfriend who was a clue in last Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle.

Tuesday’s debate in Ohio is the first Dawson has managed to attend. Booker arrived holding her hand. She stayed until the end, documenting it on Instagram. It seems to be part of a new phase of openness in their relationship.

“I’m in love! I am absolutely in love, and it is so exciting,” Dawson said last month, while sitting barefoot in a gown on her hotel bed during a 24-hour trip to the Toronto Film Festival.

Because “Briarpatch” wrapped in late September, she’s been home in Los Angeles and Booker has come to her. He kissed her on the red carpet of her “Zombieland: Double Tap” premiere on Thursday.

When the Daily Mail wrote in a headline that Dawson had joined her presidential candidate boyfriend at the premiere of the sustainable agriculture documentary “The Need to Grow,” Booker corrected it on Twitter, “Actually, I joined her.”

“It’s just lazy,” Dawson says in a later phone call. “Like, I narrate that movie and I’m a producer on it.”

All this togetherness, Dawson says, is just a function of her having some free time. But it certainly can’t hurt Booker’s flagging poll numbers; he’s averaging 1.4 percent in national surveys.

There’s an expectation for political partners to be quietly supportive in the background. There’s no playbook for when a politician starts dating a vocal activist and Hollywood star who’s as famous, if not more famous.

Dawson says she’s planning to ride around Iowa in an RV next month with him. “RV tours are my jam,” she says. “I think there’s no way of making that happen without quote-unquote ‘joining him on the campaign trail.’ It’s going to show up like that no matter what, but I’m just trying to spend time with my boyfriend.”

Flash back to the 2016 election: Booker was a freshman senator who'd endorsed Hillary Clinton and was a possible VP pick. Dawson was a vocal Bernie Sanders surrogate, stumping for him around the country. She also got arrested in the "Democracy Spring" protests at the Capitol, calling for reform of voting laws and removing money from politics.

“I don’t know what it would be for, but I could see myself getting arrested again in the near future, if that’s what draws people’s attention to something. For me, it’s always on the table,” says Dawson, who has said that running for office is on her bucket list.

Indeed, Dawson was so far left in 2016 that many people believe that after Sanders lost the primary, she voted for Jill Stein. “No, I didn’t!” she says. “It’s on my Wikipedia and it keeps getting proliferated, but it’s not true.”

She was at the Democratic convention, she saw the infighting, she got sad, and mad. And she says she’s still upset anyone would think she’d do something to have put Donald Trump in office.

Dawson’s mom, Isabel Celeste, also stumped for Sanders and says that when she first met Booker, she told him, “You know, you don’t get my vote.”

But after getting to know him, she’s convinced: “He’s young, he’s hard-working, he’s stoic, he’s amazing, he’s probably going to marry my daughter and shut the front door.”

It seems as if Dawson and Booker, then, are a case of opposite Democrats attract. Some clickbait-y blind items have circulated on the Internet insinuating that their relationship is fake. If this were for show, honestly, she’d be a little edgy for his presidential brand. Toward the left side of progressive. Has been arrested for social justice and expects to do it again.

And then there’s that celebratory video for her 40th birthday that she posted on Instagram this May of herself topless and outdoors, looking at palm trees as birds chirped in the background. She showed nothing but her back and confidence and excellent complexion, and yet she inspired a slew of incredulous responses on conservative media and Twitter wondering whether Cory Booker’s “actress girlfriend” had gone nuts.

These two seem to take it in stride. She’s 40. He’s 50. They’ve both lived public lives for a long time. “I think that’s actually pretty cool,” says Dawson. “I don’t need to make that legitimate for anybody else.”

Like most couples who’ve been together for a while, their origin story is evolving. Though Booker has said that Dawson didn’t give him the time of day when they first met at a summer 2018 fundraiser for Ben Jealous, a mutual friend who was running for governor of Maryland, he tells it a little differently this time.

“There was no love connection there,” he says. “I think it was the places of life we were in. I was probably dating somebody when we first met.”

Dawson’s last known boyfriend before dating Booker — the most earnest man in politics — was comedian Eric André, perhaps best known for finding inventive ways to appear fully nude on his Adult Swim talk show.

Then in October 2018, Dawson and Booker ran into each other again. “I mean, gosh, that night we talked for hours and hours,” says Booker. At the end of the night, he says, “I had trouble asking for her phone number. . . . I think I said something really stupid like, ‘Uh, how would I get in touch with you?’ And she mercifully said something like, ‘Oh, you want my phone number?’ And my insides were like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ ”

Was he really the dork he says he was?

“A million and one percent,” says Dawson. “He’s so charming and so confident and so capable, but it’s not like that translates to being some super-smooth kind of guy. That’s not his style. What wins me over with him is definitely the dad jokes.”

Cory Booker and the Orthodox rabbi were like brothers. Now they don’t speak.

They live on opposite coasts, but Booker says that almost immediately they started seeing each other once a week. The couple knew that Booker’s schedule would become insane once he declared on Feb. 1 and that Dawson’s would become immovable once she started “Briarpatch.”

But then Dawson’s dad, Greg Dawson, got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the beginning of the year, and she oriented all the time she could toward caring for him and flying back for his chemo appointments.

Rosario Dawson says that his tumor has shrunk dramatically and that she’s both glad she was able to be his advocate and furious at how byzantine the health-care system is.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Isa, meanwhile, spent most of the summer with her in New Mexico, which didn’t leave a ton of time for Booker. Dawson says they went two months without seeing each other. But they’ve made up for it with FaceTime, which they try to do twice a day. He’s gotten in the habit of sending her music every morning, and he just finished reading David Benioff’s World War II novel “City of Thieves” to her over the phone. Dawson says he’s the only partner she’s ever spoken to every day, multiple times a day. They both enjoy pointing out that they are vegan.

She calls him CAB and forgets that he doesn’t like it when she uses that around other people.

“Not everybody has good initials,” she says. “He’s my anchor. He’s my guy, you know. He’s very presumptuous. My initials are R-I-D. But he calls me RIB.”

“Look, both of us, you know, we’ve had relationships,” says Booker, “but I’m not sure if I’ve ever fully given myself over to a relationship as much as I have with her and allowed myself to be as vulnerable.”

Dawson says that she was trying to explain to a younger cousin how you know you’re in love, and she could only describe how she feels about Booker. “For my whole life, I’ve always felt like, even when I got into a relationship, I was trying to be the center of the storm and everything was just this maelstrom out there,” she says. “But for the first time, I feel like I have someone in the center of the storm with me.”

Dawson was about 7 years old when she started marching with her family for housing rights, homelessness rights, women's rights, LGBTQI rights. Her mother, Isabel Celeste, would push Rosario and her younger brother Clay, who is now a writer and DJ, around in a shopping cart lined with pillows.

“I would have a staple gun and sticks and poster board,” Isabel Celeste says, “and they would have magic markers, and they would make banners for people, so they’d have something to march with.” Dawson’s great-grandmother and grandmother marched in support of unionizing female garment workers.

They were a young family; Isabel Celeste was 17 when she had Rosario, who has no relationship with her biological father. When Rosario was little, her mother married Greg Dawson, a carpenter who raised her.

Living conditions grew unbearable in the only Lower East Side apartment they could afford, so they moved into an abandoned building around the corner that didn’t have electricity or running water but at least was clean.

Growing up, Dawson was the performer of the family, according to her uncle Gustavo Vasquez, who is a comic-book artist: “She would dress up like Madonna did with the bows and patterns.” And, he says, she seemed to absorb the creative energy of the artists who were also squatting in their building. Still, no one in the family had ever been in show business, and had she not been sitting on her stoop at age 15 at the exact time director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine walked by, Dawson wouldn’t be, either.

They asked her to do a screen test, put her in their 1995 film, “Kids,” about New York City youths grappling with HIV/AIDS, and her life changed. She still lived at home, though, even after Spike Lee cast her in “He Got Game.”

As an actress, Dawson has always veered toward genre, whether it’s because she grew up devouring comic books with her uncle Gus or because those are the roles she’s offered. “I’ve had indie films where I’ve either been the lead or a co-lead,” she says. “But usually I’m a co-star.”

“Briarpatch,” her USA show, which premieres in January, may be the meatiest role she’s had. It’s based on a hard-boiled crime novel from prolific author (and World War II veteran) Ross Thomas. Creepy hotel. Small-town Texas villains who turn out to be terrifying. Exploding cars. Zoo animals run amok. Alan Cumming.

And at the center is Dawson’s character, Allegra Dill, a woman from a Texas border town who comes home from Washington, D.C., to investigate her sister’s murder. Allegra also happens to be having sex with her boss — a U.S. senator.

Andy Greenwald, the well-known TV critic who adapted Thomas’s book into the series and is the “Briarpatch” showrunner, says he couldn’t believe it when he heard Dawson was interested in the role.

“I feel like people have been asking her to be the lead in a TV show for a decade,” Greenwald says. “And she said no every time.”

Dawson has done an 18-episode guest arc on Jane the Virgin. But she’s never had her own series. “It’s the commitment,” she says. Unlike most TV shows, “Briarpatch” is a 10-episode series like “True Detective.”

Being No. 1 on the call sheet is a huge responsibility, and Dawson did not take it lightly. The No. 1’s mood can make or break everyone’s experience on a production. Greenwald says Dawson made a point to be “relentlessly optimistic and positive” no matter what was going on with her daughter or her dad’s cancer or Booker being so far away — though he did come to the set once, driving three hours out of his way while in New Mexico for a fundraiser.

Back what seems like a lifetime ago, in Dawson's hotel room at the "Briarpatch" premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Dawson grabbed a bottle of water and began adding an inky, green substance to it from a dropper.

“Have you had chlorophyll water?” she asks. She’d been using it to treat her altitude sickness in New Mexico. “It’s the difference between me having migraines and then throwing up or me being able to sleep and function and actually have extra energy,” she says.

She’d been having a great time in Toronto. The news was getting her a little annoyed, though. She’d told a reporter she wanted to work on voter registration vs. stumping for candidates this election, and suddenly there were articles saying she didn’t endorse Booker. A month earlier Page Six had published its third article about how Booker’s “actress girlfriend” wasn’t attending his campaign events. (Dawson posted it to her Instagram with the caption, “I made it!”)

“It’s important for me to maintain my own space and my own character and personality and career and professionalism,” she says. No one’s accusing Booker of being neglectful if he doesn’t come to some of her events. “I’m like, ‘I call B.S. on this.’ I don’t need to be on his arm to be supportive of him and vice versa.”

“Both of us are feminists,” Booker said in a later interview, “and both of us find it a double standard that they don’t ask me the same questions that they ask her. You know, I have an incredibly successful, self-made woman as my girlfriend who is managing a business, nonprofit work, a career. And when she has her big moments, nobody says, ‘Hey, where’s your boyfriend?’ ”

Plus, there’d been reasons, even beyond work and time, that she’d been laying low. She and Booker get harassed sometimes when they go out in public. Sometimes her daughter is with them. She’s been in relationships with other actors before, but this is a level of intense scrutiny, coupled with fear, that she’d never experienced before. A pipe bomb, she pointed out, had been intercepted on the way to Booker’s New Jersey office last year.

She wants to find more meaningful acting projects, produce more documentaries, maybe go back to college and learn about “regenerative farming and soil practices to capture carbon.” She’ll also continue to grow Voto Latino, which registered 200,000 voters last year and their leadership seminars have produced some elected officials.

She and Booker have talked about kids, and are seriously think about it. She adopted Isa at age 12, and together they’ve grown. “I feel very much like I checked the mom box in this lifetime.” And as much as she loves babies, “I don’t know that I have to be the one to actually push them out.”

Still, she finds all the speculating she gets from strangers, and her mother, amusing. “People go, ‘Oh, my God, if you guys became the first family, then you can be pregnant in the White House!’ I’m like, ‘Slow down.’ There’s a lot of time between here and then.”

Booker’s poll numbers are improving, and he qualified for the fifth Democratic debate in November, but this field is fraught and full.

For the first time in a while, though, she has a little breathing room just to be.

“We’re here and we’re thriving, somehow,” she says. “And I want more of that. And I want that for the rest of my life.”