This native New Yorker was discovered by director Larry Clark while hanging out near her Lower East Side home. The adolescent acting novice made her debut in Kids, Clark's controversial 1995 film about teenagers and HIV, but she didn't hit the mainstream until the '00s, when she landed a string of supporting roles in high-profile films (Spike Lee's 25th Hour, Men in Black II, the big-screen adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats) while managing to remain an indie darling with parts in more alternative fare (Chelsea Walls, Love in the Time of Money). She found even more success in 2005 with a sexually charged, leather-clad turn in the neo-noir Sin City and a lead role in the film adaptation of the musical Rent, which allowed her to show off her surprisingly strong vocal chops. After branching out with a musical, Dawson covered more new territory in 2008 when she began starring in the online sci-fi series Gemini Division. The sci-fi genre was by no means foreign to her, though, as she's a self-admitted huge Star Trek fan. Dawson is also a fan of taking action and speaking out for causes she believes in: In 2004 she cofounded Voto Latino, which encourages people to vote; and in 2009 she was a keynote speaker at a Washington, D.C., conference about preventing violence against women.
- Describes her ethnicity as black, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Irish and Native American.
- Studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York City.
- Contributed to the voice-over commentary on the remix of Prince's hit "1999" when she was 20.
- Replaced Halle Berry in the 2002 film The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
- Took guitar lessons from Joshua Jackson and Eddie Murphy.
- Was arrested outside the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004 while filming a scene for the film This Revolution when she refused to get out of the street.
- Cofounded Voto Latino, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that encourages people to vote.
- Made her stage debut in 2005 in the Public Theater's revival of the 1971 musical Two Gentlemen of Verona in Central Park.
- Returned to her roots for the movie musical Rent (2005), set on Manhattan's Lower East Side (the neighborhood in which she grew up).
- Was a keynote speaker at the 2009 National Conference on the Primary Prevention of Men's Violence Against Women in Washington, D.C.
- 2015, Critics' Choice Movie Awards — Best Actress in a Comedy: Nominee
- 2006, Critics' Choice Awards — Best Acting Ensemble: Nominee
- 2006, Sundance Film Festival — Dramatic Special Jury Award: Best Ensemble Performance: Winner
- Danny Boyle — Ex-significant Other
- Mathieu Schreyer — Ex-significant Other
- Eric Andre — Significant Other
- Jason Lewis — Ex-significant Other
- Isabel Dawson — Mother
- Clay — Brother