Dawson – a mix of black, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Native American and Irish – is raised in Manhattan's notorious Lower East Side neighborhood. With her family, the six-year-old moves (or "squats") into an empty building that doesn't have electricity. "I grew up living in a squat. My mother moved us in there because we couldn't afford the rent in the building we were in," Dawson tells the Toronto Sun in 2005. "There was no running water and no plumbing so my mother learned to be a plumber. My dad worked construction so he fixed up our rooms for us."
Screenwriter Harmony Korine and director Larry Clark spot a 15-year-old Dawson laughing on a stoop in her neighborhood. They cast the young New Yorker in the gritty, controversial teen drama, Kids (left), opposite Chloe Sevigny. "It was quite a shock to be put in that project," she tells the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001. "It was more of a shock to see it afterward and realize what it was. I don't think I thought about it as much when I was doing it. I was like, OK, this is a cool script. It made waves in the industry, and it definitely opened doors for me."
Dawson appears in Spike Lee's (right) He Got Game, with Denzel Washington. She plays basketball star Jesus' (Ray Allen) girlfriend Lala. "It's an amazing thing to be able to have that one moment where you see your whole life change. Like very drastic," she tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel in 2000. In 2002, she reteams with Lee for The 25th Hour.
With Usher and Vanessa Williams, Dawson costars in the hostage drama Light It Up. Then in April 2001, she nabs her highest-profile role to date in the live-action adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats. She plays bass player Val with Rachel Leigh Cook and Tara Reid (left). "It was a great experience working on the film," Dawson, 21, tells WWD. "It's given me more attention than I've ever had before and given me much more of a voice."
Dawson costars in Eddie Murphy's The Adventures of Pluto Nash and is cast in Men In Black II opposite Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (right). "I thought it was some really sick, mean joke that they were just all pulling on me," the 23-year-old recalls to USA Today when she learns she was cast in MIB II. "I wouldn't put it past anybody in this crew." When the film is released, it makes more than $87 million its opening weekend.
Having previously been linked to teen heartthrob Joshua Jackson and rapper Jay-Z, Dawson begins dating Sex and the City hunk Jason Lewis (left). "He is a wonderful man and I’m very happy," she tells the New York Post in 2004. "I have a stupid grin 24/7." They date until late 2006.
Dawson plays the wife of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) in Oliver Stone's Alexander (right). The epic, which also stars Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, is critically and commercially maligned. But Dawson looks at the bright side of appearing nude in the flop: "In 80 years I will be able to look at that and say, 'I had a pretty nice rack back then.'"
Dawson appears in the film adaptation of Frank Miller's noir series of graphic novels, Sin City. She plays an Uzi-toting prostitute, sporting a mohawk and a barely there leather-and-fishnet ensemble. "She was like, 'Hell yeah, I'll wear it,'" director Robert Rodriguez tells PEOPLE. "You have to have a lot of confidence to carry that off." The film also stars Jessica Alba, Josh Hartnett, Clive Owen (left) and Bruce Willis.
Dawson plunges into her first musical role in Rent. In the big-screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Tony-winning musical, the native Lower East Sider joins a cast of actors from the original Broadway play. "It was really weird. [Original cast members] Anthony [Rapp] and Adam [Pascal] (right) were constantly looking at me," she tells L.A.'s Daily News. "But they said, 'It's really weird. You kind of remind us of Daphne [Rubin-Vega, who originated the role of Mimi] in the way you're figuring it out...there's something about it just fitting and being right.'"
After starring in Kevin Smith's Clerks ll and cocreating the comic book Occult Crimes Taskforce, Dawson stars in Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino's half of the goretastic double feature Grindhouse. With costar Rose McGowan, Dawson appears nearly naked on the cover of Rolling Stone. "If you're on the Rolling Stone cover, you're really not allowed to wear clothing," McGowan tells the Houston Chronicle. "Those are the rules, pretty much. A guy can just be in a T-shirt and jeans, but if you're a girl, that's how it goes."
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