WHAT TWISTED MINDS would come up with Grindhouse, a lurid and most excellent tribute to the Seventies heyday of double-feature exploitation films usually shown in low-rent theaters (hence, “grindhouse”) with sticky floors and sleazy clientele? Try Quentin Tarantino, who directed Death Proof – one half of the double bill – featuring Rosario Dawson as a plucky makeup artist sweating it out with two other girls in a Dodge Challenger speeding down country roads at 125 mph with a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (a badass Kurt Russell) in hot pursuit. And try Robert Rodriguez, who directed the other half – Planet Terror, featuring Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer with a machine gun replacing one leg that’s been chewed off by zombies.
Tarantino grew up watching B movies such as Vanishing Point and The Italian Connection at mall theaters around greater Los Angeles. And the young Rodriguez, sitting on top of the family van at a drive-in near San Antonio, Texas, snuck forbidden peeks at The Boob Tube and Alien instead of the family flicks his mom had chosen.
So that’s their excuse. But what sort of actress enjoys fleshing out such rabid male fantasies? As Rodriguez confides, “When we started talking about the movie, Quentin said, ‘There should always be a lesbian kiss just around the corner – possibly.’ I took that to heart, and in my very first scene, I have two female tongues going at each other and licking. You find out it’s Rose licking a mirror, but it gets across the idea that it could be around the corner at any time.”
“The way Rose says ‘cocksucker’ is really great,” says Tarantino. “It’s the way she emphasizes the c-k. She’ll screw up a line and say, ‘Aw, fucking cocksucker!’ Robert told me once, ‘Rose said the greatest Quentin line the other day. She was talking about how she doesn’t like the word “whore,” and she said, “You can call me a cunt till the cows come home, but don’t call me a whore!’ “
CUT TO ROSARIO DAWSON’S HOME, a lovely Spanish cottage near the beach in Los Angeles. Dawson is welcoming visiting friends, including Rose McGowan, who’s sitting on Dawson’s white couch with a sweater borrowed from Dawson pulled tight around her. We’ve got Shiner Bock beer (local to Austin, Texas, where Grindhouse was mostly shot) and thin mint Girl Scouts cookies, and we’re discussing their experiences in the hands of Tarantino and Rodriguez. Topic A was the previous night’s screening of Grindhouse, which included trailers for grindhouse films not yet made. Eli Roth (Hostel) had a huge impact with his trailer, a horror take on the holidays called Thanksgiving.
MCGOWAN: It was great – the whole thing of laughing and dry-heaving at the same time.
DAWSON [Giggling as she takes a pull from her beer]: Thanksgiving was genius! That’s the first one I’d want to watch.
MCGOWAN: I thought it was incredibly rude of you Death Proof girls to leave that other girl [Mary Elizabeth Winstead] to be raped by the hick.
DAWSON: I talked to Quentin about it several times, because I had a huge problem with leaving her there. I don’t leave that girl behind – I love that girl, we’re friends. And Quentin says no. I say, “Can I throw her the keys to the car?” And he says, “No, you can’t, that’s not how it’s going to work.” I was like, “Damn.”
MCGOWAN: I’m surprised you thought you could change that. I couldn’t change the word “the.”
ROSE MCGOWAN HAS PROBABLY acted in more horror movies than she’s seen. When she appeared in Scream, she had to make lots of knowing references to films she had never watched. “All they do now is think about ways to torture women, primarily,” she says. “I don’t really get that. What is this, a manual for young, budding serial killers? Can’t we just go watch Pillow Talk?”
We’re eating burgers at House of Pies, an authentically tatty diner in Los Feliz. McGowan is small enough that our booth seems to swallow her up. She’s almost literally incoherent from hunger, but as her blood sugar finds its equilibrium, she regains her customary state of mind: funny, acerbic, just a bit contemptuous of the idiocy of the world she has to live in.
“In a town that’s supposed to be visual and creative, it’s really quite shocking how much they cannot imagine,” she says. “I didn’t get hired for a movie once because they didn’t like the part in my hair. Sometimes I would like to crawl through the phone wire, take the phone and smash them in the head.”
Unlike Dawson, McGowan appears in both halves of the Grindhouse double feature: In Tarantino’s Death Proof, she’s in the smaller role of a blonde who unwisely accepts a ride in a car with a skull painted on the hood. Rodriguez, however, customized the role of Cherry Darling (the go-go dancer with the machine-gun leg) in Planet Terror for her, down to the name. McGowan explains, “I always said that if I had a little girl, I’d want to name her Cherry Darling, but I couldn’t because she’d get made fun of in the schoolyard for sure.”
McGowan and Rodriguez met two years ago at a party in Cannes, France; they were sitting alone, waiting for their friends to return. “Yup, you’re a loser too,” McGowan remembers saying. “As I am wont to do, I started rambling – yapping, as it were.” Rodriguez thought that McGowan had dropped out of show business; she had to explain that she had spent the last couple of years starring in Charmed, the Aaron Spelling TV show about three witch sisters. “She’s funny, creative, talented, sexy,” says Rodriguez. “I thought if people saw her character onscreen, it’d be great. Add a machine-gun leg and it’s even better.”
So what are the pros and cons of having a machine-gun leg? McGowan ponders the issue. “Pros: You can get rid of people you don’t like pretty fast. Cons: You could only wear one shoe, although you’d have to pay for two. Overall, I think it’d be a plus.”
McGowan knows that she’s going to be the locus of some very specific perversions. “There’s gun fetishists and amputee fetishists, and between the two, I’m going to be really popular.” She raises her slender arms over her head, considering how this might affect her life. “I’m just far too lazy for a fetish,” she decides.
Rodriguez split up last year with Elizabeth Avellán, his wife of sixteen years and the mother of his five children (she remained a producer on Grindhouse). Tabloids reported that Rodriguez and McGowan were a couple; they both seem sincere when they deny it. Rodriguez says, “We’re just good friends, and we were stuck together like glue once we started making the movie.”
McGowan says that she’s currently single – for the first time since she was fourteen. (She’s thirty-three now.) “It can be incredibly lonely, and what embarrassed me was that I got dependent on automatic company. I love my friends to death, but it’s never the same. People say it’s good for you to be single. Why?” She has famously dated Marilyn Manson and, more recently, Men’s Health honcho David Zinczenko. She says that her relationships tend to last three and a half years. “I think I’m an overstayer,” she says. “I should go out at two and a half, frankly.” She laughs, not maliciously. “It has been pointed out that I like people obsessed with their work – they leave me alone. If I’m looking for anything in a man, I’d say empathy, and thousands of miles between us.”
Asked what people get wrong about her, McGowan smiles sadly. “Most things,” she says quietly. “It kind of bums me out, but it’s not entirely my job to go around proving any different.” People assume that McGowan is a hard-boiled rock chick. In fact, she likes to stay home with her two Boston terriers [Bug and Fester] and has a small circle of close friends. “It makes me laugh, what people think I’d be doing,” says McGowan, not laughing. “Last Friday night, I was on my hands and knees with a scrub brush and Clorox, cleaning algae off my tiles. Which I derive a lot of pleasure from, strangely.”
Perhaps the biggest source of McGowan’s wild-child image was the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, when she wore heels, a thong and not much else as Manson’s date. Today she explains that she thought it would be a one-day prank and didn’t realize the enduring life of the images. “I tend to do things I think are funny and ironic,” she says, “and later I realize that I’m the only one in on the joke.”
Conversation with McGowan can quickly flit from her childhood (an ultra-Catholic commune in Italy) to how people push religion much harder than drugs (“Any person on drugs I’ve known wants to keep it to themselves”). But for all her quick wit, there’s a tinge of melancholy to her. Maybe she finds being a celebrity embarrassing, or maybe she’s grown weary of trying to explain herself to the world.
In Planet Terror, McGowan has a fairly intense scene in the hospital when she first discovers that zombies have eaten her leg. On the day it was filmed, she was sobbing her heart out for the scene, and she looked up to see both Rodriguez and Tarantino peeking around the corner of the set, with incongruously big grins. They were pleased that the take was going well, but McGowan was irked that they had killed the mood. She told them, “Look, you double fucks, you need to get out of here.” Tarantino then incorporated “double fucks” into his script. “If I can contribute anything to American cinema,” McGowan says dryly, “let it be that.”
ROSARIO DAWSON GRINS WICKEDLY when she says, “I like playing the bad girl. I have a natural proclivity for it. I’m an aggressive person. I’ve got five uncles on my mom’s side, so I can handle a charley horse if it comes my way. I’m good to go.
“I like being spontaneous,” Dawson adds. “Traveling places, being attacked by monkeys in Costa Rica. I’ve gone running with the bulls in Pamplona. I’ve jumped out of a plane.” If she pauses for breath when she details her adventure résumé, I couldn’t tell you where. That’s the first thing you need to know about Dawson: She’s a classic New York motormouth, capable of talking the left leg off a zombie.
Here’s the second thing you need to know about Dawson: She’s a stone-cold geek. She carries around JLA comics; she summarizes old Star Trek: Voyager episodes without any warning.
At twenty-seven, Dawson has made thirty films. She started with Kids when she was just fifteen. She was discovered sitting on her family’s stoop in New York’s East Village. That building was a squat; Dawson’s mom moved the family into an apartment without plumbing or electric power, showing the same unsinkable energy that her daughter would later apply to Hollywood.
Dawson’s recent credits include Rent, Clerks 2 and Sin City, but clearly she’s been preparing her whole life to be in a Tarantino movie. “Quentin is someone that I’ve rabidly been a fan of, that I get a little geeky around,” Dawson says. She is alluding to the fact that she has memorized Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs monologue about Madonna.
Tarantino and Dawson had a long dispute about how many times he had said “dick” in a row during the speech: He believed it was seven, she insisted it was nine. “We argued about it for the longest time,” Dawson says happily. “He said, ‘Dick-dick-dick-dick-dick-dick-dick.’ I’m like, ‘It’s really cute that you’re counting with your fingers, but that’s actually not the rhythm of it. I know because I’ve listened to it way more than you, because I’m obsessed.”
“Rosario might be right technically about the number,” Tarantino admits. “She had great facility with my dialogue. It’s a mouthful, but for the right actor, it’s a dream. It’s not rodeo – you don’t get credit for hanging on for seven seconds. You have to break its back and make it yours.”
In Death Proof, Dawson plays Abernathy, a movie makeup artist and a regular girl who’s riding along in the back seat with her cool girlfriends, including Zoë Bell, the New Zealand native who served as Uma Thurman’s stunt double on Kill Bill. According to Tarantino, Abernathy is effectively a stand-in for the audience, giving them someone to relate to during a harrowing car chase that wrecked a dozen vintage Dodges. “As the movie’s going along,” says Dawson, “I’m realizing bit by bit that I’m kind of playing Quentin.”
She confides that Tarantino likes to plug in his iPod between takes for all to hear. “The extras are dancing, and Quentin’s spouting all this incredible information about who wrote the song and how many times it’s been covered,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Dude, it’s got to hurt to be in your head sometimes.’ ”
Dawson is walking around her house, a flurry of energy. She moved in only a few months ago, after breaking up with her last boyfriend (Jason Lewis, who co-starred with McGowan on Charmed). There’s a dinner party tonight, and guests keep rolling in: a masseur, a chef, Dawson’s uncle (the comics artist Gus Vasquez). Dawson is exuberant with her friends, throwing punches or dry-humping their legs, depending on where the mood takes her.
Unsurprisingly, Dawson is bubbling with life goals. She wants to write a children’s book. She wants to learn to fly a helicopter. She wants to produce more films (her first feature, Descent, got accepted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival).
She might even settle down – but not yet. “I’ve only had three serious boyfriends,” she says. “I used to think I was commitment-phobic, but I’m just picky.” She does like kissing, though. “I like making out. I have a tendency to say, ‘You’re cute, let’s make out.’ And then if you’re not a good make-out person, it’s not going to go any further.”
Dawson knows she intimidates people, which is a fine quality to have in Grindhouse. “That’s my bad-girl thing,” she says. “I find it fascinating that people see that in me. Just because I’m not scared of you doesn’t mean that I’m scary.”
Dawson reports that she got along fine with the other actresses on set. “I’m used to working with mostly men,” she says. “So it was really great to spend time with the girls on location – they were such different chicks. There was a lot of smoking and a lot of drinking.” She grins. “I’m thinking about all the bottles we went through.”
Grindhouse would seem like the last place Dawson should be looking for female bonding, let alone female empowerment: The foundation of the grindhouse industry was that men would walk into utterly disgusting theaters if it meant there was a chance of seeing an inventive bit of cannibalism or just a nice pair of tits in close-up. In this context, feminist advances are incremental. As Dawson cheerily tells McGowan, “You changed it from a gun leg for a guy to a gun leg for a girl!”
“That’s true,” McGowan says. “Well, there was no gun leg yet.” When she met Rodriguez at Cannes, she started complaining that male parts never get rewritten for women. “Who knows what soapbox I had to stand on,” she says, “but apparently I stood on one and said, ‘There’s no reason that the action hero couldn’t be a woman.'” Rodriguez listened, and he turned the male lead into Cherry Darling. McGowan adds, “I love that my character’s not this tough chick. But she does wind up killing people in new, innovative ways.”
McGowan laughs and shakes her head, well aware of how testosterone can warp men’s brains. There’s a chasm between her own passions and the mayhem that fans want to see her commit in Grindhouse, but she’s learned to live with it. “See?” she says. “Best of both worlds.”