By People Staff
November 25, 2005 06:00 AM

Age: 26
Hometown: New York City
Current gig: Playing H.I.V-infected bohemian Mimi in the movie musical adaptation of Rent

1. She lived Rent
“My mom could have been Mimi,” says Dawson, who grew up in a squat on New York City’s Lower East Side. “She was a young woman who was struggling and she moved into a building with no heat or water or electricity.” There was a gaping hole in the floor and plastic for windows, but for mom Isabel, it was “better than living in the railroad apartment with the slumlord down the street,” Dawson says. Now the actress – who was discovered in her neighborhood at 15 for her first movie, Kids – is a West Coast girl, living in L.A., where she bunks with her boyfriend of more than a year, Jason Lewis (Sex and the City), 33.

2. She could be the next Charlize
“After I did He Got Game (1998), every script I got was playing some guy’s girlfriend who was hot and that was it,” says Dawson, who also costarred in Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour and stripped bare for the epic Alexander. But for one of her upcoming roles – Elmore Leonard’s gritty thriller Killshot, costarring Mickey Rourke and Diane Lane – she’s following Charlize Theron s lead and playing ugly: a down-and-out trailer park denizen with “no makeup except for some pock marks on my face.”

3. She’s run with the bulls
“That’s probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” Dawson says of her Pamplona adventure. But it’s the kind of “chutzpah” that helps her identify with characters like Rent’s Mimi. “I don’t usually get scared at something until I try it,” including her audition for the movie-musical. “I was going up against people who had actually originated these parts and been nominated for or gotten Tonys for these roles.” Taking over the part created by Daphne Rubin-Vega, Dawson joined a cast including Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Jesse L. Martin. “I knew that I could do it even if I was delusional. I very easily could’ve been delusional.”

4. She’s living out her Disney fantasy
“Some kids want to be a ballerina, a princess, this or that – I always wanted to be able to sing and dance,” says Dawson, who wrote her first song when she was 6. But growing up, money was tight and Broadway shows like Rent weren’t in her budget. Instead, she got her inspiration from the movies. “At recess, we’d be singing all the Ariel songs from A Little Mermaid.

5. She’s got a Sex-y boyfriend
“He’s just a wonderful human being,” Dawson says of Lewis, a former model who played Samantha’s main man Smith on Sex and the City. “He’s generous and loving and intelligent and warm and funny. Plus, mom thinks he’s hot. After watching a DVD of the series, she said,” ‘Your boyfriend has a nice butt.’ I said, ‘That s it. I’m turning this thing off.’ ”