It’s finally Rosario Dawson‘s time to take the lead.

After building a résumé full of charming or badass supporting film performances and serving as the connective tissue for Netflix’s Marvel TV universe, Dawson assumes the star role in Briarpatch. In USA’s adaptation of Ross Thomas’ novel, the actress, 40, plays Allegra Dill, a political fixer who returns to her quirky hometown to solve the murder of her cop sister.

Ahead of the show’s Thursday premiere, EW chatted with Dawson about “rising to the occasion” for the role, avoiding Briarpatch‘s big mystery, and working with a giraffe.

Credit: USA Network

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What intrigued you about Briarpatch?
ROSARIO DAWSON: I’ve never done anything like this. So often I’ve played the girlfriend or some story line device kind of character, and not that main protagonist in this way. This woman has made some very clear choices about who she thinks she is and what her ambitions are, and to see it all kind of deconstruct and being able to explore that was very exciting, challenging, and intriguing. It was really good for me and my spirit to know that I could take advantage of an opportunity like this and rise to the occasion.

Did you read Ross Thomas’ book that the series is based on? Or did you think it wasn’t necessary, considering the gender switch from book to series?
I did not read it. I’m so impressionable, and would have adapted the male characteristics into a woman. I wanted to do it through the lens of [creator] Andy [Greenwald] because it was his idea to make the character female. It’s funny, because my cousin’s husband is a huge Ross fan and has read every single one of his books, and he kept checking with me, “Does she drink a lot?” He just wanted to make sure that there were lots of scenes of me drinking alcohol by myself in a hotel room. I’ll say, yes, we stay true to certain aspects of the book, very clearly. It was fun to do it with material only, rather than what I normally do, which is a s— ton of research. I was like, let me just really try to eke out as much as I can from this a little bit.

How would you describe Allegra and the world of Briarpatch?
It’s a very particular type of storytelling, and there’s a particular cadence; it feels like that gumshoe-ish, noir-ish kind of world. When we did the first screening, it was really exciting to see people get that. Like, “Oh, she comes off like a Humphrey Bogart character.” And my power suits in this are so critical, and our pilot director Ana Lily [Amirpour] was super adamant that we made this character a very like…she kept referencing Bianca Jagger, just in that like power kind of look and that being her armor that she goes into. Bringing that D.C. to this small border town showed that’s where her gumption lies, her audacity to show up in this way and trying to flex in that way and seeing how it compromised her and really helped her sort of navigate the sea of men. Because it’s mostly men that she’s having to grapple with, who are telling her all the time who she is and what she is and what she’s capable of.

Maybe my favorite part of the series so far is the back and forth between Allegra and Jake Spivey (Mad Men‘s Jay R. Ferguson). What did you enjoy about exploring that relationship and dynamic?
I mean, Jay Ferguson is f—ing incredible. What a brilliant actor. Across the board, everybody is so incredible, but I never would have known where we started from and that scene with him in the beginning to where we end. It was just a delicious character to watch unfold in front of me; it wasn’t just like I’m the straight man and he’s the comedy relief. There’s something way, way bigger that I think actually hits at a very strong emotional place, when you have that friendship as a kid and how your opinion of it transforms as you get older and how those dynamics shift. It ended up being really, really beautiful and powerful and personal, and very intimate and into very authentic spaces. I think people will really relate to the dynamics of these two people and the friendship that they found, the solace that they found in it, and the conflict that they have with each other and what it really says deeper about them as individuals. And I was just excited for him. He’s such an amazing actor. It was great to see him do his thing.

[Fear the Walking Dead alum] Kim Dickens as well. We gave her so many monologues in this, because she just f—ing kills monologues. And she’s like, “Well, normally I’m like, ‘The zombies are coming!’” [Laughs] I’m like, “Well, you’ve been vastly underutilized because you can kill a monologue.” She’s so good. And it just kind of kept feeling like that. Alan [Cumming] was saying what a remarkable experience this was. So there was just something very delicious about all these different characters that we don’t normally get to play.

The first season is built on the mystery of the case, so what should viewers expect from the ending?
What I love is that there’s a couple of times where really important questions get answered and it only leaves you with more questions. I’d be very surprised if anyone who hasn’t read the book is able to figure out where it’s going. I didn’t want to know how it ended, but during filming I remember Andy started talking to Jay about it, so I walked away. And then I came back and Jay was really quiet and emotional and goes, “Wow, I’m still thinking about the ending.” He was, like, teary. And I was, like, “What the f— is the ending?” [Laughs] But I didn’t want to know. It goes really, really deep; it definitely hits some nerves.

With the first season being billed as close-ended, should Briarpatch be successful, have there been discussions about what the show would look like moving forward?
If this does really well, Andy has an idea for a second and third season. I think after that it would probably be over. It is up to whether or not the show kind of hits that place, then we get to go even deeper. But it really works as what it is as well. It’s really satisfying and really kind of remarkable, but you fall in love with these characters, so it would be fun to see them again. It wouldn’t be the normal second season, it’d be probably more like The Wire or something a little bit unusual, but we’ll see if we get there. I would love to play Allegra again.

I have to end with a very important question: Was the giraffe real, and, if it was, then what was it like working with such a large, majestic costar?
Yes! Oh my gosh. Every single time we would do the take where I would walk by the giraffe, it would like lean its head down and kind of say hi to me, take after take, like we didn’t rehearse it, I didn’t have food, I wasn’t doing anything. My heart would flutter every time, those big eyes and those eyelashes; they’re just such remarkable creatures. And we had quite a few really amazing animal costars in this that I wish I could talk more about, but they’re really good reveals. That was one of Andy’s adds that’s not in the book.

Credit: Scott McDermott/USA Network

When we were first putting out a teaser, they said, “You can say there’s 10 epic episodes.” I’m like, “I’m not a teenager, I don’t say epic.” [Laughs] But I can say “wild,” because I can tell you these episodes were quite wild as s—. Ana Lily was really pushing on that as well, that the animals be real animals. Because the place is so guttural, if you really feel the sweat and the heat and the place, to like have it suddenly go to a fake animal — as amazing as special effects can be — it really takes you out of it. And I think it was just really critical to beg the question, is it just that these are animals loose from the zoo, or are the animals loose everywhere? Like, are we really the animals? When you watch this, that’ll be an interesting question to ask.

Briarpatch premieres Thursday on USA.

To read more from the Winter TV Preview, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on newsstands now, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content: