You can't help but be a little afraid for Michelle Rodriguez. NHere's a feisty young woman from Jersey City, New Jersey, who's suddenly one of Hollywood's hot new things.
She'd never acted before, but landed the lead role of Diana Guzman, a pissed-off teenager who takes up boxing, in director Karyn Kusama's indie flick Girlfight.
Balance found Rodriguez, who had made a few dollars working as an extra, was one of 350 women who auditioned for the film in an open call. She arrived late, laughed at her mistakes and left.
Kusama had written off the unknown woman until she looked at the audition video. Then she saw and felt Rodriguez's onscreen power. "I needed Brando as a teenage girl, and I found her. I really lucked out," says Kusama.
"The movie is not about fighting, it's not about competition," says Rodriguez. "If it were, my character would never have learned discipline. That's what I love about Karyn and what she did with this script. She found that balance between femininity and masculinity for all the characters, from Diana to Adrian, her boyfriend."
Rodriguez and Kusama came to Toronto during the film festival to talk about Girlfight, which at this year's Sundance fest copped the best-director award and shared in the grand jury prize.
The first thing I notice when Rodriguez walks into the hotel board room for her interview is how tiny she is. She trained extensively for her role and looked wonderfully buff and solid in the film, but the petite woman now in front of me looks nothing like her cinematic image.
Rodriguez was quickly snapped up by a Hollywood agent and is presently shooting the action film Redline, starring Vin Diesel. Maybe losing the bulk was obligatory?
"I didn't want to get rid of the weight," says Rodriguez, "but it came off after the movie."
Although she's changed physically, Rodriguez still shares the outspoken intensity of her Girlfight persona. That's why you start to worry if this straight-talking chick will survive the Hollywood meat market.
"I'm just going to voice my opinions no matter what. Just because I have tits and a vagina, do I have to close my legs and keep my mouth shut? No, I don't think so," states Rodriguez.
Stupid sequel "I might go to a party and some producer with a big ego may ask my opinion about some stupid sequel, and I'm supposed to say, 'Yeah, I think that's a great idea!' and massage his egotistical shlong. But I'm bad at that, and then I'll get a call from my agent and he'll say, 'Michelle, if you want to be real, talk to me.' And I say, 'Dude, I don't act on my free time.' It's hard, the Los Angeles kind of life."
Rodriguez has 10 brothers and sisters. She grew up in Texas, moved to the Dominican Republic to learn more about her mother's side of the family, and after two years there headed to Puerto Rico. Finally, she ended up in Jersey City.
She took extra work to learn about moviemaking because her dream was to become a screenwriter. When she landed the part of Diana, she committed to laying herself on the line not only emotionally but also physically.
"I had to travel two hours every morning from Jersey City to Brooklyn. I started training for two hours a day, and that increased to six hours a day over four months. I ran, did calisthenics, hit the speed bag -- which was annoying since it took me three and half months to learn how to do that. After a week of training, I started sparring, which was a little premature, but I'm so aggressive that it was OK."
When she finished, the gym where she trained wanted her to turn pro, but she declined, saying she wanted to keep her teeth.
Rodriguez's goal now is to become a female action star.
"I would like to change the whole damsel in distress thing. It's sickening, tiring and monotonous. I hate going to see an action movie -- and they're my favourite movies because they're full of stuff you can't do in real life without going to jail -- and it just sucks that every smart woman in an action film usually falls in love and has to be saved by a guy.
"I'm looking for quality roles, but you have to work your way up. Just leave room for my mistakes is all I have to say."
GIRLFIGHT, written and directed by Karyn Kusama, produced by Sarah Green, Martha Griffin and Maggie Renzi, with Michelle Rodriguez, Santiago Douglas, Jaime Tirelli and Paul Calderon. A Green/Renzi production. A Screen Gems release. 111 minutes. Opens Friday (September 29). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 98.
Rating: Rating: NNNN
Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is a sullen Brooklyn teen with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak. She discovers boxing as a way to channel her anger and in the process falls for fellow pugilist Adrian (Santiago Douglas). First-time writer/director Karyn Kusama delivers an engaging girl-meets-boy, girl-must-beat-up-boy love story, and Rodriguez holds it together with her super-intense performance. She's physically intimidating, but her glower and sneer mask a young woman who's afraid of finding and then losing love. Kusama graduated from film school almost 10 years ago but waited until now to make her first feature. She says she needed to be inspired, and with Girlfight she obviously is. And she's made a film that inspires others. IR