Born in Texas and raised in Jersey City, N.J., Rodriguez was plucked from 350 actresses at an open audition to star in Karyn Kusama’s feature about an angry girl who takes up boxing and wins respect, discipline and romance in the process. The film went on to win the Best Directing Award and shared the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and Rodriguez has found herself in every entertainment magazine on the newsstand.
Today she has reporters lined up outside the door to interview her, and publicists are fetching her a sushi lunch. Yet the Dominican-Puerto Rican actress is feeling slightly wary of the new attention, which has arrived in a virtual hailstorm since January.
“I don’t like it. It makes me feel uncomfortable,” says 22-year-old Rodriguez, who encompasses a tough streak similar to her characters and twice the smile factor. “I don’t think it’s genuine the majority of the time. It doesn’t make me feel that great. I mean, I take a dump just like you do, it’s all the same. I don’t get the point of it all.”
Rodriguez, who is already filming projects with Spike Lee (“3 A.M.”) and “Redline,” starring Vin Diesel, has aspirations to be a writer someday and sees acting as a tool for the process, not as a means for spotlight.
“I’m not a celebrity,” she insists. “Celebrities are people like Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon and people like that. Those are celebrities. I’m Michelle Rodriguez, the independent film actress.”
Indeed she is. But even independent film actresses have to do publicity, and the ingenue is bearing the weight of her crown through hours of interviews and photo sessions, looking like a star even if she won’t call herself one. As she poses for pictures with handsome co-star Santiago Douglas, Rodriguez takes the opportunity to observe women’s beauty standards.
“I get so mad at these people,” she says. “Why do you have to load smudges of makeup on me and him you just powder up and send on his way? I don’t care if I don’t look up to par; I don’t care if people don’t think I’m sexy. I’m not here to be sexy to please you. I’m here to be me. … I got over that when I was 17, 18 years old.
“Right now I have makeup because they won’t let me come on without makeup,” Rodriguez continues. “If it were up to me, I’d take it all off and let you see the pimple here and the pimple here, you know what I mean? I still don’t know why women have to lie in order to be liked.”
But don’t get her wrong — Rodriguez is all woman, even though she dressed in her brothers’ clothes as a young girl to protect herself from neighborhood boys’ advances. In playing Diana, she even exerted some of her femininity into her character.
“Karyn wanted to cut my hair,” recalls Rodriguez, who wears her shoulderblade-length hair long and in braids for the film. “I was like ‘Please, she needs some balance.’ … I said, ‘Please don’t cut my hair.’ It was the only feminine thing I was able to do to protect myself from psychologically going crazy.”
Especially since after an intense physical training that packed six to seven pounds of muscle on her 5’6″ frame. “I looked like I’m on steroids; I looked like a dude,” Rodriguez laughed. She began her regimen by jogging, jump roping and learning how to strategically run around a boxing ring. Then she started doing push-ups and sit-ups. The workout stretched from two hours a day for four and a half months to six hours a day. She also added weight training, drinking protein and eating pasta.
Most of the bulk is gone now, whittled away after an exhausting whirlwind of press tours, traveling and self-described homesickness. And it’s probably a good thing, too; Rodriguez noticed that during training, boxing brought out natural aggression, and she saw herself potentially using her skills for decidedly unhealthy reasons.
“I have a very bad disciplinary problem,” she admits sheepishly. “If someone flipped out on me one day. … I mean, I’m very diplomatic, but …”