Michelle Rodriguez might have been a doctor if her family had their way. Instead, the high school dropout from Jersey City turned to acting, broke out as a brooding boxer in Girlfight, and made her Hollywood debut in a B-movie actioner opposite Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, becoming the alpha female of one of the tightest familias in movie history.
Against the odds and studio convention, 2001’s The Fast and the Furious went on to spawn six more supercharged sequels, making stars of its actors. And long before Paul Walker’s tragic death in 2013, that cast had become a family both onscreen and off, attracting a loyal and emotionally invested fan following around a Hollywood anomaly: the multicultural blockbuster film franchise. Now more than ever, Rodriguez feels the responsibility of repping the streets from inside the party.
“To me, it’s the equivalent of Run DMC doing their first track with Aerosmith,” Rodriguez exclaimed while reclining inside a luxury trailer parked at Dodger Stadium. “That’s how I feel we did in Hollywood! Didn’t expect to make a splash, didn’t think we’d be around for long—booyakasha! We ain’t going nowhere.”
Although she’s blasted and battled her way to action heroine status in films like Resident Evil, S.W.A.T., Machete, and Avatar, it’s the Fast & Furious series that has been her cinematic anchor for 14 years, and gifted her the role that most closely mirrors her renegade spirit. “Nobody in my family was happy that I was an actress,” Rodriguez smiled. “My brother was just happy that I had a life outside of the ghetto. He was just happy I wasn’t in jail.”
Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, the religion didn’t stick, but the mindset did. “Having that suppressive mentality in your family for so long, you think about really serious life things really young,” she said. “You think about the world and whether it’s owned by the Devil or by God, you think about politics, you think about the planet. You think globally; you think universally. So I felt a big responsibility coming into the game.”
That’s partly why Rodriguez almost quit her biggest break before it ever became a franchise.
“It was my first Hollywood movie,” she recalled. “I was just excited to be in the same room as objects that were blowing up and cars that were racing, to be around real racers and remember what it was like on the streets of Jersey at two o’clock in the morning hoping that no cops would show up.”
Rodriguez had signed on to Universal’s The Fast and the Furious despite having major beef with the arc intended for her character, streetwise racer Letty Ortiz. The formulaic screenplay called for a love triangle between Letty, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), and Brian O’Conner (Walker). Rodriguez was nearly ready to walk.
“Imagine—I’m living the dream, I wasn’t paying attention to the script. I thought, ‘I’ll deal with it later,’ because on Girlfight when I had a problem with the script I talked to [director Karyn Kusama] about it and we worked it out on the day,” she said. “I thought it was the same thing in Hollywood. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“It was more of a Point Break idea,” she says of the initial Fast and the Furious story. “They just followed the format without thinking about the reality of it. Is it realistic for a Latin girl who’s with the alpha-est of the alpha males to cheat on him with the cute boy? I had to put my foot down.”
“I basically cried and said, I’m going to quit and, ‘Don’t sue me, please—I’m sorry, but I can’t do this in front of millions of people,’” she continued. “My whole point in being an actress is that I thought I got to live a dream. And I don’t dream about being a slut! Do you?!”
I dream about being the girl who throws a monster right hook when shit goes down at Race Wars, I answer, earning a high-five.
“I fought for that one too! I fought for the punch, because they didn’t think a girl would ever get involved,” she said. “It’s like, have you ever been to the ghetto, homie? If your boys are fighting and you don’t fight, they make fun of you, they crack on you, they’d probably kick you out of the group.”
She laughed, remembering Letty’s iconic knockout. “Dude, I hit him for real by mistake. I did the same thing to Paul Calderon in Girlfight—I dislocated his jaw! It was so fucked up. They trained me how to hit people, but they didn’t untrain me when it came time to do stunts. So funny.”
Just as he’d go on to become a leader of the franchise behind the scenes, Diesel stepped up to back Rodriguez on that first film, directed by Rob Cohen. “Vin was the first one to pull me to the side while I was crying, and he just looked at me and said, ‘I got your back. Chill out and let me handle this, and you’re right—it makes me look bad anyway.’ And there you go. That was the beginning of the Letty fairytale.”
Rodriguez sat out the second and third films, she says, after Diesel opted out. But when the studio and filmmakers floated the idea of bringing the gang back together as the franchise was rebirthed under director Justin Lin, Letty Ortiz gave fans two of their biggest surprises—a shocking offscreen demise in 2009’s Fast & Furious, and a cathartic return from the dead in the closing moments of 2011’s Fast Five.
She credits Diesel for fighting to keep the core Fast & Furious family together onscreen. “I was like, ‘Damn Vin—I swear to God, you and your Facebook, bro!’ It’s like a Gallup poll. He was like, this is what the people want; give it to them. That’s what I love about Vin, he’s such a gangsta. But that’s the beauty of it: The bottom line is money. The bottom line is return on investment and the bottom line is global markets. And do you know what? He proves that a multicultural cast with good money, great talent, and integrity can really shine at the box office.”
Diesel also stepped up as the public face of the cast and crew’s heartache when Walker died on November 30, 2013 in an auto accident. The tragedy sent Rodriguez into a personal tailspin. Prone to big bursts of laughter through most of our conversation, she fell silent as talk turned to Walker.
“We were just blindsided,” she said, wiping at tears. “To love somebody like that, and to be introduced to this game with somebody so genuine, who really lives it… if anyone was a voice of integrity, it was him. That motherfucker was always complaining about blue screen or any time he smelled something that wasn’t real, because he loved that world. If he was going to shoot a gun in a movie, he learned how to be a sniper. If he was going to fight in a movie, he freaking trained for six months. He was real.”
“He was a real fucking dude with a big-ass heart. Like, fuck talking about doing shit for people, I’m going to go out there and start a charity. Hands first. I love that boy so much. We weren’t thinking about anything else, man.”
After Walker’s death, Universal shut down production on Furious 7 “no questions asked” and took four months to reset after the cast and crew agreed to move forward in Walker’s memory. With a rewritten ending that pays touching tribute to their fallen brother, Furious 7 was completed under director James Wan with the help of Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody Walker.
“I was really worried that it would be a cover-up, that it wouldn’t be a legacy, that it would be a machine thing—‘What’s next, what’s next?’” said Rodriguez. “Man, [Universal] surprised me with their respect. They were human. They had heart. And they really gave a shit. Everybody involved, down to catering. They all put so much heart into it and I’m proud. I think he would be.”
Nobody’s yet talking about the future of Fast & Furious. Rodriguez has been writing from the start of her career, but hasn’t been able to finish a script. After a tumultuous few years, crafting her own projects and finally stepping out of her comfort zone is a priority.
“It’s been 14 years since I’ve been the lead in a movie, since I’ve carried a movie on my own,” she said. “I’ve just been so shocked by life in the last two years. I’m going to open up. I’ve kind of made myself a carcass of safety and I’ve protected myself against playing the ‘girlfriend’ or ‘the girl who gets raped and THEN gets empowered,’ ‘the girl who gets empowered and then dies’… they’re always taking the power away from the women.”
“I’ve decided to open my mind to carrying something on my own, to see if I can pull it off, because I haven’t done it since Girlfight,” she added. “Maybe dive into comedy a bit and try some new shit. Because I’ve kind of closed myself off to the world out of fear of being taken down, or stereotyped. And in the process, I’ve stereotyped myself.”
She pauses, breaking into another smile. “But I have faith.”