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Written by BeatBoxBetty
October 2000


If you tell Michelle Rodriguez that she hits like a girl, she'll probably say, "Thank you." But then again, she could tear you from limb to limb.

The critically acclaimed film "Girlfight" marks Michelle's feature film debut. Found at an open casting call in New York, she was one of 350 hopeful actresses considered for the lead. She had never really acted or boxed before the film. Her performance also helped land a shared Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.

So, how the hell did this "non actress" gear up for the role? Recently I asked Michelle that very question. Hold on to your heavy bag, here's what she had to say...


Photo courtesy of
Columbia Tristar
Michelle Rodriguez packs a powerful punch in "Girlfight"
Photo: Columbia Tristar
Betty: Before you got this role, how physically fit were you. Were you involved in athletics?
Michelle:
Well, in my house, you know, when nobody was home, I'd dance. I'd also RollerBlade and bike ride a lot. I'd just never sit still. I was always the one goofing off and running around, so I think that helps. I've always stayed energetic.

Betty: What inspired you to try out for this role? I mean, you've never gone after anything like this before, right?
Michelle:
I'd been doing extra work for about a year. I was doing it mostly because I wanted to write a film and I thought the best way to do so was to train myself within the field...It was just like a cycle of people trying to make it, not making it, doing extra work, and it was pretty depressing in the end.

So when I decided to quit, I was like, "Well, I'll give it one last try." I'd never been on an audition before so I went for it. I don't know what it was. I walked in there late. There were lots of people there and it was really crazy, a cattle call kind of thing, and I walked in there with a pessimistic attitude. I guess it suited the role or something because they picked me and two other girls. And then we went through the auditioning process.
Betty: What did you have to do in the audition?
Michelle:
I didn't know how to box so I would have looked like a complete street fighter actually, but what we did have to do was pick up some sides and then just memorize them within two days and go there and audition. I never auditioned before. I had people out of work that were extras - doing it for like eight years to fall back on - so I wasn't about to ask them questions on how to do it.

I just decided to play make believe, memorize it like it was just some kind of song and just take the emotion out of the words. And I did. I goofed a couple of times, but there was some rawness that Karyn Kusama [Girlfight's writer and director] saw and that she liked, and that's what I went for.

Betty: While you were filming, did you feel it was going to be a big break, or did you feel like maybe five people will see?
Michelle:
I knew nothing about the independent film industry. I didn't know much about the industry itself. All I knew was how to watch movies, how to enjoy them, how to hate them, how not to like them. I use to watch like maybe three or four movies, five days out of the week. I was a movie buff, but I really didn't know what it was like behind the scenes, or the whole political process of it. But I hadn't a clue on how many people really enjoy independent film.

Betty: When you went into training for this film, had you any idea what you had signed up for?
Michelle:
No. Because they didn't train me to be in the ring for five and a half hours punching air. So, it was hard, I had to get some body contact in there somewhere, it was mostly body shots and stuff. I had no clue, really. Training did not prepare me for what lied ahead, because they trained me to hit for four and half months and then two weeks before we shoot I'm suppose to be trained how not to hit by a choreographer? It's pretty insane stuff. It's pretty hard. You're bound to hit people by mistake.

Betty: Did you encounter anything from the trainers like your character Diana runs into in the story? Was it like, "What's a women doing in the ring?"
Michelle:
No. Guys are really open about it. They're very accepting of it in Gleason's gym, I don't know about any other gyms. So, all the trainers are really cool. And they were working me hard, man. I'm throwing like 20 pound sacks of sand on my stomach while I'm doing sit-ups, I felt like Rocky. It was crazy.


Michelle Rodriguez &
Santiago Douglas steam up the ring in "Girlfight"

Photo: Columbia Tristar

Betty: You know they've compared Girlfight to Rocky.
Michelle:
That's so funny. I think it's a bit deeper than that. I really do. I just think it's a bit deeper than that because it's a mockery. Whenever a female takes a strong stand for herself the majority of the time they have to really, really narrow it down to being feminine and wearing dresses and just being lipstick chic. And it's either, "You're too butchy or your too prissy." It's hard to find that balance. That's why I think this film is deeper. I think that Diana really finds a balance between femininity and masculinity. People forget we come from an embryo and we're part sperm and part ovary. We have both sides in us. And a lot of people are really intimidated when a girl comes out and she's really tough.

I found myself feeling that way when I saw the women in the WNBA. I really felt that bias within me, AND I'M A GIRL! But then after awhile, when I started boxing, and started really fighting within myself, my animalistic qualities, and I started letting out all the aggressions that I've learned to suppress throughout my life, I realized how beautiful it is, to let loose and feel free. You know what I mean? Physically, mentally, spiritually, it's just great. And I just think people need to open their minds to it, and just stop trying to hold other people down.

Betty: I understand that the gym you trained at - they wanted you to go pro?
Michelle:
Yeah, they did. The guys at the gym were like, "Michelle, you're really good, and I think with some training, you know, you could be pro." But I really, honestly, do not believe in competition. There is ALWAYS somebody better out there, in whatever you're doing. So, I'm really not down with that, I like letting out my aggressions but I don't want to loose my teeth in the process.

Betty: Are you still boxing?
Michelle:
I box every now and then. But I started going out and was wanting people to start to pick on me. I would walk outside and say, "Come on. I dare anybody." That's when I decided to calm down. I'd tell myself, "That monkey over there can body slam you within a second, so stop."

Betty: That opening sequence of seeing you up against the lockers in the school hallway, and just that look you have - just looking up - it tells you so much about who Diana is. Can you talk about how important that first shot was?
Michelle:
That was actually a spur of the moment thing. I don't know where Karyn got that. I think it was while we were training at the gym. There was one time where my trainer said, "Cover your face, but keep you hands low enough so you can see what your doing and block your face at the same time." And in the process of doing that he was saying, "Whoa, whoa, you're gonna kill me with those eyes." I think Karyn remembered that. But it was very spur of the moment.


Michelle Rodriguez & Jaime Tirelli
go over strategy in Girlfight

Photo: Columbia Tristar



















Betty: Have offers been pouring in after the whole Sundance experience?
Michelle:
Well, I felt really gooey inside. I just couldn't believe it. It felt really good because a lot of people really aren't open to seeing strong female characters out there. And when they are seen, they have to be some sort of sex symbol. But I just think it's important for you to see it as a voice, and to listen to it as a voice, and to really let it seep in. And I'm gonna keep throwing that kind of attitude in people's faces until they learn to accept it.

Betty: One of the reasons I think this film is going to work on many levels, particularly with young women, is because they need that feeling of empowerment. As a female, you walk out of this movie and you feel so good about yourself. Michelle: I think empathy is a beautiful thing. I think that's the power of film though. We have one of the most powerful, one of the greatest communicative tools known to man. You know what I mean? It's a form of communication and it's gonna reach you in a way of growth - most of the time.


Betty: Who's career do you look up to, as far as actors?
Michelle:
Do you remember that woman from Batteries Not Included, and Driving Miss Daisy? What's here name? Jessica Tandy. Idol. I love that woman. Her bio totally made me cry. That's dedication and that's passion. She's amazing, and I love her for everything she's done. It's hard to be so impeccable, I think.

And I love Margaret Cho. I recommend anybody to go see her stuff. She's real, and she's out there. And we need that. We need that reality check, because people have become so superficial and plastic that everything is superficial and plastic. You can do whatever the hell you want… just be raw, and be beautiful, and be passionate. I also love the makers of South Park, because they're political, strong, and they're making all of these comments that would get you shot for if you did it in a drama.
Betty: You seem very grounded for your age. Can you tell me a little bit about your family background?
Michelle:
My family background? Whew. That's pretty cookey. I was born in Texas and I lived there 'till I was eight. Then I moved to the Dominican Republic with my mom, lived there for two years and forgot every word of English I knew. From there, 'cause my brother just couldn't get the education he wanted, we moved to Puerto Rico for a year, and from there I came to Jersey City! I grew up a Jehovah's Witness because my grandmother was really influencing that lifestyle on me. That is a very morally intense religion. And although they keep you from experiencing a lot of the bad things that can really hurt you out there in the world, they are also depriving you from experiencing life. And a lot of things you learn from after being in life.

So, I had that Jehovah Witness influence 'till I was fourteen in Jersey City and whenever I would visit my dad, it was like Freud and Darwin, and "learn for yourself," and "play chess," and experience things for yourself. So I grew up torn. That's my background.

Betty: What about school? Was it difficult moving around so much?
Michelle:
Basically I was a rebel growing up. I got kicked out of six schools. But I don't think that it makes you less of an intellect. You know, if you ever crave knowledge, there's always a library. The Dewey decimal system really works. So that's all I needed to know. Elementary school taught me that - but from then on, it's all me. So, I took the GED, and left the option open to go to school. I did go to business school but left after four months because I just didn't want to be a puppet of society, stuck in an office, craving some sunlight.

It wasn't my style. I wanted to express myself. I wanted to be creative and I didn't want to worry about someone bossing me around in the process. You have to struggle no matter where you are to get to where you're going, so I'm like, working it honey!

Betty: Indeed you are, Michelle. Indeed you are. Congratulations once again on your fine performance in Girlfight. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of you in the future!


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