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And in This Corner

From the streets of New Jersey, a fiery and tough Michelle Rodriguez carries the boxing film 'Girlfight,' a favorite at Cannes and Sundance festivals.

September 25, 2000|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michelle Rodriguez is that rarest of performers: a real find. She came out of Nowhere (well, Jersey City, N.J.) to star in Karyn Kusama's "Girlfight," which blitzed the Sundance Film Festival and wowed audiences at Cannes earlier this year.

The movie, about a Puerto Rican teenager who finds herself, in both senses of the expression, in a boxing ring in Brooklyn, is surprisingly accomplished, somehow navigating its way around the cliches in its path--abusive single father, gruff boxing mentor, character-building training sessions, showdown in the ring.

All of this would be unthinkable without Rodriguez. She gives a performance that is fiery, tough and vulnerable. She even gives her character, Diana Guzman, a quality she could so easily lack: sex appeal.

"It's either become a puppet to society or just die," Rodriguez says. "That's where I relate to Diana. That struggle of getting out there, just being yourself, is so hard, just having your own beliefs and not following everyone else."

Some of this sounds a bit, well, young, like dialogue from a college bull session. In fact, Rodriguez is only 21, and she's already come a long way.

"She was on her way to getting fired from Toys R Us after two weeks when she came to that audition," says Kusama. "Her life literally changed over the course of a year in such a tremendous way. I wonder if I could handle the level of change that she's probably having to face."

The audition Kusama is referring to was an open casting call that attracted 350 applicants for the role of Diana. According to producer Martha Griffin, they had been auditioning every Latina actress in her late teens to early 20s on both coasts, with the idea of finding a fresh face, but someone with experience. The studios contributed such inspired casting ideas as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alyssa Milano, neither of them notably bruisers or Latina.

Only Experience Was as an Extra

It was amid this welter of faces that they found Rodriguez, who had arrived late and was among the last people they saw. Kusama says that she jumped right out, that she had "presence to burn," but it wasn't at all clear that she could act. Her only experience was as an extra in such films as "Summer of Sam" and "Cradle Will Rock."

"Her instincts were really good," Kusama says. "So even though she had no acting experience, her interest in learning was so apparent and her progress was so obvious, it sort of felt like what we were dealing with was somebody very much like the character, capable of greatness but still only working with raw material."

It also helped that though she'd had no previous boxing experience Rodriguez was a natural in the ring. So they had her work out for 4 1/2 months and bulk up. ("I was ripped, man," she says.) When she started showing up for training sessions late, producer Griffin had her move in with her for the rest of pre-production and the duration of the shoot ("She has a problem with time," Griffin says.)

Meanwhile, Rodriguez and Kusama went over the script and got to know each other. Kusama wanted to find parts of Rodriguez's life she could tap into to help the novice actress elicit certain emotions. Rodriguez also went to an acting teacher to help tone down her natural exuberance. To anyone who has seen the film, the most surprising thing about meeting her is how animated she is. Diana, on the other hand, is sullen, inaccessible.

"Within the first day or two it was apparent that she was just a complete spazzmatazz," Kusama says. "She was literally--I mean this--jumping off the walls. Despite a reserve of sullenness and anger within her, she is incredibly optimistic. So it was really interesting to see that kind of joy and boundless energy in her and then say, 'OK, Michelle, just chill out, calm down, we're shooting in 10 seconds,' and she would just completely shut down and become somebody with the most deadly silent center. It really convinced me that she could be a truly gifted actress."

"I said to myself, 'Michelle, it's either now or never,' " Rodriguez says. " 'If you're going to do this, do it now.' I got into the acting because of my writing. I wanted to see what the whole industry was about. I was a movie buff. I used to watch three videos a day. So I just said to myself, 'Just picture yourself playing as a kid, the way you'd like to be a cop, put that attitude into it.' We all have emotion, and we all have the same emotion. All you have to do is exaggerate it to the extent that would be perfect for the script, and that's exactly what I did."

Very Little of Her Softer Self

Another thing Rodriguez did was throttle back on her femininity. In fact, Griffin says Kusama wanted Rodriguez to cut off her hair, but Rodriguez objected and won. Otherwise there is little onscreen of her softer self, a part that she insists exists, though she keeps it hidden in real life too.

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