The way I survived growing up in Jersey City was by being funny. It wasn’t by being tough. Nobody thought of me as a tough kid, except for the kids I beat up. Not the real tough kids. MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ
When, in 2000, Michelle Rodriguez broke out playing a tough, trailblazing boxer from Brooklyn in Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight, it was the raw, emotional candor of her performance that won over audiences and won her an Independent Spirit Award for best debut performance. In short order that film became a kind of byword for a next-gen female empowerment, and Rodriguez, whose own hardscrabble background and disarming honesty somewhat resembled that of her character’s, became a symbol of badassery. But in Hollywood, which has never been the most ethnically or culturally diverse of environments, symboldom, sex—or otherwise, can be synonymous with being typecast, and in the years that followed Girlfight, Rodriguez made appearances primarily in action fare, playing the “tough Latina with a heart of gold,” with Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker in the Fast & Furious movies (2001, 2009, 2013), in the surfer-babe flick Blue Crush (2002), with Colin Farrell in the cop drama S.W.A.T. (2003), and with Sam Worthington in the sci-fi epic Avatar (2009).
From the beginning, though, Rodriguez, now 36, who grew up both an Army brat and Jehovah’s Witness, always feeling the outsider as she bopped from Texas to the Dominican Republic and ultimately to Jersey City, recognized what she calls “the political weight” that had been thrust upon her and her career. But she never shirked it, and never buckled under the perceived pressure for her to represent an entire ethnic community on the screen. Instead, she has consistently charmed and intrigued audiences with the same tenacity and forthrightness that made her a star.
And while another actor might have consolidated her image behind a single characteristic, Rodriguez hasn’t fallen to branding herself as the toughy or the tomboy or the exotic love interest she’s often called upon to play, but rather she seems effortlessly unmanufactured, vibrantly and unconsciously herself. “I do what I want, when I want, how I want,” she says. And anyone who has taken a peek or two at her often hilarious and characteristically unfussy Instagram feed—and seen her shooting automatic rifles in Vegas or jumping off yachts in some sunny paradise—knows exactly what she means.
Last year, with our collective interest in the lives of others in full flame, constantly fed by the bellows of social media, a series of photos of Rodriguez canoodling with supermodel Cara Delevingne at a New York Knicks game and making out with actor Zac Efron in Sardinia fanned through the internet like wildfire—igniting still another symboldom for the actress to bear, that of the heartbreaker’s heartbreaker.
In advance of Furious 7, which hits theaters in early April, Rodriguez got on the phone with her Resident Evil (2002) co-star Milla Jovovich to talk about the burden of being a badass, romance, motherhood, and outer Mongolia.
MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ: How the hell have you been? You’re ready to pop another angel.
MILLA JOVOVICH: I am, but the first time around I didn’t feel like such a science experiment. This time I keep having images of, like, Alien.
RODRIGUEZ: That’s awesome.
JOVOVICH: I saw on Instagram that you just went to Mongolia. What were you doing there?
RODRIGUEZ: I don’t know! [laughs]
JOVOVICH: Well, that’s great! I went to Mongolia seven years ago and it was so incredible.
RODRIGUEZ: Did you go, Bedouin-style, to the desert?
JOVOVICH: Yeah, are you kidding? I took my little brother, and we went from Beijing to Ulan Bator, and then took a helicopter to the southern Gobi …
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, that’s sexy right there, because you’ve got grass down there; it’s not all desert.
JOVOVICH: Streams, grass, and sand dunes to climb. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Everybody needs to go to Mongolia just to see what it is to be a human being again.
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, man, I was hanging out in gers [yurts] with these Kazakh sort of Bedouins. Drank nasty-ass camel milk. The drive [from the Souther Gobi to Ulan Bator] is insane. It’s like The Road.
JOVOVICH: I kept saying to my brother, “Oh, Marco, look at the colors!” For me, that’s where Walt Disney got his landscape inspiration. It’s the most beautiful, most fairy-tale-like landscapes I’ve ever seen.
RODRIGUEZ: With the short, wild horses that climb mountains! Dude, for me to see this little 13-year-old girl from a Kazakh eagle-hunting family win the festival—she beat out all these 40- and 50-year-old men—it was priceless. All the young boys are heading over to the city to go make money, chasing the big capitalist dream. So for a guy who’s Muslim to be open-minded enough to teach his beautiful little girl the ways of the eagle, I was just blown away. At least twice a year you should go in search of that feeling.
JOVOVICH: I know you as a very spiritual person and we’ve talked about different books that you’ve read …
RODRIGUEZ: You introduced me to [anthropologist and author of the Don Juan series of books involving shamanic peyote rituals] Carlos Castaneda because I was all into the hallucinogens for a minute. [both laugh]
JOVOVICH: Do you need to take time away to reconnect with yourself every once in awhile?
RODRIGUEZ: Sometimes I wake up in awe that I’m alive. I can’t get over that part, so I guess it makes me kind of like an existentialist. I’m always researching ancient religions, and I was also raised Jehovah’s Witness, so that kind of scarred me for life. So, yes, I do.
JOVOVICH: After the Cannes [film festival] experience, for instance?
RODRIGUEZ: I enjoy vanity like the best of them. But I can’t stick to any of that lifestyle for too long because, when its true colors come out, it’s empty and cold and soulless. So I have to travel and go find some real people. After Cannes every year, I end up going to some foreign country I’ve never been to before and introducing myself to a new religion—I’ll go to Bali and research Hinduism, or I’ll go to Thailand and get another tattoo from [Thai tattoo artist] Ajarn Noo [Kanpai]. [laughs]
JOVOVICH: So you grew up in a religion that you weren’t comfortable with, but in a very spiritual environment.
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, hell yeah. The roughest thing was learning the realities of the world at such a young age. I was 10 or 11, going to church, hearing the adults standing on the podium talking about world affairs, about history, about war, and how America was founded. Then I go to school, and they’re teaching me the complete opposite. I already knew, from church, that this place was raped and pillaged by Spaniards and the Pilgrims. “Don’t sit here and try to tell me that they broke bread together, brother.” [laughs] So I hated school right away. Religion had a lot to do with it because I felt like everybody was always lying to me. And then I heard that the guy who invented the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a Mason. Ha! That kind of turned me off, because when something’s mysterious, all you can do is be scared of it. “He’s a Mason? Ugh. It must be evil!” I didn’t know much about it, so I was scared. Now I actually admire those guys—they’re pretty talented. They founded a lot of the world that we look at today.
JOVOVICH: Did you go door to door?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, and sometimes I’d knock on the door of somebody I was going to school with, so it was like living a double life. At school, I was this tomboy kid who just loved to hang out with her friends and learn curse words, trying to fit in with the cool kids and defending all the kids who got picked on.
JOVOVICH: How did you become the protector of the weak?
RODRIGUEZ: I had older brothers who would pick on me, and injustice always boiled my blood. The way I survived growing up in Jersey City was by being funny. It wasn’t by being tough. Nobody thought of me as a tough kid, except for the kids I beat up. [laughs] Not the real tough kids.
JOVOVICH: Did you have to prove yourself, or were you beating them up because you didn’t like them?
RODRIGUEZ: There was a lot of drama in school because, well, people have problems at home and they take it out on their friends in school. Trying to impress people, they became bullies. I hated it because I know what it’s like to be picked on, and I never liked not fitting in, especially moving around so much as a kid because I was an Army brat. My dad was in the Army.
JOVOVICH: He was in the Army and a Jehovah’s Witness?
RODRIGUEZ: No, my mom’s side of the family was about that. My dad was more, “Let’s play chess. Read a book, you’re stupid.” He’s more the intellectual type. I was split in two, kind of like a brain. But growing up in Jersey City was interesting. I got to learn a lot about different cultures: I had Hindu friends, Middle Eastern friends, black friends, Spanish friends. I spent the beginning of my life in Texas, and then my parents got divorced and I went to the Dominican Republic, learned Spanish, forgot every word of English I knew, and then, when I was about 11, 12, we moved to Jersey City. Everywhere I go I’m an outsider.
I’ve got Rosie Perez, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno. That’s it. That’s the history of Latin women in Hollywood, really. I’m like, ‘Well, damn, that means that I have to carry a flag.’ Michelle Rodriguez
JOVOVICH: When you were a kid stomping around Jersey City, what did you see for your future? Did you even think about stuff like that?
RODRIGUEZ: All the time. I’d stare up at the sky and just dream a lot. Still do. I dreamed that I didn’t belong here, that I was going to travel a lot. I just never felt like I belonged anywhere. I always had a stick with a little knapsack attached. [laughs]
JOVOVICH: Aw, that’s sweet. Did you think about being an actor?
RODRIGUEZ: I thought about making movies. It hit me when I was about 14, 15 years old. I used to go over to my friend’s house and we’d watch VCR tapes, three of them a day, and I was like, “I could come up with better stories than this.” And I’ve wanted to write films ever since.
JOVOVICH: Did you keep journals as a kid?
RODRIGUEZ: Tons. I have them lying around. Sometimes I’ll stumble across one and be like, “Damn, thank God for spellcheck.”
JOVOVICH: Can you still relate to what you wrote back then?
RODRIGUEZ: I’m like a fucking onion, man; I’m always peeling. I never got attached to anything I was. I never fall in love with things that I believe in. I always leave room for it to evolve into something else.
JOVOVICH: When I think about myself at 15, I can’t relate to myself at all. I thought I knew everything.
RODRIGUEZ: You were deprived of being a kid, weren’t you? You started working when you were young.
JOVOVICH: I started super young, but when I think about myself at that age—what I thought I knew, and how priggish I was, how certain of things—now I realize that nothing is certain. Back then I would really fight. But you have the energy when you’re a kid to really fight for rights—that’s why kids make great soldiers, right? You can brainwash them easily, and they’ll believe it until the moment they take their last breath.
RODRIGUEZ: I’m still as passionate, just not as stubborn.
JOVOVICH: When you started writing, what kinds of stories did you write?
RODRIGUEZ: Short stories. Some of them were erotic stories. [laughs] That was my hobby. I just loved storytelling. That’s what I thought I would end up doing. I thought I would probably go to school and end up writing for a magazine or something.
JOVOVICH: I loved reading about how much you care for and respect your Fast & Furious character, Letty, who you also describe as a quote-unquote slut.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, she’s a whore. [laughs] But, you know what it is? People don’t like talking about it, but if you’re Spanish, you feel a weight. I don’t have much history—I’ve got Rosie Perez, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno. That’s it. That’s the history of Latin women in Hollywood, really. I’m like, “Well, damn, that means that I have to carry a flag.” I don’t have the freedom to just do anything, because I have the political weight of having this last name and my heritage. It’s not like I’ve transcended, Will Smith-style. It takes a lot to pull that off, to cross over, and transcend. So when I looked at Letty, I told them, “You can’t do the stereotype thing. I get that this dynamic is based on Point Break , but it doesn’t work now. Either you don’t make her slut—not make her a character that gets with both [Vin Diesel’s character and Paul Walker’s] and you respect her, or you’re going to lose me. And you can sue me and do whatever because I’m from Jersey City, what the fuck do I give a fuck? I’ll go back to where I came from. Whoop-de-do. You’re not hurting me none—it’s not like I’m losing millions.” Vin [Diesel] protected me. He was like, “Wait a minute, I don’t want a slut for a girlfriend! That makes me look bad.” [both laugh]
JOVOVICH: So you actually got the producers to completely change the script?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, that was Vin’s fault, by protecting me. Otherwise I would’ve ended up getting sued because I’m stubborn. I’m hardheaded. I don’t do what I don’t want to do. And you know that like the back of your hand, Milla. You’re a monster when it comes to that shit, like, “I ain’t havin’ it!” I love you for that.
JOVOVICH: [laughs] Well, I’ve always found that it’s such an emotional experience, trying to find the good parts of a bad character or the bad parts of a good character, and in the end, most of these qualities are already there inside me. Does that make me bad or good? There’s an existential crisis …
RODRIGUEZ: I think there are three types of actors. There are the ones that do the ego thing, which is “I’m never going to look bad in a movie, ever.” This is mostly the action film dudes, like, “Nah, hell no. He ain’t punchin’ me! I’d whoop his ass!”
JOVOVICH: I have to say, I’ve done that, too. [laughs]
RODRIGUEZ: We all have our moments. But you can switch it around. Then you’ve got the activist type who bases their decisions in the development of a character on what it symbolizes to society—what the ethical code is. And then the third type is a true thespian who doesn’t give a flying rat’s ass what it is as long as it’s deep, powerful, and painful, and they will dive in headfirst. I really respect those people. Meryl Streep is amazing at it.
JOVOVICH: That’s a great way of looking at it. But I can relate to all of them.
RODRIGUEZ: You have them all in you. It’s about who you feel like being today.
JOVOVICH: That always bothered me about being an actor. Like, “Am I so wishy-washy that I can relate to all of these things? [both laugh] Whatever happened to that 15-year-old who was so sure about what was right and what was wrong?” Now I’m 39, going, “I can really see that point of view now.”
RODRIGUEZ: That’s beautiful. That’s about going from micro to macro, zooming out and taking it all in. It’s evolution. I fucking love getting older, man. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I mean, I’d love to have the energy I had.
JOVOVICH: You have no fear of age? Because I definitely see you showing your belly a lot.
I’m like a fucking onion, man; I’m always peeling. I never get attached to anything I was. I never fall in love with things that I believe in. I always leave room for it to evolve into something else. Michelle Rodriguez
RODRIGUEZ: [laughs] You know me, Milla, I’ve never really been about looking good—I’m just bad at that stuff.
JOVOVICH: You’re not the type to wear makeup. But you’ve got vanities, too—you must!
RODRIGUEZ: Hell yeah!
JOVOVICH: But no fear of getting old? What about children?
RODRIGUEZ: I cherish what you do—having kids—but don’t leave that shit to me. I’ll get a surrogate. [laughs]
JOVOVICH: Oh, seriously? I was going to ask if you are scared of having kids because feel you like your body would get destroyed?
RODRIGUEZ: It’s not just that. I do what I want, when I want, how I want, and because of that, it has taken me so long to grow into an adult human being. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the last years that I have of being youthful in this business to have kids. I’m 36, Milla. It’s been 15 years since I was the lead in my own feature, in Girlfight. So I haven’t done what I came here to do. I’m just kind of fiddling around. I haven’t even been born yet. I’ve been part of really big things that are amazing, but I haven’t taken on that responsibility yet. So I don’t want to sell myself short by having a kid and then regret not doing what I set out to do.
JOVOVICH: There’s no way that you would ever regret having a kid. On the contrary, everything would suddenly turn out to be not as bad as you thought it was. Because, look, I can totally relate, okay? When I did The Fifth Element , it was like, “Oh my goodness, who is this character?” I loved doing Resident Evil, but Resident Evil is Resident Evil with or without me. It’s an entity of its own. It’s not like Milla made Resident Evil.
RODRIGUEZ: I disagree.
JOVOVICH: And it’s not like Resident Evil made Milla, but we joined forces and something great happened, which I think is the same as you with Fast & Furious. You helped make that movie what it is, and that brand helped you be who you are. It’s a symbiotic relationship. For me, having kids put so much into perspective. I wasn’t so worried about my career and what I did or didn’t achieve. Because, suddenly, I was like, “As long as this baby is healthy and safe, everything else is fine.”
RODRIGUEZ: That’s so beautiful. But by the time you had Never [Jovovich’s daughter, Ever Gabo], you had already had a great body of work under your belt.
JOVOVICH: To be honest, the thing that people remember is The Fifth Element, the breakout. Speaking of which, you said that when you auditioned for your breakout, Girlfight, you were in a dark place.
RODRIGUEZ: That’s for sure. I’d done two years’ worth of extra work, and all my friends who I would go on auditions with went to school for acting. These were kids who knew when they were 14 years old that this was what they wanted to do with their lives, and they prepared for it, and they’re getting canned at every audition. So two days before going on that Girlfight audition, which was my first real audition, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was like, “Fuck this shit, what do these people know? They’re not going to know what I’m capable of within ten minutes of knowing me.” I felt like it was a fucked-up system. And that’s why I was in a dark place. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was up to no good with a friend of mine in Jersey City the night before. We were partying and free-styling on a rooftop, and I was, like, “Dude, I know that if I stay here, I’m definitely going to end up in jail.” So I said to myself, “I’m going to go to this damn audition. Let me see, fuck it.” And boom. Here I am. Isn’t that crazy?
JOVOVICH: It’s amazing that, at the time, you were able to realize that you were no better or worse, but that that’s where you were going. On your Instagram recently, you posted something saying, “Can you imagine me playing a snob,” or something. [Rodriguez laughs] How easily do you think you could go outside of your comfort zone as an actress? Because you are obviously known for being kick-ass, for being the strong woman and representing female empowerment, have you ever considered pulling “actor” roles?
RODRIGUEZ: I would love to, Milla. But they’ve never come across my table. Maybe I exclude myself from that genre by not getting dressed up often enough, by acting ghetto most of the time, and running around in sweats and Timberlands.
JOVOVICH: If you talked to your agent—
RODRIGUEZ: I don’t have an agent. The only work I get is through friendships that I’ve already built.
JOVOVICH: Jeez. Well, look, if I were dependent on the big movies I do for my whole career, all I would do is action films and horror movies.
RODRIGUEZ: Sounds like my career. [laughs]
JOVOVICH: But we’re very similar in that sense, in that we’re both these strong, kick-ass females—that’s what we’re known for …
RODRIGUEZ: You know what it is, Milla? I’m a picky little bitch. I hate everything. I say no to everything. That’s my problem. Maybe I’ve been sitting here with this gift and not using it appropriately. Maybe I should be developing shit from scratch. Because there’s a voice inside of me that I know people will relate to; I just haven’t really had the opportunity to let it flourish. To sit there and explain to a guy what it’s like to be a kick-ass woman is hard. I think there’re only a handful of directors out there that get it—you married one. Maybe if women like you or me were behind the camera or writing these scripts, it’d be different.
JOVOVICH: That’s for sure. But in the meantime, as an actress, I do a lot of films that no one sees—small independent movies that’ll probably never see the light of day, but where I get to play something, a comedic role or softer character, that a studio film would never give me the chance to play. I’ve been able to stretch my wings and feel excited about working.
I just never felt like I belonged anywhere. I always had a stick with a little knapsack attached. Michelle Rodriguez
RODRIGUEZ: I really would love that. I wish that something interesting would come across the desk. I’m bored by what people think is interesting.
JOVOVICH: What desk? If you don’t have anyone whose desk they can send it across—
RODRIGUEZ: Mine! I’d love to see four girls who actually get along in a movie that’s not about chasing some guy or marrying somebody. [laughs] Like, where the fuck is our Pulp Fiction? Where is our Reservoir Dogs? Where’s that cool shit with the chicks kicking ass, having some fun? I’ve met some really crazy bitches in my life and I’ve had lots of really amazing friends; I want to see that onscreen. Maybe I’ll take some time off and just go write, because, fuck it. What do I have to lose?
JOVOVICH: I don’t want to try to talk you into it, but maybe you should get pregnant at the same time.
RODRIGUEZ: No you didn’t! [both laugh]
JOVOVICH: I did want to ask what you thought about women balancing work and home life.
RODRIGUEZ: Come on. Look at me! I have absolutely nothing consistent in my life. But that’s where serendipity comes in and I love that. One day I’m going to have to sacrifice that to bring life into the world. But the more I can hold off on that, the happier I’ll be. It’s scary for me. I’m a lone wolf. I run by myself on most things. I’ve got lots of really great friends, but the thought of being in a long-lasting relationship? Psh, I couldn’t last more than six months with somebody, let alone have a father figure around for a kid. I mean, if I could give a kid a father figure, that would be amazing.
JOVOVICH: I’ve looked at relationships this way: you’re either going to be that person who is always looking to what’s next, to who’s around the corner, or you could just be in the relationship that you’re in and make it work—not abusive relationships—but something good. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter who it is—once you get past that two-year mark, you start looking over their shoulder, going, “Is this really what I want?” [Rodriguez laughs] It’s true. It’s a natural human instinct. We’re not swans that will die when our mate dies. I see some of my friends my age who are still always running after some new guy, and it’s so sad. Which is where kids come in.
RODRIGUEZ: I just want that unconditional love, the kind you get with a family member. You might get lucky enough to find that unconditional love in a friend or a lover, but it’s very rare. So if I ever have a kid, it’d be so that I could look in those eyes and know that this child is a piece of me and will love me the same way I love, but I think that’s selfish of me. Don’t you ever wonder, when Ever gets older, if she’s ever going to reach that phase—did you ever hit that phase when you were 14, 15 years old, and you kind of hated your parents for bringing you into the world?
JOVOVICH: I know it’s going to happen. And every day I wonder, “Am I doing it right now, the thing she’s going to hate me for later?” [laughs]
RODRIGUEZ: But it’s also just existing—that big thing that looms over your head every now and then and taps you on the shoulder, that feeling that you are here alone on this journey. And it’s like, “Thanks, Mom!” When times are rough, that hormonal stage of adolescence—I don’t know about you—God, it was awful for me.
JOVOVICH: I remember looking into the mirror, and I still do this sometimes, going, “I’m me, here in this world, isn’t that insane?” Motherhood takes it to another level, but I think you can handle it. Speaking of love, I feel like I’ve read a lot of stuff where people are super interested in what makes Michelle tick in the bedroom.
RODRIGUEZ: Oh my God. [laughs]
JOVOVICH: It’s crazy, and obviously makes me feel a little awkward, because I know you—you’re like a sister. I’m like, “Wow, people are really interested in who Michelle is having sex with and what she’s into.” Does it bother you?
RODRIGUEZ: [laughs] I’ve always been and will always be very private about my personal life. If anything ever goes public, it is by default, because I happened to be in a place where I was being watched. But for the most part, I honestly don’t care what people think. I never have. If I did, I’d probably present myself a little more carefully. [laughs] I should have a fucking tattoo on my forehead that says, “Insert foot in mouth.” No politician in their right mind would ever want me to campaign for them.
JOVOVICH: If you ever campaigned for a politician, I would vote for them immediately. People trust you.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, but it’s a heartfelt trust. It’s not the politically correct kind of trust.
JOVOVICH: People feel like you’re fighting the good fight. So what do you have on your horizon? When you get off the phone, what’re you going to do?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think I’m going to go and play with myself.
JOVOVICH: [both laugh] That was my next question.
RODRIGUEZ: I’m joking. I think it’s time to write. I’m going to focus on that. I’ve got about five different projects and all five of them are really expensive. They’re all in treatment form. Everything’s a clusterfuck. So I’m going to spend this entire year cleaning everything. I also have this really cool kids project that I’ve been dying to get off the ground. It’s called Kingdom Come, and I came up with it when I was a kid. I used to hate watching stories about animals being killed off and humans spoiling so much of nature—that hurt a lot when I was growing up, and it’s more relevant now than ever, with our oceans being polluted and animals all over the world running out of habitat. So I came up with this really cool story when I was 15, and it’s evolved to be about these four kids who are hackers and activists. Long story short, there’s a séance in the middle of the rain forest in South America with about 800 tribes getting together, and it causes all the animals to start attacking anything that’s not pure. So it’s kind of Jurassic Park-ish meets Jumanji, and one of the four hacker kids is the chosen one. The story is about her giving her life to the preservation of animals.
JOVOVICH: I get why you say it’s expensive. [both laugh] But it’s really cool. Whatever Michelle Rodriguez is planning on doing, it’s going to be quite spectacular—like everything you’ve always done. There’s going to be fireworks.
MILLA JOVOVICH IS A UKRANIAN-BORN ACTRESS, SINGER, AND MODEL. THIS YEAR, SHE WILL BE SEEN IN SURVIVOR, AND A FILM ADAPTATION OF SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE.