Since her breakout at the new millennium, she's proved that action movies aren't just for men. As our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month continues, we shine a spotlight on actress Michelle Rodriguez.
How You Know Her
Michelle Rodriguez's most notable role is Letty Ortiz of the "Fast & Furious" movies. It's a role she's reprised seven times (and counting) since the first one, 2001's "The Fast and the Furious." She also brought her guns to roles in "Resident Evil," "S.W.A.T.," "Battle: Los Angeles," and "Avatar."
"Lost" fans will recall Rodriguez as Ana Lucia Cortez from the show's second season. She brought equal energy to action video games like "Halo" and "Call of Duty."
Rodriguez's status as an action queen puts her up there with legendary genre stars like Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton. It's no wonder that Entertainment Weekly describes her as "arguably the most iconic actress in the action genre, as well as one of the most visible Latinas in Hollywood." Plus, she's got the box office to prove it. Including the just-released "F9," her total worldwide box office gross tops $9 billion.
Her Life So Far
Born Mayte Michelle Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez descends from Dominican and Puerto Rican parents. At the age of 8, she moved to the Dominican Republic. At 11, she moved to Puerto Rico before moving back to the United States after turning 17. Her eventual turn as a tough gal in Hollywood probably stemmed from her upbringing. Her mother, whom she described to Entertainment Weekly as "the strongest woman she's ever known," spent the most time raising her.
Once back in the States, she knew she wanted more out of life than the usual 9-to-5 doldrums. At her brother's suggestion, she quit vocational school and found gigs as an extra. You can spot her in the background of films like Tim Robbins' indie "Cradle Will Rock," the Kevin Costner baseball drama "For the Love of the Game," and Spike Lee's gritty "Summer of Sam."
All of those films came out in 1999. Rodriguez's big break came the following year when she led Karyn Kusama's powerful boxing drama "Girlfight." That awards season she won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance and Gotham's Breakthrough Award.
Bigger films came calling, but Michelle Rodriguez didn't want to just play the girlfriend. She instead looked for roles that were empowering and did more for female representation on screen. The following year she landed precisely that.
We first meet Rodriguez's Letty in Rob Cohen's 2001 franchise starter, "The Fast and the Furious." Letty is more 3-dimentional than most female characters in similar movies. She's highly skilled on her own, as both a mechanic and a street racer. In the later movies, Letty would become a more important character and a crucial member of Dom's crew.
Rodriguez continued to find success playing strong women with turns in "Resident Evil," "S.W.A.T.," and the surfing drama "Blue Crush." Around this time, however, she hit some bumps in the road, making headlines for a number of arrests.
Things turned around for Rodriguez in 2009. She won back fans by reprising her role as Letty in "Fast & Furious" (the 4th installment). But the big risk came starring as rugged fighter pilot Trudy Chacón in James Cameron's "Avatar." Cameron looked past her real-world troubles and cared more about what she brought to the role. This paid off in a big way for Rodriguez, as "Avatar" became the highest-grossing movie of all time. That is until "Avengers: Endgame" took the title in 2019.
Michelle Rodriguez continued her action-heavy dominance in the 2010s. Robert Rodriguez tapped her twice for his exploitation throwbacks "Machete" and "Machete Kills." She kicked alien butt in the raucous "Battle: Los Angeles." Then she reprised her role (sort of -- not to spoil anything) as special ops member Rain in "Resident Evil: Retribution." Rodriguez also turned in a few voice-acting roles in DreamWork's "Turbo" and Sony Animation's "Smurfs: The Lost Village."
Although she's known for her roles in a genre not known for its plaudits, Rodriguez also gained critical attention in 2017. That year she starred in Steve McQueen's heist thriller "Widows." She appeared alongside Viola Davis as one of the four surviving wifes seeking retribution. This turn surprised even herself. It was unlike her usual rugged characters. As a grieving mother who takes matters into her own hands, her character finds empowerment in a more understated way.
The Movie to See
For those in need of action, there's plenty to choose from Michelle Rodriguez's filmography. But she wouldn't be the hardened star we know today without her breakout in Karyn Kusama's award-winning sports drama "Girlfight."
Rodriguez stars as Diana Guzman, a hot-tempered Brooklyn teen who gets into fights in school. Diana turns things around as she trains to become a boxer. "Girlfight" is powerful and subversive. It's one of the first major boxing films to feature a female lead (four years before Best Picture winner "Million Dollar Baby"). But it also subverts the expectations we have of a female lead. Rodriguez here is unpolished and unvarnished as an actress and a budding movie star.
"Girlfight" launched Rodriguez's career, and it did the same for Kusama. The director followed it up five years later with the bigger-budget "Æon Flux." The pairing of the two is perfect, as Kusama also has a filmography comprised of empowering movies with strong feminist themes.
What's Up Next
Michelle Rodriguez came back to the big screen this year in a big way. "F9" provided a much-needed jolt for theaters still struggling amid the pandemic. Next, she will star in Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley's reboot/re-imagining of "Dungeons & Dragons," based on the popular role-playing game. Look for the film in theaters in March 2023.
September 29, 2000
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.