As legend has it, when director Karyn Kusama was casting the lead for her directorial debut, Girlfight, she wanted to find a young woman who would radiate the powerful, surly charisma of the young Marlon Brando. Her search for an actor with this enviable but elusive quality ended when Michelle Rodriguez, a 20-year-old Latina whose previous experience was limited to work as an extra, answered an ad in Backstage magazine that Kusama had posted. Cast as Diana Guzman, the fierce and vibrant protagonist of Kusama’s story of a high school girl who takes up boxing, Rodriguez went on to earn almost universal acclaim for her powerful portrayal, winning the admiration of audiences and critics from Sundance to Toronto.
Of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, Rodriguez was born in Bell County, TX, on July 12, 1978. She moved around throughout her childhood and adolescence, living for a time in Texas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Jersey City, NJ. It was while she was working as an extra in various film productions that she answered Kusama’s ad for actors; after being cast as Girlfight’s protagonist, she trained intensively to condition her body like that of a boxer to such a degree that, at one point, she was even asked to go pro. Her dedication to the physical and emotional demands of her character paid off lavishly, when Girlfight premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival it received the Grand Jury Prize, with Rodriguez’s performance singled out as one of the most exciting breakthroughs in years; among the many kudos she subsequently received was the National Board of Review’s prize for Best Breakthrough Performance.
Rodriguez’s status as one of the year’s New Hot Young Thangs on the Block was duly reflected by the attention she was subsequently paid in both the media and Hollywood. In the following year, her projects included Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious, an urban adrenaline extravaganza in which she played the tough girlfriend of a gang leader alongside Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Jordanna Brewster, and 3 A.M., a made-for-cable drama which cast her as a taxi driver and was screened at the Sundance Festival.
Striving to maintain the balance between sexy and tough, Rodriguez would take on zombies in Resident Evil (2002) before hitting the waves in Blue Crush. Though neither film proved a bona fide box-office smash, they did offer the up and coming actress the exposure needed to develop an enduring career. Rodriguez could next be seen opposite Colin Farrell in the hard-hitting action thriller S.W.A.T.
In 2005, Rodriguez appeared briefly on the first season of NBC’s endlessly enigmatic primetime drama Lost as Ana Lucia Cortez, a tough cop with a shady past. She reprised the role in the following season, when she clashed heads with fellow flight survivor Jack (Matthew Fox) and struggled with her changing status within the group. The actress also starred in The Breed and Battle in Seattle, and co-stars in Avatar, director James Cameron’s science fiction adventure.