In a karmic twist of fate, Michelle Rodriquez's signature roles came in productions whose titles eerily sum up her Hollywood career. Between her striking debut in the female boxing movie "Girlfight" (2000), her turn as Vin Diesel's gearhead girlfriend in the action film "The Fast and the Furious" (2001), and her role as a tough ex-cop on the hit TV series "Lost" (ABC, 2004- ), the titles mirrored her hardened personality and sometimes troubled personal life. She was a raw, talented actress who found the Byzantine maze of Hollywood almost as hard to navigate as the American legal system. Her various arrests for everything from assault to drunk driving temporarily sidetracked her promising career and landed her in jail, but her fighting spirit would not allow her to go down for the count.
Mayte Michelle Rodriguez was born on July 12, 1978, in Bexar County, TX into a complicated home life. Her mother was from the Dominican Republic and a devout Jehovah's Witness; her father was a Puerto Rican who had served in the military and fathered several children with other women. When the marriage broke up, Rodriguez left Texas and moved with her mother and two older twin brothers to the Dominican Republic when she was nine. Once there, she chafed under her mother's strict religious beliefs, so joined her father in Puerto Rico when she was 11 years old. Rodriguez rebelled again, getting kicked out of several schools before finally joining her mother and brothers in Jersey City, NJ. Although a voracious reader and clearly intelligent, she hated high school and dropped out at age 15. It did not matter. She was going to get kicked out anyway.
After Rodriguez got her GED, she drifted, attending a business school before quitting yet again. Much of it was due to boredom. She started hanging out with a rough crowd, got in fights. But at the same time, she read a lot of books, watched a lot of movies, and formulated vague notions of becoming a writer, director or actress. Her striking looks - a blend of Latina femininity mixed with a street tough edge - landed her extra work in a few movies, but like countless aspiring actresses with no connections to Hollywood, she was still looking for her big break.
Amazingly she got it. Rodriguez read an ad in Backstage magazine, advertising for a hard, troubled Latina who could box. She knew immediately she didn't need to act the part; she was the part. Rodriguez beat out over 350 other applicants to win the part of Diana Guzman in the low-budget independent film "Girlfight." Although a complete unknown, the director, Karyn Kusama, saw in Rodriguez a toughness and attitude that could not be faked. Although she had never applied herself to school, Rodriguez embraced the physical challenges to get in shape for the role - which included four and a half months of intense training at the famous Gleason's gym in Brooklyn. Her boxing skills were as convincing as her acting. Not only did Rodriguez win several prestigious acting awards, including an Independent Spirit Award and National Board of Review award, but she was also asked by a boxing promoter to turn pro.
Instead of pursuing a boxing career, she used the visibility that "Girlfight" gave her to break into the Hollywood mainstream, co-starring with Danny Glover in a Showtime made-for-TV drama called "3 A.M." (2001). She then catapulted into her first big budget studio movie, "The Fast and the Furious." The story - set in the underworld subculture of Los Angeles street racers - was not as critically acclaimed as "Girlfight," but it made a killing at the box-office and established Rodriguez as a convincing female action hero. She followed up with yet another "tough-as-nails" character - Rain Ocampo, a soldier in body armor battling flesh-eating zombies in the feature video game adaptation "Resident Evil" (2002). Her physicality and natural beauty were next put to use in the female surfing flick "Blue Crush" (2002), which provided Rodriguez to visit Hawaii and wear a bikini while riding some big waves, but she was soon back to wearing body armor and shooting a big gun as an L.A. cop in the mega budget popcorn movie "S.W.A.T." (2003).
While Rodriguez was building up her resume, she was also building up her rap sheet. In March 2002, Rodriguez was arrested for assault after getting in a fistfight with her roommate in Jersey City. The charges were later dropped, but her legal problems continued. In November 2003, she pleaded no contest in Los Angeles to charges of hit-and-run, drunken driving, and driving with a suspended license. She served 48 hours in jail, performed community service, and was placed on probation for three years. Her career stalled and a troubling trend became clear - the young actress who had played a volatile boxer and reckless street racer in the movies seemed to be living those roles in real life.
While Rodriguez's film career seemed to go on probation right along with her, she found work as a voice actor in several popular video games. Fans who loved her work in violent, adrenaline-fueled movies now got their fix as she lent her Latina accent to "True Crime: Streets of LA" (2003), "Driv3r" (2004), and "Halo 2" (2004). For Rodriguez, an avid video game player, the work sustained her until Hollywood offered her another film role. Perhaps not surprisingly, that role came in another video game adaptation, "BloodRayne" (2005). Rodriguez had only a supporting role in the story of a half-human, half-vampire avenger, so she was ultimately not blamed for the movie's dismal box-office performance and reviews. But without any promising parts being offered her, she did what many movie actors do when their careers are sputtering: TV.
From a professional standpoint, it was a smart move. Joining the ensemble cast of the hit show "Lost" during the second season, Rodriguez resurrected her career. She also got to return to Hawaii, where she had enjoyed a wonderful experience during the filming of "Blue Crush." However, her personal problems followed her across the ocean. In 2005, Honolulu police arrested her several times for speeding. Finally, she was pulled over and busted for driving under the influence on Dec. 1, 2005. She pleaded not guilty at her arraignment but the damage was done. The tabloids mocked her as "The Lost Girl" and it was not long before she was written off the show. Rodriguez and the producers claim her exit had been planned before the season began and her arrest was just coincidental.
Despite any personal shortcomings, her solid work on "Lost" had rekindled the interest of film producers. Rodriguez had wanted to get back to work, but her first audition was for the Los Angeles County Court System. Since the Hawaii incident was a violation of her Los Angeles probation, Rodriquez was sentenced to 60 days in jail, a 30-day alcohol rehabilitation program, and 30 days of community service. Because of overcrowding, she was released from jail the same day she entered it. She used her freedom to take on a role as a World Trade Organization protestor in the film "Battle in Seattle" (2007). A devoted animal rights and environmental activist, it was a movie that showcased Rodriguez's commitment to humanitarian causes.
Unfortunately, she did not show the same commitment to her legal situation. In October of 2007, Rodriguez was sentenced to 180 days in jail for violating her probation by not completing her community service and alcohol education program. The judge ordered her to remain in jail for the entire sentence. Rodriguez publicly admitted her mistake and apologized to her fans. Whether this latest setback knocked out her acting career remained to be seen, but Michelle Rodriguez was always a fighter, through her difficult upbringing, her breakout role as a female boxer, and her more recent role as an environmental activist.