11 Apr 2009: Michelle Rodriguez is fast, furious and back! After stretches in prison and gossip about ‘what I do with my vagina’, she tells Amy Raphael how she’s leaving the Cleopatra myth for dust

Down the hallway, past dozens of press officers, agents and personal assistants shouting instructions into walkie talkies and into a silent, stuffy suite; I expect some kind of entourage, but there’s Michelle Rodriguez on her own, bent over the coffee table, writing slowly and carefully. She looks up, shakes hands and offers a quick but perfect smile. “I’m ordering a baby artichoke salad. It’s going to be sooooo good, man. I’m allergic to just about everything under the sun but, you know, I don’t eat junk food so I’ll be all right.”

  • Fast & Furious
  • Production year: 2009
  • Country: USA
  • Cert (UK): 15
  • Runtime: 107 mins
  • Directors: Justin Lin
  • Cast: John Ortiz, Jordana Brewster, Laz Alonso, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker, Sung Kang, Vin Diesel
  • More on this film

Stripped down to a white vest, skinny grey jeans and sleek brown-leather boots, Rodriguez is holding court on an old-fashioned chair in a chintzy suite at the Dorchester hotel. She is a slip of a woman, but somehow fills the space by singing, shouting and gesticulating wildly. Almost everything she says should come with an exclamation mark at the end. Really, she should be bored of travelling the world with Vin Diesel and his coterie of PR people to promote the slick and ridiculous car-racing blockbuster Fast & Furious. But apparently she’s not. “Are you kidding me? Getting an opportunity to speak to the world – wow! I cherish that.”

Rodriguez is the movie star who, after her mesmerising debut as a high school boxer in Girlfight, was compared to Marlon Brando. Now, at 30, she is one of Hollywood’s top action heroines, able to hold her own both against Diesel in The Fast And The Furious (the first in this confusing franchise; Fast & Furious is the last and currently stands as 2009’s biggest opening movie at the US box office) and against Colin Farrell in SWAT. She was a zombie killer in Resident Evil, a surfer babe in Blue Crush and a tough cop in series two of Lost. Rodriguez – of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent – is stunning, smart and a little scary. It doesn’t take much imagination to see her as the next Angelina Jolie. Mention this, however, and modesty takes over. “Oooooh, I don’t know about all that!”

We talk instead about Girlfight: from the moment she stepped on screen as the angry, proud Diana Guzman, Rodriguez revealed that she could float like a butterfly but sting like a bee. An intensely physical actor, she was as broody as Brando, simmering with rage, a scowl always lurking. Although she affected nonchalance at the audition, turning up on rollerblades, late and unprepared, she then took the role so seriously that she was even asked to turn pro at one point. Nine years on, Rodriguez swishes her hair around and smiles: “Being compared to the young Marlon Brando … that’s insane. That’s a lot to live up to.”

And she didn’t respond too well to the pressure. Always a live wire – she was thrown out of five schools – Rodriguez found herself in trouble for much of her 20s.

Between 2003 and 2008, she spent time in jail in both California and Hawaii (the latter stretch while filming Lost) for various counts of drunken driving, driving on a suspended sentence, drinking while wearing an alcohol-monitoring device and violating probation. She has got away with short spells in prison, mostly because of chronic overcrowding.

I tentatively mention this five-year period. She flaps her arms about: “I’m soooo glad to be over my 20s, man. Boy, were they wild.” Did she feel a shift when she hit 30 last summer? She bursts into song: “I was blinded by the light … Wooo hooo! In my 20s, I used the excuse of adolescence to have enormous amounts of spontaneous fun. I’ve avoided responsibility for the last 10 years, now it’s time to get on it.” Does she look back at her 20s and think she was quite naughty? “Very, very, naughty. I was a bad girl. I’m good now.”

I obviously look sceptical. “I am good. Pretty much. Well, I’m a bit, bit, bit insane. But a good, good, good kind of insane. Let’s just say it levelled out at its peak.” Still, she wasn’t offered another series of Lost and was surprised when James Cameron asked her to be in Avatar, his first outing as writer-director since Titanic. When it’s released later this year, the sci-fi epic will be big news, if only because of its cutting-edge status in the world of digital 3-D, its budget in excess of $200m and the 1,000-strong crew that worked on it. “I was in the middle of a court battle when James hired me,” she says. “I was a reject! People didn’t get me because I know what I want …”

Rodriguez may joke about being a reject but being something of an outsider in Hollywood obviously fuels her. At the time of Girlfight, she spoke of wanting to “express myself to the fullest before I die”. For a decade this has meant expressing herself physically rather than emotionally or spiritually; instead of making another brilliant indie film like Girlfight, she has embraced the well-paid action heroine role. But she doesn’t see this as a cop out. She insists instead that she’s flying the flag for “cool, kickass, independent chicks”.

So is she a feminist? She frowns: “No. I’m not. I stand up for women’s rights. I want something other than the usual female aspects of Cleopatra, the slut and the mother to be exploited on screen. I just want to give a voice to those women who want to kick ass around the world, who do boy things and have fun doing them and are accepted for it. I’m not about fighting for anything.”

Maybe not, but she at least speaks her mind. She’s not impressed with Hollywood, nor is she frightened to denounce it as “the cage of frightened sharks”. Drifting from school to school as her strict mother and laid-back father moved the family from Texas to Puerto Rico and on to New Jersey, Rodriguez dreamed of writing and directing films. She spent two years as an extra before Girlfight just because she thought it might offer a way into the industry. Once she secured her place, however, she found it harder to get by as a woman than as a Latina and harder still to deal with press scrutiny over her sexuality.

Despite relationships with Vin Diesel and Kylie Minogue’s former lover Olivier Martinez, there have long been rumours about Rodriguez’s sexuality. She told Cosmopolitan in 2006 than she has dated both sexes but was furious the following year when another magazine put her on its cover and outed her. She responded on her blog by writing: “If I wanted people to know what I do with my vagina, I would have released a sex video a long time ago.”

It’s irrelevant who Rodriguez sleeps with but does she think she could be openly lesbian in Hollywood? “You can be bi but not gay. Well, you can be gay and funny, like Ellen [DeGeneres] and Rosie [O’Donnell]. It’s really hard to be straight-up gay and serious. We’re still not over that.”

In at attempt to regain some control, Rodriguez set up her own production company, Cheshire Kat. She is currently co-producing and acting in Trópico De Sangre, a drama about the Dominican Republic’s four Mirabal sisters, who were assassinated by the country’s dictator in 1960. Salma Hayek once did a TV movie based on the Mirabal sisters but it was filmed it in Mexico, in English; Rodriguez, of course, had to film it on location and in Spanish. She’s bilingual, and points out that this will be her first Latin-speaking film.

It’s easy to imagine her, vibrant and exuberant as she is, communicating in Spanish. “Latin languages are more passionate, sure,” she says, throwing her hands in the air, and stamping her boots on the carpet. “So if I’m angry, I’ll be furious in Spanish. If I’m in love, I’m going to be romantic in Spanish. If I’m happy, I’m going to have an orgasm in Spanish …” As Rodriguez writhes in her seat, a woman holding a walkie talkie pops her head round the door and calls time.

• Fast & Furious is out now