(EW.com ) -- Michelle Rodriguez has been outside the hotel for only 90 seconds when she gets stopped on the street. "Uh, excuse me? Hi, I swear I'm not a crazy stalker," says a tall and impressively muscled black man on the crowded New York City sidewalk. "But I am your biggest fan." He holds up his phone for a picture. Rodriguez lifts her chin up. "Oh, hell yeah," she says, smiling. "C'mon, let's do it." She squeezes one of his massive biceps: "Yo, man, where'd you get these?" The fan's giddy grin stretches even wider, and his very patient girlfriend takes the picture.
In person Rodriguez is smaller than you'd think — barely 5'5″ in the flat-heeled black boots she's wearing on this sunny Saturday afternoon. You'd assume she'd loom larger. After all, she's forged a career playing tough-gal characters, from her astonishing 2000 debut as a boxer in the Sundance darling Girlfight to her roles in Lost, Avatar, the Fast & Furious franchise, and the upcoming Machete Kills (rated R, out Oct. 11).
She is arguably the most iconic actress in the action genre, as well as one of the most visible Latinas in Hollywood. She has also amassed some jaw-dropping box office: The cumulative global gross of her films is $5.2 billion. That Rodriguez, 35, is a delicate-boned beauty doesn't mean she's any less of a badass, of course. In her downtime she likes to race cars, fire guns, and jump out of planes. Even her lunch order is kinda out-there: salad, bone marrow, and chocolate cake.
But she's also unexpectedly sweet and warm. Her mind moves quickly, pinging brightly among topics: neurolinguistics, Hinduism, diversifying her financial portfolio (she recently invested in Twitter), and why she was disappointed by Million Dollar Baby ("I was excited to see it. I was like, 'Great, now we have a commercial version of Girlfight.' And I watch the movie and I'm like, 'F— you, f— you. Why does she have to die?!'") as well as by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ("Why does she have to get raped — raped! — before taking vengeance? Why do the stakes have to be so much higher for a woman than a man? You wouldn't do that to Pacino").
Rodriguez, needless to say, speaks her mind. She doesn't shy away from addressing her fraught early days in Hollywood ("I was loud, obnoxious, crazy") or even her sexuality. "I don't talk about what I do with my vagina, and they're all intrigued," she says of the media. "I've never walked the carpet with anyone, so they wonder: What does she do with her vagina? Plus, I play a butchy girl all the time, so they assume I'm a lesbo." When EW points out that that's not a fair assumption, Rodriguez laughs. "Eh, they're not too far off," she says. "I've gone both ways. I do as I please. I am too f—ing curious to sit here and not try when I can. Men are intriguing. So are chicks." She shrugs.
"She doesn't hold back," says James Cameron, who directed Rodriguez in Avatar. "There's no filter. She's a lot of fun to hang out with because you always know what she's thinking."
She was born in Texas to a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father. When she was small, the family moved to the Dominican Republic, where Rodriguez spoke Spanish for three years. Then her mother — whom she calls the strongest woman she's ever known — had a nervous breakdown and the family moved to Jersey City, where the actress was raised largely by her grandmother. Her new melting-pot neighborhood had an impact. "That's where I learned to curse," Rodriguez jokes. She was brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, and sharpened her wit on the street: "That's what I used to survive, because they were like, 'All right, she's a funny bitch — let's protect her.' And then I'd protect all the weaker kids who helped me with my homework."
She liked to make up stories for her stepsister and dreamed about being a writer, but she dropped out of high school before graduating. "F—ing public schools suck a--, dude," she says. "But it's all good. It taught me how to socialize." One of her older brothers, however, started to stress about the company she was keeping. "He told me to get a life and get a job," she says. "He was worried I'd end up like some of my girlfriends who were pregnant at 17. I kept telling him, 'That won't happen to me — I dress like a boy on purpose!'" She enrolled in a technical school in New Jersey but lasted only a month. "It was awful. I remember standing in Port Authority and watching all these people going back and forth in their suits, with their sun deprivation and their narrow eyes, looking angry at life. I was like, 'That's going to be me' — so I quit."
Her other brother suggested she look for work as an extra. For the next two years, Rodriguez appeared as a background player in Cradle Will Rock, For the Love of the Game, and Summer of Sam. Just before her Girlfight audition, she had what she thinks of as a wake-up call about her life in New Jersey: After a night of partying, it seems, her best friend wound up in jail. "I said to myself, 'I don't want to be a lowlife,'" she says. "I was always that kid who'd look up at the stars and think, 'I don't belong here. Where do I belong?'" Then she hopped a train to New York City for the audition that would change the course of her life. "I walked into the room and told them the truth," says Rodriguez. "'Never graduated high school, never been to school for acting — but I can beat girls up and you want a boxer.'"
"Michelle radiated a huge amount of charisma and power," says Girlfight director Karyn Kusama. "She was quite a wild child, but there was this core strength in her. She really wanted to prove she could do it. That was very much the character, so it was a perfect meta-meeting of actor and character."
The movie was a hit at film festivals and a prime platform for a fledgling actress. But Rodriguez wasn't interested in playing "the girlfriend" — or even in appearing in movies in which women weren't portrayed with respect. "Female empowerment became my torch to bear," she says. "I won't ever bend on what I believe in. I don't care who you are — you can be the best director on the planet. If you don't get what I do, what I'm good at, I will not bend for you." She tosses her hair back, taps her fingers along the table. "People don't understand how important symbolism is. Seeing an image up on that screen can make a difference to somebody. It can make a difference."
Rodriguez didn't like the way she saw young actresses treated, even at parties. When she was 22, she was at a wrap party in Europe when a producer pinned her against a wall and grabbed her between the legs. "Well, get this," Rodriguez says. "This girl from Jersey City has a knife in her boot. I pulled it out and said, 'I'll cut your d— off.'" She sighs. "You know what he did? He laughed at me." But he never bothered her again.
Rodriguez has always thought of herself as a lone wolf. "I can count on one hand the only real friends I have in Hollywood," she says. Namely? The actors Olivier Martinez and Vin Diesel and Universal co-chair Donna Langley: "She's always been really nice to me, even in my knucklehead stupid years."
Ah, the knucklehead years. Between 2002 and 2007, Rodriguez kept getting into trouble. She was arrested for assault after a fight with her roommate (charges were later dropped). She was arrested a couple of times for drunk driving, and later for violating her probation. She credits James Cameron casting her in Avatar for helping her reset her course. "It was really cool of Jim to grab my hand when nobody believed in me," she says. "They thought I was going to be this loser, this party animal, and he just grabbed my hand and pulled me in."
Cameron says he wasn't worried about her reputation: "I don't care about any of that stuff as long as it doesn't come to my set. I wrote this character [in Avatar] with her in mind, and I was really over the moon when she jumped on board. And I don't know anybody who came out of the shoot without an abiding affection for who she is as a person. The character of Trudy has this amazing integrity, and that's who Michelle is. I mean, I'm kind of kicking myself today that I killed her off."
Machete Kills director Robert Rodriguez had the foresight to bring her back for his sequel — and was actually pleased to see she'd tinkered with his script. "She just comes in and says, 'Here, I want to say this.' Then I read it, and I'm like, 'Yes, please.' She's just a blast. Everyone wants to edit on her scenes because there are so many great takes and great lines."
The actress says she gets grief for not making more movies with Latin filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez: "Most Latin directors don't understand female empowerment at all. Culturally they're in the archaic caveman days." That said, she'd love to create a Latina superhero. "She should be, like, a South American Amazon princess," she says. "I just need to figure out what her superpower is."
Writing — telling stories like she did as a girl — is still Rodriguez's ultimate goal. After she shoots Fast & Furious 7, she has a few writing projects: one a kids' movie and the other about a secret society of women. Personally speaking, she's felt a shift over the past couple of years, a kind of calming down that she attributes, in part, to therapy: "I always felt like a loner, and now, you know what? F— that! I want to know who's out there. I want to hang out with the kids and see what they are thinking about. I'm open." She grins. "I want to mingle."
(Additional reporting by Lindsey Bahr and Josh Rottenberg)
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