The weather is beautiful in Italy, Michelle Rodriguez tells Newsweek, where she is currently on vacation. Rodriguez is known best for her role as Letty Ortiz in the Fast and Furious franchise, as well as her breakout role in the 2000 independent film, Girlfight. Her next role is as part of the main cast of Widows, an action-thriller directed by Steve McQueen set to premiere in November.
Rodriguez has created a name for herself by playing the tomboy roles: she can handle a gun, drive a fast car and fight with the best of them. She is the resident badass. Newsweek spoke to her for Women’s Equality Day to discuss equal pay, representation in media and the importance of women asserting themselves.
In many of your movies you play these tough, badass women. Why is that a role you gravitate towards?
I felt kind of like a pressure. I felt more like an activist most of my career than I did an actress. There’s this rule that’s unspoken. Like nobody says this to me, nobody tells me what to do, I just felt like there were a lot of women out there playing the girlfriend and the submissive role. I wanted to have the freedom and that happened to be the tomboy path. It was the only way that I could be free from all of the scarlet lettering of Hollywood females. Or so I felt. It was all in my mind, of course.
A lot of latina females were sent down a path that’s downtrodden, that’s already been done, and it’s a low ideal for women especially in a machista culture like ours. I wanted to change the stigma a little and break a new path that hasn’t been trodden before by a latina.
You’re in this new action-thriller Widows with a cast of incredible women. Do you think Widows is groundbreaking in a way?
I don’t have a lot of experience in art house films. [Steve McQueen] is not too masculine and not too feminine, he’s somewhere in the middle. He’s a true artist. He’s really receptive to me and commanding when he needs to be.[Linda, the character Rodriguez plays in Widows is a bit different than the tomboy roles she’s used to.]
Mothers who have to raise their children on their own, and women in abusive relationships but they stick around because they just wanna take care of the guy because he’s got good in him. I didn’t wanna be the one to play that on screen. That was my battle with Steve. If I didn’t do this movie, I feel like I would have a hard time respecting my mother. I love her to death, but did I really respect her for sacrificing the way that she did? She really did. I felt like I was her, and I was scared of her. I was scared of her because I saw what kind of suffering [came from] having children young, having to raise them on her own. It’s just painful for me.
I thank Steve for opening up that shell because I was really scared of it, because so many women in my life suffer in the name of being heartfelt and loving.
Last year, you said you hope The Fast and Furious franchise decides to show some love to the women or you would have to say goodbye. Can you tell me what you meant by that? What led you to make that statement?
I think it had a lot to do with me marching in Washington. It had a lot to do with feeling the women around me assert themselves. There’s a certain level of respect that needs to be given to women. All these years, I can count with both hands how many times I’ve talked to the female characters in the franchise and I’ve been in it for 16 years. I can count with both hands basically how many times I have lines with another woman in the franchise and it’s sad. We don’t talk to each other. There’s no female cameraderie, [we’re] just along for the ride. Show some love to the women.
Do you think it’s necessary for people to be public about their stance on things like #MeToo or Times Up, or issues like equal pay for women?
I do, because you can tell when the time is right. It’s because of the wake-up call that Trump gave us. I mean, I honestly believe if this guy didn’t get elected, half of these movements wouldn’t have happened. It was a line that got crossed where the women in the world were fed up. We’re not gonna take it anymore. And it’s a beautiful thing to say out loud to your brother, to your best friend, because if you don’t then it’s just gonna keep happening. I’m proud of everybody for stepping up and speaking their piece.
Whether you’re an actor or a writer or a wage worker, is equal pay something women have to demand for themselves, or is it a problem that needs to be changed on a systemic level?
The situation is, we live in a dog-eat-dog world. Anything that involves trade and capitalism, is going to involve taking advantage of the little guy or girl. And so that means, if I’m not going to hire guys because I have to pay them more, then I’m gonna hire women and make them work harder, and it’s like slave labor. It’s just evil. In our world, money is power, money is everything. And in our system of economics, people are automatically, naturally, straight-out-of-Harvard trained to take advantage of people. There’s no way out of it. Because at the end of the day, the bottom line is the only thing that matters.
The thing about [Widows] is that [McQueen] really elaborates on the economics of it that occurs in poor neighborhoods affecting minorities, mostly. I think there’s a lot of people in these poor neighborhoods that don’t understand why they keep struggling to get out of poverty. It’s because of the high interest rates on their loans, it’s because of these government payouts, these guys racketeering and corruption. And the easiest people to trick are the ones that don’t know what the game is, and those are the poor.
You’ve shown support for many different causes on social media and now you’re involved with the Taino Warriors. Can you talk about that? How you got involved and what that charity means to you?
Around Oscar week, I saw Ricky Martin at the Vanity Fair party and he was talking about all of the corruption around the money that was raised for Puerto Rico. It’s really the rural areas that get screwed. The people on the mountains, the farms have no electricity, no clean water, and literally scrounging to stay afloat. My heart was broken. I know that there’s a long history of corruption in Puerto Rico. My dad was heavy Independentista [Puerto Rican Independence Party]. He was a guy who believed that Puerto Ricans should be independent of the United States so that they wouldn’t end up owing the United States so much money. He’d roll over in his grave if he saw Puerto Rico going bankrupt. How can we avoid corruption? Well, I can go to Puerto Rico and hand the money directly to the boots on the ground, the young kids who really wanna make their neighborhood better.
Why is representation in media so important?
I think it has a lot to do with history. It has do with archaeology, it has to do with museums, it has to do with books, it has to do with almost everything being created by men. Even the stuff for women. Look at all the wars that were waged through propaganda. You still see them using television and quick little snip bits to get people roused up. It’s a fact that it’s one of the biggest influences in our generation. Media’s important. It’s part of the whole freedom of speech thing we got going on and it’s sucky when Hollywood bullies the girls out of the game. Who knows? Maybe a woman’s perspective is different. Maybe they’ll learn something.