When she was just 5 years old her parent’s marriage collapsed and her mother became very ill. Soon after, the family moved from Texas to the Dominican Republic where her grandmother Sarah took custody of her and her two brothers. They lived in Santo Domingo and supported themselves by running a small market. After two years of struggling, her grandmother decided to relocate to Jersey City, New Jersey. She was brought up in Jersey City but would go visit her father in Puerto Rico. He made sure Michelle had everything she wanted and opened her mind to think for herself while her mother brought her up to have no class distinction and treat everyone the same.
Her father died in 1997 due to his alcoholism. Two years later, her beloved grandmother passed away.
Michelle had a hard time fitting in and got kicked out of several schools for bad behavior. At the age of 16, she dropped out of high school but she later earned her GED and then briefly attended business school. Her mother knew that she was unhappy there and told her to go and do what she really wanted to do. She eventually quit business school in order to pursue a career in acting, hoping to become a writer and director as well.
She worked as an extra, in films such as ‘Summer of Sam’ and ‘Cradle Will Rock’, for two years satisfying her curiosity about movie making before she finally decided to step into the spotlight and answered to an ad in Backstage magazine announcing an open casting call in New York. The project was Karyn Kusama’s directorial debut ‘Girlfight’. The role was for the female lead Diana Guzman, a troubled teen who decides to channel her aggression by training to become a boxer. Kusama wanted to find a young woman who would radiate the powerful, surly charisma of the young Marlon Brando. Although Michelle was lacking experience in both film and boxing, the director found the enviable but elusive quality in her and she beat out 350 other girls and got her first role.
She underwent an intensive training of boxing at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York and also took acting courses to polish her raw talent. 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 Michelle’s performance singled out as one of the most exciting breakthroughs in years; among the many kudos she subsequently received was National Board of Review’s prize for Best Breakthrough Performance.
Michelle gaining critical acclaim for her performance earning her awards like the Deauville Festival of American Cinema Award for Best Actress and the Las Vegas Film Critics Society for Female Breakthrough Performance.
Following her successful debut in early 2000, she broke off an engagement to a Muslim boyfriend, citing opposition to religious requests he made of her.
Her second audition was for a “little” movie called ‘The Fast and the Furious’. She caught the eye of Vin Diesel, who saw her performance in ‘Girlfight’ and wanted her to play his girlfriend. She auditioned and got the part. Since she didn’t have a driver’s license before filming the movie she had to obtain one during her training for the car chase sequences.
The movie turned out to be a smash box-office hit worldwide, scoring an international gross of more than 207 million U.S. dollar.
In 2000, she did ‘3 A.M.’, a Showtime drama, opposite Danny Glover and Pam Grier.
In 2001, Michelle got the opportunity to take on a role in ‘Resident Evil’, an adaptation of the hit game series, opposite Milla Jovovich. She did ‘Blue Crush’ in the same year alongside Kate Bosworth. 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.
In 2003, Michelle starred in the summer blockbuster ‘S.W.A.T.’, opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell. She played the though cop Chris Sanchez who knows a thing or two about kicking some serious ass.
As an avid video game fan, Michelle lent her voice to various popular games including ‘True Crime: Streets of LA’, ‘Driver3’ and ‘Halo 2’.
In 2004, she took on the role of Teresa in the movie ‘Control’, opposite Ray Liotta and and Willem Dafoe.
In 2005, she also provided the voice of Liz Ricarro in the Cartoon Network series ‘IGPX’.
In 2005, she took on a starring role in ABC’s hugely popular television series ‘Lost’, playing a tough cop with a shady past Ana Lucia Cortez. She was first introduced at the end of S1 and then was on the show all throughout S2. She never intended to stay longer than a year because she is a “nomadic spirit” so the producers came up with a storyline and sold the idea of the short contract to the network. Her character was killed off in S2 but she appeared again in S5 and S6 to wrap up her storyline.
The time between 2004 and 2007 was a bit troubled. Michelle had several run-ins with the police mostly for DUI. Had to do community work and complete alcohol programs and even went to jail for a couple of hours. Michelle picked herself up though and learned from her mistakes and became a better person for it.
In 2007, she starred in Stuart Townsend’s directorial debut ‘Battle In Seattle’ based on true events of the protest activity at the WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999. The movie, which received mixed reviews by critics, had some big names like Charlize Theron, Channing Tatum and her ‘Control’ co-star Ray Liotta in it and premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2008.
In 2008, she had a small role in the movie ‘Gardens of the Night’.
In 2009, she reprised her role as Letty Ortiz in the 4th installment of the ‘Fast&Furious’ franchise and the short movie ‘Los Bandoleros’, a short prequel to the 4th installment, written and directed by Vin Diesel. Sadly, her character was killed off at the beginning of the movie but Vin Diesel as the producer of the movies made sure to find a way to bring her back which was revealed at the end of ‘Fast Five’. It was a huge surprise for Michelle who thought she was done with the franchise.
In the same year, she starred in James Cameron’s high-budget sci-fi adventure film ‘Avatar’. Michelle played yet another kick ass character, the pilot Trudy Chacón who doesn’t like to take orders. The movie became the highest-grossing film in history and Michelle’s most successful film to date.
In 2010, Michelle was approached by a friend with the script for the movie ‘Tropico de Sangre’. Michelle fell in love with the script and took on the lead role of Minerva Mirabal and co-produced the movie in association with her production company Cheshire Kat.
Later that year, she appeared in Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Machete’ opposite Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba and Robert De Niro.
In 2011, she appeared in the science fiction film ‘Battle Los Angeles’ with Aaron Eckhart which grossed over US$200 million in the worldwide box office. Once again, she played the role of the ‘tough chick’ which raised the question of being typecast.
I could give two shits. I only wanna be someone I respect or someone that I consider interesting or fun. I’m here to entertain people and make a statement about female empowerment and strength and that’s what I’ve done for the last 10 years and people can call it typecast but I pigeonholed myself and I put myself in that box for saying no to everything else that came on my plate. Saying no to the girlfriend, saying no to the girl that gets captured, no to this, no to that and eventually I just got left with the strong chick that’s always being killed and there’s nothing wrong with that.” – Michelle Rodriguez (Hollywood News – 2010)
In the same year, she appeared in the movie ‘Blacktino’ and guest starred in the tv series ‘CollegeHumor Originals’.
In 2012, she returned to play the good clone and bad clone of Rain Ocampo in ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ and once again lend her voice to a video game, ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops II’.
2013 was a busy year. She reprised her role as Letty Ortiz in ‘Fast & Furious 6’ and Luz in Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Machete Kills’. She did some more voice work. This time for the kids movie ‘Turbo’ which marked her first big screen voice work and she also appeared in ‘InAPPropriate Comedy’ with Rob Schneider, Lindsay Lohan and Adrien Brody.
While promoting ‘Fast & Furious 6’, she stated that she has two screenplays under development and plans to take a break from acting to pursue her writing. One is a family film based on a concept which she describes as “a 2012 story about purity and animals and children” and the other is a revision of an American remake of the 1997 German film Bandits which she describes as a film “about four girls who break out of jail and get chased across the country by the feds and by this MTV-like representative”.
In 2014, she appeared in the short movies ‘1%ERS’ and ‘Second Act’.
In 2015, she starred in ‘Furious 7’ which marked the last movie with her dear late friend Paul Walker. She also appeared in ‘Fast & Furious: Supercharged’ and filmed the movies ‘Milton’s Secret’, slated to be released in 2016, and ‘Tomboy, a Revenger’s Tale’ playing a male assassin that wakes up in a female body which is supposed to be released in 2017.
In 2016, she appeared in the documentary ‘The Reality of Truth’ and the web series ‘Riding Shotgun with Michelle Rodriguez’. She is currently filming ‘Fast 8’ which will premiere April 14, 2017.