Michelle Rodriguez just stepped off a shooting range. She’s weapons-training for the eighth Fast & Furious film, which is currently in production. Rodriguez will once again play Letty, the car-heisting badass who has been part of the franchise from the beginning, surviving apparent death and amnesia to rejoin the Toretto crew. With Universal preparing to celebrate the 15th anniversary of The Fast and the Furious, Rodriguez put down her AR-15 (and her Glock) to talk about developing Letty as a character, butting heads with Vin Diesel, and her memories of late costar Paul Walker.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you watched the original film again since it came out in theaters?
MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ: So many times. It really is a time capsule, that thing. I was just 22 years old.
What was Letty like as a character, when they first brought you the script?
[Laughs] I’m not so sure you’re talking to the right person! She was a character that needed a lot of work. And, you know, I get it. It’s a male-dominated industry, action films. I kind of understood when they didn’t understand what a strong independent woman would be like.
Originally, it was kind of like a mock-up of Point Break. And it doesn’t really make any sense to try to have that character, that tries to sleep with the cop and her boyfriend, when you’re dealing in ghetto terms. Because people in the streets don’t maneuver that way. When you’re with the alpha male in the pack, you stick to that. You’re loyal to that, because that’s your survival. You don’t go with the pretty boy, because he could get beaten up very easily by the dominant alpha. So I had to kind of explain, and school these cats in Hollywood in how it works in the street.
So originally there was going to be a Letty-Brian romantic arc?
It was guys writing girls, and not knowing what to do. They just think girls are there to complement men. You have to teach them there’s other purposes for women. [laughs]
Did you keep pushing for that with Letty over the course of the other films?
Yeah, it just became easier and easier throughout the years. They realized it wasn’t from an egotistic place. It was me trying to create a character with longevity, and they were open to it after a while. At first it was really, really hard. Like, “Who does she think she is, trying to rewrite this thing!” I’m like, “Well, you don’t understand, I’m not gonna do it if you don’t!”
It’s easy for somebody who comes from nothing to do that. It’s not like I’m gonna lose a lot by standing my ground and sticking for what I believe in. For me, it was the embarrassment of having millions of people around the world look at me like some sort of floozy.
What was it like working with Vin Diesel on the first film?
At first, we kind of bumped a little bit of heads. I recall us trying to shoot the sexy scene. I was already amped up on my femininity, from having the first battle of not being a slut who gets with the Brian character. So when he grabs my ass and picks me up in that garage — which is one of the most epic scenes, the girls go crazy when they see that – I flipped out on him. [laughs] I’m like, “You should have explained this to me!” Like a real ghetto girl, it was so funny.
He was very patient with me, and really sweet. You could tell why we have such a longstanding 15-year-bond. He respects strong women. Instead of, “I can’t deal with this girl! Get her out of here! Fire her! Get me a new one!” He was very open. He actually laughed about it, and was really sweet. And eventually we warmed up to each other, and we were really cool, and incredibly comfortable around one another. If you’re not treating me as an equal, I will be fire. The minute you look at me with a level of respect, I calm down.
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Is it different to look back on The Fast and the Furious now, after the death of Paul Walker?
It’s hard, you know? It’s one of those things where you can ever, as long as you live, replace that. What he embodied in one persona is almost impossible to find out there. He had a swag to him. He wasn’t just another Caucasian male. He had some something that united him to the streets, that made him a little bit edgier than everybody else. He may have looked like a Barbie Doll, or a Ken Doll, and that’s one aspect of him. He had something in his eyes that showed the pain of understanding what it is to be on the other side of the tracks.
That’s something that’s very important to carry in this franchise, the credibility of the characters. You really believe that these are the people who live on the other side of the tracks. And it’s because a lot of us really did come from the other side of the tracks. [laughs] Paul’s not your goody-two-shoes. He never was. He’s kind of like the lead singer of Sublime without the drugs. It’s all in the eyes. You can try to cast a movie like this 10 times over, but it’s really about that specific type of credibility. When you look at Tyrese Gibson, you think Crenshaw. When you look at Michelle Rodriguez, you think of Jersey City. When you look at Vin Diesel, you think of New York. And when you look at Paul, you think of Crenshaw! The only white boy in Crenshaw! He was a Valley boy, but more of the bad boy in the Valley.
Did you ever, in a million years, think there would be more Fast & Furious movies?
Come on, are you kidding me? You’re talking about an era in time, in the post-90s, when we had absolutely no idea that sequels were a thing. We thought it was the most taboo thing on the planet to do a sequel. It was a corny thing, because all sequels sucked back then. [laughs] This is before the tentpole. This is before before the bond companies and bankers decided, “Hey, that’s the only way to justify this budget. We’re going with something that’s worked already.” When people used to take a chance in movies, and cast them with no-names. So we had absolutely no clue.