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Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Helen Mirren, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, and Nathalie Kelley speak frankly about their characters, the series, and the industry

May 05, 2017 at 08:00 AM EDT

Spoilers from The Fate of the Furious below!

When you think of the Fast & Furious franchise, what comes to mind?

The wild action, the sleek cars, and the macho men taking the lead? That’s all relevant and great, but you should also be thinking (if you weren’t already) about the series’ ride-or-die female characters and the actresses behind them.

Those women include Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Jordana Brewster (Mia), Nathalie Emmanuel (Ramsey), Elsa Pataky (Elena), Nathalie Kelley (Neela), and Helen Mirren (Magdalene), who spoke with EW about their characters, how those roles evolved over the years, the state of women in action films today, why representation in the genre matters, and how the Fast films (and Hollywood) can improve on that representation.

(Special shoutout to Charlize Theron, Gal Gadot, Gina Carano, Eva Mendes, and Devon Aoki, who were not available to chat — but also rock.)

Start your engines…


ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you characterize your respective characters, and what do you think they mean within the context of women in the series?

MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ: Letty’s a strong woman. She’s a kid who grew up with a socio-economic background that makes you a little bit rough around the edges, I guess. I knew girls like Letty growing up. They’re attracted and loyal to guys like Dominic Toretto because it’s the only way to survive in a place that gets violent — Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. When people are poor, there’s a lot of crime and when there’s lots of crime, you have to watch your back. It gets physical and that’s why it seems like we’ve been stuck in the ’90s for the last [however] many years that we’ve been doing the franchise, because of the macho bravado involved, but that truly is the voice of the urban ghetto. I was hoping that at some point we’d evolve out of that vibe. We made some money — kind of like the rapper who starts reading books and next thing you know, you don’t have to worry about survival anymore, so you stop being so physical and start becoming more intelligent — but it seems that just as we start growing up as individuals, you have countries around the world who are still stuck in that mindset.

So, that’s why it’s perpetuated and so successful around the world. You got a place like China that just discovered the enjoyment of movies, of action movies — not Chinese action movies, but international ones — and they’re starting to get a good taste for that vibe and I don’t blame them. The grand majority of the population is boys and as they discover what they want in the global markets, they start to realize that that 1990s vibe is resonating with them, and it resonates with people in South America and in Africa. Two places that really amazed the hell out of me, I was at an eagle hunting festival in Mongolia, so the desert, and they knew the Fast & Furious franchise. It wasn’t tourists that came to visit that I was taking photos with. It was actual eagle hunters, guys who lived like bedouins in tents in the middle of the desert in Mongolia.

Universal Pictures

At some point I do hope — knowing a lot of these countries where this franchise is uber successful and that for the first time in recorded history, there are less women on the planet than men — maybe the studios starts to take a look at what the female voice is, because there are less women than men around the world today. Not in America; America has 51 percent female population, but that’s because of violence. It’s because of violence against women and it’s because of a lack of evolution in men in society. I do feel that heavy weight. I’m a complete, sheer, utter feminist. On day one, I [changed] the character from being something that I could not do in front of millions of people into a character that I’m actually proud of, but at the end of the day, what message are we sending out there for women? It does weigh heavy on my head — especially in the male-dominated environment that I work in.

JORDANA BREWSTER: In the fourth, fifth, and sixth [films], Mia was always this lighthouse. She was the one who was always like, “I’m going to be here, here’s what you guys have to do.” She’s always there when they get back from their missions. She’s the very sane, level-headed one. I had the most fun with Fast Five because that was the one where Mia was on the mission with the team and I got to be a part of the action, but I would definitely say she’s the voice of reason amidst all the chaos and in that sense she’s very maternal.

It was very cool to bring [motherhood] to the series once I was a mom myself. I actually played a mom before becoming a mom and I kind of got it, but not really. Then, the minute I had Julian I really understood. When I shot the scene with Jack and he’s in the car and there’s this massive explosion, everything became so much more visceral, the stakes became so much higher, so it’s really fun to bring that element to the series. Now, she’s a mom of two because in Furious 7 Mia told Brian she’s pregnant with a little girl.

[Editor’s Note: Brewster hadn’t seen Fate of the Furious at the time of the interview, but heard that Dom becomes a father. “It’ll be interesting to see Dom in that role.” As for naming his child Brian, a tribute to the late Paul Walker’s character, “I think it’s a beautiful way of continuing it.”]

NATHALIE EMMANUEL: The thing I like about Ramsey is that she’s an extremely talented hacker and she’s very intelligent and a problem solver. There’s a stigma about women in [technological] types of industries or in those types of jobs and I think that it’s really cool that Ramsey is so good at what she does. In a way, that character breaks certain stereotypes and also how you might perceive somebody who is into that kind of thing might look or how they might dress or how they might be as a person. I think that she is a normal girl who just so happens to be quite skilled at computers, hacking, coding, and all of that fun stuff. I think that’s a really cool thing that she represents within the franchise, and I also like that she’s sort of independent of this family that’s been established for so long. She’s come in purely on her own merit and her own specific skillset and it’s useful to this group and what they do. As much as she’s become a part of the group, she’s come in independently and I quite enjoy that.

What’s sort of fun about Ramsey joining that group is that she’s not a car girl, just the dynamic of that within these very high-action, car-racing, death-defying movies. She’s like, “This is crazy” and is always freaking out. Even though she’s doing it for the greater good, she’s still like, “Oh my God, I might die.” I enjoy that she’s that and not another car girl because it means that, in a small way, the audience lives through her eyes. In fact, in a car sequence — like what we’ve seen in all of the movies and especially in this one — most of us would be freaking out. Ramsey often is and I think she sort of represents the everyday person, who isn’t used to this lifestyle. I like that I’m the person who gets to do that.

NATHALIE KELLEY: I did [The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift] now over 10 years ago and people still come up to me and are like “Neela!” I ask myself, what is it about, not just my character, but her in the context of the third film that still resonates with people? I think the movie in itself was an outsider. It took place in a separate world in a separate storyline and Neela herself was an outsider within that outsider world. Who her father was was not really certain and she had this hazy background in this dark, underground Japanese world. [Japan has] a pretty homogenous society and she’s mixed race, so there’s something about this outsider status that she had, within the outsider movie in the franchise, that I think people who are a little bit on the outside looking in resonate with.

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HELEN MIRREN: I’m a little [hazy on] the subject of women in Fast and the Furious. I just loved being in a movie where cars are driven because I love driving cars in movies. Ironically, I didn’t get to drive a car in this one, but hopefully, maybe in the future I will. In terms of the character, I met Jason [Statham]. He was in a film that my husband directed. I really loved him as a person, as an actor. His work ethic is spectacular and he’s a great guy. I loved that I would be playing a scene with him. Then, with [Statham’s character Deckard’s] background, we constructed this character, who’s a character I kind of know. She’s a very tough, London woman who’s strong, a little bit vulgar, and self-interested.

As this matriarch, how would you describe the role of parenthood in Fate?

MIRREN: One of the strong themes in the Fast and the Furious [movies] has always been family, that family is important. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re popular films, because that is the one element that everybody all over the world can identify with simply, easily, and directly, so it’s great to see this other level being brought in with the different generations of the family, the fact that family actually goes on through many generations over long periods of time. I thought that that was a nice thing to introduce into the storyline.

Elsa, what does it mean to you to play a woman within this major action franchise who’s very career driven and capable, as well as maternal? We find out in Fate that Elena and Dom have a son and see her, basically, sacrifice herself for the sake of their child.

ELSA PATAKY: It’s beautiful and really sad because I’m a mom too and it’s so difficult to see that story, how it started and how it ends. I think any mom in the world would sacrifice her life for the life of her son. It’s such a big love, and it’s so intense, all the scenes that she has with Dom. She’s a police officer, so knows the power of this woman that Charlize plays, how dangerous the situation is. She’s suffering and thinking about that helped me a lot with the scene because it breaks my heart. She knew something would happen to [their son] if [Dom] wouldn’t do whatever [Cipher] wanted. That’s what she focused on — just save our son.

It’s sad, but moving to see your character meet her end.

PATAKY: Yeah that’s what everybody was telling me, how sad it is that the character just leaves the franchise like that, but I was like, “No, it’s amazing.” It’s good because the movies are about that situation, how strong the love is between the three of them, so it was a really good way of ending. At the end of the movie, there’s that moment of Dom saying, “Elena, I’ll take care of our kid.” It makes me cry just thinking about it. Her purpose in the whole movie was to defend the son, which the most important thing for Dom is family. I think the moment they shoot her, she realizes that they’re killing her instead of the kid. She dies in a relaxed way, like okay, it’s not him, it’s me — just happy that it’s not him. Again, the whole story of her character is to have that kid in the movie, which will last forever, so that’s really beautiful in a way.

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