The actress talks about playing a military vet in Alex Garland's new sci-fi film

Gina Rodriguez is best known as the titular heroine on the CW show Jane the Virgin, so it may take cinemagoers a beat to recognize her as gun-toting veteran and paramedic Anya Thorensen in writer-director Alex Garland’s new science fiction film, Annihilation (out Feb. 23).

“Yes, I transformed a little bit,” laughs Rodriguez, 33, describing Anya as a “badass.” Her hair was cut short, the side of her head was shaved, and she changed up her diet and began weightlifting to put on bulk. “My character goes through quite the transformation, and I was experiencing it in real life,” says the actress.

Anya is part of a scientific expedition sent to investigate a phenomenon called the Shimmer, an area of America which has been taken over by a mysterious force of possible extraterrestrial origin. The role hit a major sweet spot for Rodriguez. “I am a sci-fi fiend, and Alex’s Ex Machina was my favorite movie that year,” she says. “I was starstruck on our first meeting, and the script was so twisted and delicious, and my journey was so wicked awesome. There’s nothing better than being able to play in a playground most people wouldn’t let me play in.”

The other team members in the U.K.-shot film are played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny. “It was definitely freeing to be with my sisters,” says Rodriguez. “Natalie is so egoless, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is just so smart, and I fell in love with Tessa. It was a very special experience. I’d do it all over again.”

The all-female nature of the team is barely referenced in the film itself. “It’s such a breath of fresh air for it to just be these humans — who happen to be women — going into a scary mysterious area and trying to stop it from taking over the world,” says the actress of the film, which also stars Oscar Isaac as the husband of Portman’s character. “It’s not like, ‘Yay, women do it better than men!’ It’s like, ‘This is what it is. Bam!'” The film also doesn’t make a big deal of Anya’s sexuality. “Yeah, she’s a lesbian, that’s what she likes,” says Rodriguez. “Big deal. You don’t have to wave a flag.”

As for her adventures in the Shimmer: “In these forests, they made it look like we were stepping into a new world,” she says. “It was amazing. But it was so real and terrifying. I had nightmares. Alex really puts you in a world [that makes you go], ‘Where am I?'”

So how does the actress think her famous TV alter ego would fare in the Shimmer? “She wouldn’t even go in,” Rodriguez says. “She wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. Jane’s happily sleeping while Anya’s taking care of business.

Watch the trailer for Annihilation, above.

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