By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 23, 2020 at 05:40 PM EDT
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Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

Gina Rodriguez is ready to bring us a little bit of July in autumn. Miranda July, that is.

In July's new film Kajillionaire, out Sept. 25 in theaters and on VOD platforms, Rodriguez is Melanie, a bubbly outsider who gets more than she bargained for when she joins forces with a pair of grifters (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins) and their emotionally stunted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood).

"To be able to deal with uncomfortability and humor in the same breath is really a talent," Rodriguez tells EW. "Miranda is just a singular voice."

July specifically wrote the role for Rodriguez, drawing on her winning demeanor on the CW series Jane the Virgin. "Her character is sort of the audience's avatar," July says of Melanie. "When I looked at the space Gina occupied in the culture, I thought, 'Oh, this is the all-American [girl], the modern version of the person you align yourself with.'

"That was exciting to me — seeing her in conversation with these oddballs," July adds.

It was exciting for Rodriguez too, a chance to tackle an indie film unlike any project she'd ever worked on before and absorb knowledge firsthand from July's directorial approach. The project was filmed two years ago, and Rodriguez has since delved into directing herself with episodes of Charmed, Jane the Virgin, and more.

Ahead of the film's release, we called up Rodriguez to talk about her love for July, her hardest scene to crack, and how she feels about jacuzzis.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first come on board Kajillionaire? Were you already a big fan of Miranda July's work?

GINA RODRIGUEZ: I didn't know what an all-around artist she was. I was familiar with her [first] film, Me and You and Everyone We Know. I was a big fan of her ability to look inside human characters and bring out different aspects I had never seen on film. But [she] reached out and was like, "I have a movie and a role I wrote for you." I was blown away because that is such an insane compliment. As an artist, to have another artist say that they've been thinking of you and they wrote something for you. When she told me that, I was like, "I'm coming. I'll read anything." I was just transfixed. She's absolutely brilliant.

We really don't know a lot about your character. She's close with her mom and we get a glimpse of that relationship, but how much backstory did you develop for her, and did you do a lot of that in conversation with Miranda?

It's a really awesome experience to, by yourself, take a script and try to immerse yourself into the writer's mind. You try to develop ideas about your character. The writer gives you clues to this person and you can just take those clues and run with them and create mannerisms, the way the person's relationship is with each character in the film. There's a lot of great and exciting work that I love to do by myself. It almost feels like a treasure hunt. Miranda, her specificity of everything, her clarity, what she was seeing when she wrote it, the cadence of the voice, the inflection of this sentence. With her, I got to dive in even more and go in deeper. I got to spend time with her prior to us shooting a little bit where we were crafting the character, fleshing it out. It's the sense that everything up until then walks with her. That's what we wanted to create. You don't really know much, but it's very clear, at least what her perspective is in each scenario, even without exposing the backstory.

You've done everything from big action films to television. This is a distinct change of pace for you, a co-lead in an indie ensemble piece, but you and Evan Rachel Wood are really the core here. What was that experience like? Was it a new pressure, or did you have to approach it in any different way?

I never thought about it that way. What I did think about was what an opportunity I was being given to work with Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood. To be led by Miranda July. It was like I have this incredible opportunity to watch these awesome artists at work and just soak up everything I can possibly learn. It's definitely a different kind of film than I've ever been in. That's always the dream, no? To do things we've never done. That's a big blessing about being an artist, to be able to go and play in other people's playgrounds.

You've done some directing yourself. With that experience on set, do you feel like Miranda inspired you to pursue more of that?

Oh, 100 percent. During that time, I never sat in the trailer. I was always watching. If you keep your eyes open, you can learn something from absolutely everyone. On that set, there was so many things I was learning, from acting to directing to visual storytelling, from costumes to set design. When I see Wes Anderson films, you feel like you're entering his mind. It's like that. When I was working Miranda, I [felt] like I am in someone's dollhouse. That's the coolest feeling in the world. This is a new reality. Looking through somebody else's lens is just fascinating.

Melanie's clothes are a big part of her identity, especially in contrast to Old Dolio and her family. Did you have much input on any of that?

It was really fun to crack that character because I personally have yet to learn how to do my own makeup. So, to be able to embody a woman that has the skill and the desire to do that was so much fun. The crop tops and nude colors, she feels very confident in these specific colors, and it was really cool to depart from what I'm used to. I felt super-empowered. When Melanie put on her Melanie armor and that gave her confidence, it worked for me too. I was like, "Ooh, I got some confidence," and that's a good feeling to have.

Was there one scene that was either the most difficult to pull off or just to crack for you?

I would say that the jacuzzi scene with Richard Jenkins was a particularly [challenging one]. There was just so many complexities to that experience for her, with the backstory of Melanie and her perspective and what she was coming from and her experiences. In that moment she was both surprised, disappointed, not surprised at all. It's devastating that she's aware of this and has come across this so frequently that she's not surprised. Then it's also empowering to see her fearless. When we were shooting it, it was finding that right balance. If you really unpack all of that, it's a very heavy moment.

Outside of those heavy circumstances, where do you fall on jacuzzis in real life? Yay or nay?

I can't cook myself in water. I feel like all my juices are cooking. I'm a nay in the jacuzzi space. I'm more of a cold-shower fan.

What do you think it is about this family that really draws Melanie in and gets her embroiled in all this?

Melanie is also in search. She's in search of something, and she's not going to allow an opportunity to pass by if this is what she's supposed to have found. What pulls her in is the idea of the longing, of having some kind of familial acceptance, maybe even just the seeking of connection. It was 100 percent genuine connection. It really was a soul connection between the two of them [Melanie and Old Dolio]. It was these two people from such different worldviews thrown into this journey together. You see them enact rituals of parenting and survival and transformation, and they get down to this real soul connection.

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