Michelle Rodriguez stars in this month’s epic 3D film, Avatar, playing the role of a Marine pilot who is stationed on the planet of Pandora. Her character Trudy Chacon is in the same vein as most of her characters from past films, the hot tomboy or the bombshell with muscle. Michelle Rodriguez has perfected this particular brand of feminine machismo, even being dubbed a young female Marlon Brando by the film industry. Directors seem to want to hire her for this quality, hoping she will augment her own persona with the script’s character as opposed to disappearing into the role completely. This unspoken request is something Rodriguez has mixed feelings about, though for now she is happy to oblige, especially where James Cameron is concerned.
In this revealing interview, Michelle Rodriguez talks about the incident that led to her leaving the megahit ABC drama, Lost and the arduous journey she took in re-building her reputation and acting career, culminating in James Cameron’s once-in-a-lifetime offer to join the cast of his latest film, Avatar.
Michelle Rodriguez is very different from the image that has been presented by the media over the past few years. When you speak with her you forget she is a movie star. Michelle comes across as the cool chick who could be your old college buddy, or the co-worker with whom you love to shoot the breeze around the water cooler. She’s generous with who she is, allowing me free access into her flaws and human foibles. Michelle shares with me her passion for self-discovery and endless universal exploration, something we have in common. What began as a conversation about Avatar’s groundbreaking filmmaking techniques took a winding path towards quantum physics, with a few other detours to the possibilities of reincarnation and life on other planets.
At the crux of it, we both realized that this interview was not about Michelle the actor, nor was it about me as the journalist who gets to ask the questions. Rather, we both stood in awe of the genius of James Cameron’s imagination and Avatar’s three dimensional world on the planet of Pandora that will forever raise the moviemaking bar.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): I’m excited to discuss the movie Avatar with you! How did you get the role of Trudy in Avatar? Did James Cameron approach you or did you audition?
Michelle Rodriguez: Here’s one thing that I think a lot of people should know about me. I suck at auditions (laughs). I am horrible! I am the worst auditioner on the planet (laughs). I think the only job I ever got because of an audition, and I’ve had many, is Girlfight. And it was my first audition. After that it was like, anything I auditioned for I didn’t get, and most of the things I’ve done were offered.
PR.com: Isn’t it usually the audition that gets you the job at the beginning of your career?
Michelle Rodriguez: I guess for real actors. With that character I keep playing, if you notice, the grand majority of the time she’s very similar. Every character I play has that one little thing that is pretty notable.
PR.com: Could you ever play a character that’s not a tomboy?
Michelle Rodriguez: Definitely. As long as she doesn’t have to rip her clothes off.
PR.com: You would never do nudity?
Michelle Rodriguez: It’s not that I would never do nudity. It’s just that the grand majority of the time that it’s done it’s the same old story… girl looking for guy; guy leaves girl; girl is brokenhearted and you can’t wait for them to get back together. If I have to hear that story one more time I’ll want to shoot myself.
PR.com: So no romantic comedies for you.
Michelle Rodriguez: The day that somebody approaches me with something interesting then I’ll definitely work hard to try to be a part of it.
PR.com: We know you didn’t audition, so how exactly did you win your role in Avatar?
Michelle Rodriguez: According to Jim, a while back he had taken a trip on a chopper in some cold place. I don’t know if it was Antarctica; it was one of his adventure trips, because he goes on adventure trips all the time. On one of his adventure trips there was this female pilot who was flying this chopper. I guess she made an [impression] on him because at one point she did this crazy difficult maneuver off of this glacier, and he almost shat his pants. At that point he realized that this would be a great character to incorporate into Avatar and then he thought of me. He had seen some of my work in Girlfight and in Lost, and I was surprised. I was like, “What? Are you kidding me?! I love your work!”
PR.com: What happened between Lost and then getting cast in Avatar. For awhile your reputation was less than stellar. So what happened in that time period?
Michelle Rodriguez: Nothing really happened in that time period. At the end of the day Hollywood is filled with a bunch of followers. There aren’t many leaders in Hollywood. So if you get a bad reputation, you’re going to go down and you’re gonna do some time without working. And that’s exactly what happened. After Lost I got lost! People thought, “She’s like all those little girls who go around partying all the time.”
PR.com: Was that a fair assessment?
Michelle Rodriguez: Not at all! Are you kidding me?! I went to jail for a glass and a half of wine… on a holiday! Relax people! That was three years ago (laughs). You know what I mean? I wasn’t running around at three o’clock in the morning coming out of a party or stumbling out of a bar. It’s not like that. They put me into the wrong category. It wasn’t until [James Cameron] came out and said, “I want you to be a part of this project,” and I said, “You do acknowledge that Hollywood thinks I’m crazy.” And he’s like, (Michelle takes a thoughtful beat for emphasis) “You’re not crazy.” So next thing you know they’re calling me up for Fast and Furious and now Neal Moritz is working with me again, and boom! I’m back in the saddle.
PR.com: Tell me about your character Trudy and how she fits into the plot of Avatar.
Michelle Rodriguez: Trudy is a military pilot. The guys who are based on the other planet, Pandora, are Marines. She is part of that regiment. They are basically there doing some research to see what they can actually extract from the planet and bring back to Earth for energy. I’m flying back and forth from the base to where the actual Na'vi aliens are. They’re more inland than the military base that I’m stationed at. They created a massive base. You can’t breathe the air on that planet (describing the film’s storyline) so they brought down their own base, it’s crazy. It’s like a ship but it’s not flying, it’s stationary. And that’s their station.
PR.com: Was the spaceship base created with CGI technology or on a sound stage?
Michelle Rodriguez: The actual base on Pandora, they had sets. I’m sure there are aspects of CGI (computer-generated imagery) to make it look more grandiose and bigger than what it actually was. Most of my work, the six months that I worked on the project in New Zealand, was sets after sets after sets. I did probably a little bit of work with the guys who were doing motion capture and using green screen, and I looked out of my cockpit at a green screen a couple of times. The majority of the time that I looked at a green screen I just asked [James] Cameron what exactly it is that I’m looking at, and instead of showing me a picture like most people do when you’re doing a CGI movie, he would actually drag me over to a computer screen and show me an actual flight plan. He would actually show me what I’m encountering, where it’s coming from and it’s juxtaposition to being in the cockpit. It was awesome. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life.
PR.com: Is the plot of Avatar meant to be an analogy of what goes on here on Earth where nations will exploit other nations?
Michelle Rodriguez: I think it’s left universally to the audience for interpretation. That’s what I love about all of his movies; same thing with Terminator. Will technology take over man? Is there something that man missed in his egotistical quest to be God, you know? Then you go and you ask yourself the same question when you watch The Abyss; not with technology, but of mankind itself, eating itself up with war. He’s always got these really deep philosophical questions that are in many ways [given] to the individual for his own interpretation. But it’s placed in these action movies where you’re so entertained throughout the process that a lot of people don’t even pay attention to the massive message behind most of these movies.
PR.com: From what I saw of Avatar, it looks like human beings discovered a valuable natural resource on this other planet and they have no concern for the living beings on the planet. They just want to get their hands on this valuable resource that can be translated into money.
Michelle Rodriguez: That could also be the story of America’s foundation, and many other countries all over the world. That’s exactly what I got out of it, by the way. So I’m with you.
PR.com: You say that you and James Cameron had some discussions regarding his various theories about the future. What did you talk about?
Michelle Rodriguez: I was trying to wrap my head around half of the things he was saying but he got a bit too complicated for me. He’s talking about the space and time continuum and the idea of humanity being a reflection of the past and I just… he lost me (laughs). But I really respect the guy. I just need to get up on my physics to really wrap my head around it. Somebody telling me in an equation what time and space is isn’t good enough. I need to be able to really capture the entire concept and understand it inside and out before I could take on any questions that involve time and space. If I don’t know what time and space is and you’re talking to me about time and space and adding other parts to this equation, I’m going to be lost. For me, time and space is just friction, motion and depth, and rebirth and movement and friction and motion and depth.
PR.com: It sounds like sex and childbirth (laughs).
Michelle Rodriguez: (Laughs). Exactly! But that guy has a big mind. He can absorb a lot of things and make sense of a lot of things that I have yet to.
PR.com: Time and space, you can look at it from a scientific standpoint or from a philosophical standpoint. Philosophy is really questions leading to other questions. The person who is deemed intellectual, they don’t necessarily have more answers than other people. They have more questions than other people.
Michelle Rodriguez: And to master that art is in knowing how to ask the right questions to get the right answers to then be able to ask the right question again! I think I’d get along better with those guys than with the alchemist or the scientist.
PR.com: How was James Cameron as a director with his actors? In the past, actors have said he’s strict and tough. What was it like to work as an actor on his set?
Michelle Rodriguez: He’s the kind of guy that I would forgive if he ever screamed on a set. I think that people just don’t get him and don’t get what he’s trying to do. With a snap of a finger he’s on to the next thing. So if you can’t do it, he’ll take your job and do it for you. And then probably you’ll hear about it, because of the fact that he had to do your job for you. But I think that’s what a general does. That’s what pushing the envelope means. When you work for somebody who pushes [themselves] and is always taking themselves to the next level and always living on the brink of pioneering in a new direction you’ve got to expect that. You’ve got to expect to be pushed. I’ve never seen him flip out so I wouldn’t know what that’s all about, but I’ve heard a lot. I would forgive him if it ever happened to me.
PR.com: In this movie, is an Avatar created by transplanting a human mind into the body of one of the aliens?
Michelle Rodriguez: I’m assuming that the name is based on Avatara which I think is a Hindu term for the human body. They call it an “Avatar” in that culture because they feel like the flesh is only the vessel, and that your body is a vessel for your soul. So I think he used that name with that concept for the actual alien Avatars, which are genetically modified alien beings using human DNA, so that they could be able to remotely control these creatures from a capsule, like the kind of capsule Michael Jackson used to sleep in. From a machine like that, using some sort of quantum [physics], you would be able to remotely, using the power of your mind, control these Avatars. And these Avatars, your nervous system is actually attached to them. It’s kind of like Wi-Fi for the body. That’s intriguing to me. It kind of makes me think twice, like if you do die and there is such a thing as being born into another body, that would be awesome if you could take your memory with you.
PR.com: I’ve been studying that for years. I believe that we’ve all lived many lifetimes and that the memories are stored in the soul.
Michelle Rodriguez: I have a wild imagination. I’m sure if you dumped me into a hypnotic state I would probably divulge a lot of really insane stories that would sound true from some foreign time, but I’m sure it would come from my crazy imagination. But thinking about regular people that I’ve seen [under hypnosis] on videos who have never shown any creative signs, you know those types of people who are accountants and stuff, and they’re talking about being alive in the renaissance era and even speaking in those tones. So you’re either an incredibly good actor or… (laughs).
PR.com: Nobody knows one hundred percent, but it’s worth reading about or it’s worth saying, “I’m wise enough to know that I don’t know for sure. Therefore, many different possibilities exist.”
Michelle Rodriguez: Kill me the day I know it all. Then there’s no point in living.
PR.com: Weren’t you raised a Jehovah’s Witness?
Michelle Rodriguez: That was great until I became an adult and I started researching Charles Taze Russell, the person who created the religion. That kind of turned me off of that. Now I’m open to a lot of things, but I don’t like cults or organizations. I’m pretty much a loner when it comes to that world. I like to research things on my own, and on my own time. But definitely, I like the idea of reincarnation. We are all made up of frequencies. We’re all made up of energy and energy doesn’t die. So that fact taken into consideration, I leave my mind open to it, and I leave my mind open to aliens for sure.
PR.com: I was going to ask you that next. What are your thoughts on the possibility of life on other planets?
Michelle Rodriguez: We’re definitely narcissistic to believe that we’re the only ones. There’s a billion or trillion to one chance that we exist… and we do (laughs)! And that great leap forward? You know that hundred thousand years when we were just walking around like apes, and then all of a sudden Mesopotamia pops out and we’re organized into cities? Bullshit! Something’s missing.
PR.com: I’ve heard buzz that Avatar will actually change the way films are made forever and advance filmmaking technology.
Michelle Rodriguez: The real revolutionary moment for me is that the world that he spent a year creating, CGI-wise, that whole realm, that whole planet with all its foliage and protrusions and its different species of plants, it’s a sentient planet. That sentient planet was created. When people are in motion capture suits and they’re walking around on a set he has the ability to point this little camera, which is just a box with a screen on it and censors in the front, and he can walk around and use it as a camera. So he can capture the people in the suits and he gets to see them live in real time. He gets to see them in juxtaposition to this world that he created a year prior. He has a three dimensional world that he digitally created with his team. When you’re on set in a motion capture suit and you’re walking around through this realm, you’re not just interacting with green screen. You can go tap Cameron on the shoulder and be like, “What exactly am I staring at? Did I do that take properly” The motion capture censors are capturing facial movements, and everything the actor does, and then he gets to see on that screen as he is shooting this, he gets to walk around this gray room with dots on it and show this actor exactly what he is encountering in this realm. Usually when actors have been working in the past on green screen sometimes the director would create a rough version of what the CGI realm is going to look like, or they’ll show you storyboards of what the scene is supposed to be, and that’s what you’re supposed to work with. No longer is that necessary when you have this technology, because you change the whole way you make a movie. You will create that world first and then put your actors in it as we logically do in real time when we create a set and then put our actors in it. It’s a step forward in the evolution of that technology. That’s not even including him being able to mix that world with the 3D world that he captured on a set. You’ve got people walking around in this 3D world and through the window of that base camp ship you’re looking out the window and you see part of that three dimensional world that he built. So it’s just layer after layer of depth. It doesn’t stop, it keeps going and going. Regular cameras don’t read depth. [James] Cameron is shooting you 3D in the foreground and the background, so you’ve got double depth.
PR.com: So this will be the first time that a movie-going audience will ever see depth from the back and the front?
Michelle Rodriguez: It’s basically double-depth 3D. It’s like your background being three dimensional and your foreground being three dimensional.
PR.com: Was this set closed off and sequestered so that no other project could steal this particular technology before it’s presented in Avatar?
Michelle Rodriguez: I do know that we all signed confidentiality agreements upon signing on to do the film. I don’t know what the exact restrictions were. I know we couldn’t take any pictures while we were on set. I definitely saw some serious security compared with other films.
PR.com: How do you feel about being an action figure?
Michelle Rodriguez: (Laughs) I think it’s so cool! I’ve always dreamt about it! You know what’s really funny? I’m like an overgrown kid in many ways and a lot of my friends get frustrated with me for it. I’ll sit there till four in the morning and play Modern Warfare, so I dork out like that. I remember just a year before signing on to do [Avatar] I was like, “Damn man, you know something, it would be really cool to be an action figure! Before I retire I want to be an action figure.” And then the next year look at what happened. Talk about calling stuff upon yourself, Jesus! I say stuff like that or I wish things, and I get real excited and giddy about it ‘till I get little prickly feelings in my stomach. Then I forget about it and I’m like, “whatever.”
PR.com: Human nature. When will the action figures hit the toy store shelves?
Michelle Rodriguez: I would assume after the movie comes out because I know they already have a bunch made, and they have the video games. Dude! Talk about a guy who pays attention to detail. I’m always getting pissed off at productions who make video games out of movies. I get pissed off because I’m a gamer. Most of these guys, they make movies and they’re like, “Oooh! Merchandising! A video game sells for like twenty or thirty dollars and movie tickets only get [ten].” So they do the math and they’re like, “Let’s make a video game and release it around the same time as the movie, it’ll be great!” And they forget that it’s an art form. A good video game costs you about twenty million dollars to make, first off. It takes about two years to develop, and you need to get a kick ass motherfuckin’ team of experts to do the shit. If a game is out on the shelves for a week and nobody says anything amazing about it, that’s it. It’ll be on sale by the next week. But this is not the case with [James] Cameron, dude! He made three video games and get this; the video game is a prequel to the movie. There’s one for Xbox, and then he’s got one for Wii which is a prequel to that video game, and then he’s got one for the PSP (Play Station) which is a prequel from that video game. He’s telling the story in all these different languages.
PR.com: Why was the name “Pandora” chosen as the name of the planet in Avatar?
Michelle Rodriguez: I never asked [James Cameron]. I do remember making a joke, “Pandora’s box! (laughs).” But that joke didn’t go anywhere, nobody laughed (laughs). I’m assuming it has something to do with the double edged sword that it is to have something so pure. The planet itself, it’s sentient. And maybe because within the story it is a relevant term, symbolic of having something beautiful that can cause chaos.
PR.com: The way the story of the film plays out, you’ve said it reminds you of Star Wars.
Michelle Rodriguez: Let me clarify what I meant about the whole Star Wars things. It’s nothing like Star Wars. What I meant by that comment where I said that it’s like the first Star Wars was that I realized that once the sets stopped being built, as far as the filmmaking process of the Star Wars movies, the realistic feeling that I got from part one of Star Wars was lost. It’s almost like I couldn’t relate to the creatures on screen anymore. They felt more like something I could see in a video game as opposed to a film where I’m getting into the film’s world. And when I stepped on the Avatar set and I got to see the double depth, I was like, “Wow! This is a world that I’m stepping into.” The only other time that I felt that was in the first Star Wars. I watched the “making of,” and I realized the big difference. There were real massive sets, moving creatures that were built. There was an ambiance of life and it’s almost as if, if you create an industrial kind of background to your film it won’t attract me in the way that a film with a bunch of sets would. It just feels cold and dead, and for me I might as well just watch a blue screen. That’s what I liked about Avatar so much. I read about these alien creatures that I can actually relate to.
PR.com: In the parts of the film that I saw, the aliens in the film have a human quality.
Michelle Rodriguez: Sure, I mean, we’re calling it a human quality but God knows what’s out there. You know what I mean? We’re a copy of something.
PR.com: We’re using terms that we know based on what we are, and our frame of reference. We could go real deep with that one, but it would take forever.
Michelle Rodriguez: (Laughs).
PR.com: Yeah, we could go into a black hole with that one (laughs). And based on the story in Avatar, is there the possibility of a sequel or a prequel?
Michelle Rodriguez: I think so, definitely. The humans are only five [light] years away. To travel from Earth to Pandora, it’s only five years. You could keep sending fleets out there if you want. Or there could be a back and forth. There could be all sorts of things going, as far as interaction goes, between the earth and that planet.
James Cameron’s "Avatar" opens in wide release (in IMAX 3D) December 18, 2009. For tickets and showtimes visit avatarmovie.com or moviefone.com.