When Steve McQueen first approached Michelle Rodriguez to play the role of Linda in Widows, she turned him down. She thought that she recognized that character all too well. Linda struck a wrong nerve and she said, “No.” It wasn’t until Rodriguez met with McQueen that he broke down how she could take that honesty and make this role her own.
Rodriguez — who has starred in Avatar, the Fast and Furious franchise and SWAT — admits she has played the tomboy and channeled a masculine ego to protect herself “so that guys wouldn’t look at me sexually.”
The actress talked to me about her new attitude about that for this role, which is by far one of the best performances of her career, vulnerable, but feminine. It’s a terrific fresh facet that Rodriguez shows us, as the widow who’s left to fend for herself with two young kids, motivated to take part in the heist because of the corner she finds herself backed into. It’s a part that McQueen believed in, and one that she had to play.
She goes on to say how she has grown from this role and what she would like to do next: “I’m going to challenge myself as an actress and work on things that have a little bit more to chew on, if you know what I mean.”
I spoke to Steve and he said you actually said no the first time. Why was there the initial reluctance?
My career has mostly been consisting of activism more so than being a true thespian, speaking evolution in finding a character with dimension and behavioral growth. That really hasn’t been my thing because of the status of people who look like me or have a last name similar to mine and their image in Hollywood.
I always wanted to create something independent and strong, an escapism if you will. My process of doing that kind of reached a peak. I look around and thought, “Why am I holding this activism flag? I’m not alone anymore.” Multiculturalism is taking over, women are independent all over this space, and I thought why are you killing yourself inside as an artist by doing things that don’t challenge you.
When I looked at the role, I thought immediately that I wanted to watch this movie because I saw 120 pages where Steve and Gillian take Chicago and turn it into a symbol of economic subterfuge. If you look around the world today, there are so many cities that could relate to this problem of men in a quest for power, in a pyramid from the drug dealers on the street, all the way up the food chain, to the corrupt politicians in government.
My heart did break at the thought of the 1% — and Steve McQueen is part of that 1% — that can write a script and can get a project greenlit. He could choose to create this amazing project and see it through the eyes, and discover it through the eyes of females. I was turned on by all of that. I was wondering, here is this statistic. Here is this Latina female who dated the wrong guy, got pregnant young, is stuck in the ghetto, and she has this little store surviving with it. It was that painful truth that I grew up around. It’s my mother. It’s all those young girls who had kids when they were 17 and those girls that I grew up around. They put their heart out and loved unconditionally only to get it stamped on by the world.
I wasn’t sure if I could project that with honesty because there is a part of me that hates that image. It’s because of the discomfort I feel and the pain I feel in knowing who that is. It wasn’t until I sat down with him that I realized how kind of important it was to find the beauty in that. I feel like so much of the time, being someone who grew up in poverty and being someone who knows what it’s like to wake up hungry and to want things that you can’t have. To look around for opportunity and not see it anywhere in sight, how hard it is to find beauty and to see what the important things are in that environment.
As soon as I had that conversation with Steve and he introduced me to that dimension, I said, “OK, you got me. I’m in. I’m going to need an acting coach and I haven’t challenged myself in sixteen years, but I’m in.”
I was going to ask how she challenges you as an actress because her journey to empowerment is one of my favorite.
The big thing for me is shattering my ego. My ego is very masculine. It’s masculine because that’s what I needed to survive in poverty. I need to be the tomboy so the guys wouldn’t look at me sexually. I needed to be strong and fight and hold my own in that environment. It was masculine. Every single time I saw someone liberate themselves, it was using that masculinity. It was either that or sexuality. I was no about to play Cleopatra. I wasn’t about to emulate that because I despise the fact that a lot of women weren’t happy doing that, but did it anyway because they thought it was the only way out.
For me, the challenge was getting into that feminine mother place of loving unconditionally. Of raising three kids. She has` two kids in the movie, but in reality, she is raising her husband too. That’s a very typical thing too that you see in Latin communities and poverty-stricken areas. It was really hard for me to drop my ego and let myself be vulnerable. That’s real performance. That’s what being human is made out of. I knew I couldn’t give Letty to an Academy-Award winning director, you know what I mean? [Naming her best-known role, in Fast and Furious]. That’s why I said no in the first place. I’m not ready. He’s like, “I tried a whole bunch of women and you’re the one.”
It was wonderful because I discovered my femininity. I discovered the soft side that’s been creeping out as I’m getting older. I’m the opposite of most of the women around me. I grew up putting my masculine face forward, not the feminine. Usually women in their older age, they start to assert themselves. They realize who they are and start asserting themselves as an adult. I’m the opposite. I was ready for war at 16 years old. I was ready. Here I am now, wondering what this inner empathy is and where this unconditional love that pours out of me comes from. It’s all feminine and he allowed that to explode.
What was it like on set with the other Widows and you’re all on this journey together?
It was amazing. There was something really beautiful about the process. Everyone was so giving. Everyone laid themselves out on a plate for Steve because of what he was doing. He was telling something from a perspective that hasn’t been seen before. People were just willing to work. People were excited to come to work.
For me, the great experience was being in a trailer full of women for the first time in my career. Sitting there talking about things that I could barely talk about with the boys, but I did it anyway in front of them: they didn’t get it. Talking about female stuff in the trailer, relationships, and people and the industry.
Seeing it from the perspective of a 50-year-old woman. Viola Davis is the Queen. To sit there with Elizabeth who trained at one of the best schools in Australia. To hear Cynthia every morning. She is a machine that one. I don’t even know how she packs all that stuff into one day. All of these women who really care about what they do, who care about the message behind what they do, and really love the art form that they are part of. It really brought me back to life.
After a while, you get numb. You know you are part of a machine that is structured more like an advertising machine more than anything else. You try to fit in whatever depth you can with the two minutes of a serious moment that you get. You’re working more with symbols and not just two hours of depth where you can stretch out and dig into and grow something with.
After Widows, what would you like to do next?
I think getting behind the camera is my next move. Maybe trying to get into the Writer’s Lab at Sundance. I feel like the dream aspect of it, which I love the most, there has to be a happy place between having a message and making a commercial film. I’d like to discover what that happy place is. In the meantime, I’m going to challenge myself as an actress and work on things that have a little bit more to chew on if you know what I mean.
I guess I’m seeking to grow a little bit.