The Boxer

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Not long ago, Michelle Rodriguez was a customer service rep at a Toys R Us store in New Jersey, pulling long hours and getting hostile glares from coworkers who thought she was too friendly to shoppers. She didn't mind the hassles. To Rodriguez it was strictly a means to an end — a menial, part-time job she needed to earn $300 for audition photos that would allow her to pursue her dream of becoming an actress.

All those days helping harried moms find Pokemon toys and Hello Kitty dolls finally paid off. After working as a barely seen extra in a "Mad About You" episode and a half-dozen films including "Summer of Sam" and "The Cradle Will Rock," the 22-year-old actress is knocking out critics with her performance in "Girlfight," a low-budget, high-voltage drama that won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes. Portraying a female Rocky who evolves from high-school brawler to prize-winning boxer, Rodriguez comes across "like a young Brando," says director Karyn Kusama, who chose her out of 350 other actresses who auditioned for the part.

The odds seemed stacked against Rodriguez. Born in Texas to a Puerto Rican dad and a Dominican mom, she bounced around the Caribbean, then moved to Jersey City, N.J., before reaching her teens. Her dad died early on, so she spent her teen years living with her mother and grandmom, both devout Jehovah's Witnesses. She struggled for years to express herself creatively, and she had a hard time at school — she was expelled at least a half-dozen times.

Dropping out at 17, Rodriguez earned her GED and spent a full year "without any direction," composing poetry and short stories before deciding to write screenplays. Figuring "the best way to learn about movies was to become an actress," she fell for an old showbiz scam, signing up with a talent agency that charged hundreds of dollars for publicity pictures and then sent her on open casting calls advertised in Backstage.

Seeing an ad for a "female Latina boxing chick," she showed up for the "Girlfight" open call. Despite the fact she arrived late and did nothing more than say her name and where she was from, she was one of three women called back. Indeed, pitted against nearly 350 other actresses and feeling out of place at the call, Rodriguez became pessimistic and upset during the "Girlfight" audition, her dark, mesmerizing eyes turning fiery with frustration.

Luckily, Kusama picked up on her tension and found it downright electrifying. "She was a tremendous presence," recalls the director. "Michelle had a whole other energy compared to the more seasoned actresses there. She was this real wild card — she had no experience and never even held down a steady job for long. It was like betting all your money on a horse that had never run a race before, but I moved forward with blind faith. She was a natural."

After four callbacks where Rodriguez aced out other contenders, Kusama sent her to the gym and made her train for a week before awarding her the part. Then the director gave the feisty upstart a small stipend to live on, enrolled her in acting classes, and loaded her up with stacks of background material. There were videos of brooding, gutsy movies like "A Streetcar Named Desire," "A Woman Under the Influence," "Gloria" and "The Hustler," along with method acting manuals by Stanislavski and Uta Hagen.

Even more heady was the physical workout she endured. Already lean and mean from rollerblading, biking and hiking, she engaged in a full boxing regimen at Gleason's Gym, began running two miles a day, and packed on more than 10 pounds to bulk up her frame. Undergoing rigorous training for five hours a day, six days a week, Rodriguez transformed herself from a reasonably fit woman into a muscular Amazon. "My whole body began to change," she says, taking a deep drag off an American Spirit cigarette. "I morphed into a powerful being.

So powerful, in fact, that she didn't realize her own strength. "I learned defense pretty fast," she says. "I dislocated a girl's arm once. Well, actually, she punched me at the wrong angle so she messed herself up. But I'd walk outside the gym and want people to pick a fight with me. If you go and look for trouble, you'll find it. My ego was about to run away with me."

It's not just brawn that attracts Rodriguez. "When I saw Jodie Foster in 'The Silence of the Lambs,' it blew my mind," she says. "Strong female characters —we need more of them. It's a shame you have to be a bitch to be respected. Jodie, Helen Hunt, and believe it or not Julia Roberts all maintain a conservative style but made it big without exploiting themselves." Post- "Girlfight," Rodriguez is also gaining more respect, starring in the Spike Lee– produced "3 A.M." with Danny Glover and Pam Grier, as well as the race-car drama "Redline" starring Vin Diesel. She's aware of the tag "Latina actress" and hopes to break free of that label by getting more physical in future films.

"I'd like to be a female 007," she says, doing a kickboxing move and waving her arms ju-jitsu style. The killer punk rock boots she's wearing with flames roaring up the sides make her fancy footwork all the more dramatic. She laughs. "I'm far from a feminist, but I'm tired of seeing pretty girls falling for men who get them out of trouble." Hollywood, be warned: This is one pretty girl who doesn't pull her punches.