Her Fighting Chance Michelle Rodriguez was an extra a few years ago. The boxing drama Girlfight could make her a star

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In 1998, it looked as though the movie world was about to knock Michelle Rodriguez out of the ring. The would-be actress was living with her mother in Jersey City, N.J., and laboring as an extra in movies like Summer of Sam; the thankless, anonymous work was wearing her out. Then she saw an ad in Back Stage for a Latina actress to portray a boxer in a new film. Rodriguez didn't box and had never auditioned for a speaking role in a movie before, but the ad intrigued her. "I thought, If I'm going to quit, I might as well give it a shot before I quit," Rodriguez says. "If you don't play the lottery, you'll never win."

Looks as if we have a winner. Beating out more than 300 other women, Rodriguez, 22, won the lead in Girlfight, an independent film about a female boxer's athletic and romantic struggles that opens in New Zealand this week. Girlfight's budget was small ($1 million), but the film is having a big-time impact: it won a prize for directing and shared an award for best drama at last year's Sundance Film Festival. And Rodriguez's no-punches-pulled performance has critics sputtering superlatives like Don King hyping a pay-per-view fight. To prepare for the role, Rodriguez trained for 412 months, five or six days a week. "I like taking my body to its limits," she says. "It's a beautiful thing to do."

In person Rodriguez looks more like a men's magazine cover girl than a pugilist (she has dropped 4.5 kg since Girlfight wrapped). But when she speaks, she talks tough, skipping the float-like-a-butterfly thing and going right for the bee sting. How is she finding Hollywood so far? "I've met a lot of hypocrites." How did she approach her part? "I pretended it was a rap song, and I would recite my lines and recite them until I got the rhythm of it." Whom does she admire? "I freakin' love [martial-arts star] Michelle Yeoh! She kicks ass, like, whassup!"

Rodriguez's now deceased father hailed from Puerto Rico, and her mother is from the Dominican Republic. She was raised in both places and in Texas and New Jersey to boot. She dropped out of high school in ninth grade but later got a secondary-level diploma. Her decision to go into acting came after one of her two older brothers told her to get a job. "I don't like working at anything I don't like to do," she says. "I figured, Why not become an actress so I can see what it's all about and meet people?"

Since Girlfight, Rodriguez has signed on to play a cabbie in the drama 3 am (co-starring Danny Glover) and a car racer's girlfriend in the movie Redline (with Vin Diesel). She's getting plenty of offers, but she is searching for meaningful roles. "[Screenwriters] keep going at it with the same fantasy formula," she says, "and it affects women because it's the fantasies of these old white men. It's all about satisfying their egos, and I see it through the work. And it's tiring. It makes movies predictable."

Girlfight director Karyn Kusama says Rodriguez has "tremendous presence she's interesting to watch even when she's standing still." The director also believes her star may be too complex, too edgy, too real for mainstream filmmaking's limitations. "Hollywood is probably in many respects not the place for her, as far as I'm concerned," says Kusama. "She could be a huge star. She should be. But she can never just be the rote girlfriend. I hope she'll find more roles than just that. But there are a lot of girlfriend roles out there."

Rodriguez is coming out swinging. She talks excitedly about how, with the right training and motivation, a woman could outbox a man. "Pressure points, baby-that's what it's all about," she says. "Use your brain, keep yourself level, stick and move." Good advice for anyone stepping into the ring-or embarking on a Hollywood career.