Michelle Rodriguez says ‘Avatar’ was ‘like working on ‘Star Wars’ -- the first one’


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Less than two weeks remain until moviegoers open a cinematic box called Pandora. One of the characters that gets to explore that distant moon with the troubling name is helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon. Hero Complex’s Jevon Phillips got to talk to the actress who plays her, Michelle Rodriguez, who has shaped a career from strong, tough roles in films such as “Girlfight,” “Resident Evil” and “The Fast & the Furious.”

JP: Last time I saw you, you were playing a video game at the premiere of “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Are you a gamer?


MR: Yeah, I’m a total gamer. I love games -- they rock. They consume a lot of your time nowadays so I play a lot less cause I just turned 30 and I have got to be a responsible adult, but I definitely have my vices. Right now, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 consumes about 15% of my day.

JP: So, talking “Avatar,” you probably got into all of the technical aspects of the film?

MR: Yeah. I was definitely overwhelmed ... I mean you’re talking about a guy [James Cameron] who’s a freaking genius. He’s thought about the realistic aspects of everything that he imagined in the film. I definitely spent a lot of time geeking out with him and figuring out what he thinks the future is going to look like in real life! He’s got a lot of theories that are based on scientific fact, so it was cool to watch him implement this kind of stuff into his imaginary world in “Avatar.”

JP: Explain a bit about who Trudy Chacon is and why she’s important to “Avatar.”

MR: Trudy Chacon is a helicopter pilot. A futuristic helicopter pilot, though it’s never specific on exactly what time period we’re in. But it’s definitely the future because cryogenics is a big part of the technology that exists, and God knows we’re really far from that now. She’s a character that decided to work on another planet, and as far as I know -- as far as Jim explained to me -- has been there on Pandora for a couple of years before the movie started. Just a pilot that loves to fly on another planet. And how she’s important? You’ll have to watch it and see.

JP: Got it. You went from one foresty, tropical place in “Lost” to another for “Avatar.” Did you work with all CGI, or was the vegetation kind of another character that you had to deal with?

MR: It was so cool! I worked on some sets where I get out of the chopper and I am in the Pandoran terrain, and it was really cool. You know, there’s not one detail that [Cameron] misses. If I am looking at a green screen on a scene, he’s gonna show me -- on a screen -- exactly what I should be seeing, which is amazing. Usually when you work with green screen you act and then somebody tells you, “Yeah, we’re gonna put this in post and such and such,” but he got that out of the way. Whenever I’m looking at something or have a question about something, he shows it to me. As far as the foliage goes and the protrusions from the planet itself, I got to see a lot of that live cause they actually created it for the set. Most of the stuff that I was working with were mechanical creatures that are actual props.

JP: Did you have the sense that you were working on something historic? A lot of people view the film as a key moment in special-effects film, at least in its ambitions.

MR: To me, it was like working on “Star Wars” -- the first one. You know how now you watch “Star Wars” [“Episode I” in 1999] and you’re like “I could’ve rented or bought the video game then I’d be in control of what’s happening’ -- because everything’s so digital and it doesn’t feel real. But you watch the first one [“Episode IV” in 1977] and I don’t know how you feel, but I wonder, ‘Why does this feel so much greater than the digitized world he [George Lucas] created now?’ And I realize it’s because of the props. And that’s the kind of live-action world that Jim created.

JP: That’s very cool.

MR: It is! Especially when you see these big giant robot things that the military has. Those things are cool, man! The actor that played the captain guy literally had to climb on a ladder to get into these things.

JP: When you signed up to do this, did you expect to see and do the types of things that you do working on this movie?

MR: I expected nothing less. I’ve always been a big fan of Jim Cameron. He’s the first director that I’ve loved for a lot of years and actually got to work with. And I’m surprised cause I’m known to be a crazy wild card, a maverick of sorts.

JP: Crazy wild card, huh. You are the action woman. Are those the roles that come to you at this point or are those the roles you still actively seek?

MR: I love action. You could tell, if you grew up with me, because I wanted to join the Army at one point and it was for no other reason than to have some action. My dad talked me out of it. Yeah, I like to get into physical stuff. It’s fun. I’m not into disciplined sports. I have no patience to sit there for years and learn a trade like race car driving or plane jumping, so acting is perfect for me. I get a crash course on everything I want to do and I have fun doing it and then if I really really like it, then I’ll get into it on my time off. As long as I’m young, I’ll definitely have my hands on doing something that involves putting your life on the line in some way.

JP: So what kind of training did you have to do for this?

MR: Helicopter flight training. That was really cool. In six months, if you have the discipline for it, you can learn how to fly a chopper. You can get a license to do such a thing -- and I think that is awesome. That’s definitely something that I’m gonna look into once I get some time. The slightest movement is amazing. You just tap that thing, and it’s so sensitive. You can do the most complicated movements with basically the pressure of a pinky ... I find that intriguing, especially those fighter pilot guys that fly the choppers in Afghanistan. I know that my character was inspired by a flight that Jim had in someplace cold like Antarctica or something like that. She just lifted the chopper and dumped it right off of a massive glacier, and as he was [making a mess] in his pants, he thought: ‘This would make a great character.” I thought that was really cool. He’s got a license for it.

JP: James Cameron has a license to fly helicopters?

MR: Oh yeah. What doesn’t that guy do?

JP: This film is so many years in the making. Has it been hard waiting to see the finished product and the reaction to it?

MR: Exhausting! It’s been very exhausting. I mean, as a fan alone, even if I wasn’t in the movie I’d still be exhausted by this massive wait. I’ve always loved everything that [Cameron] does ... You just don’t want people’s words and expectations to get in the way of your spirit, so it’s been pretty frustrating. I just want to see it already.

JP: You described yourself as a “nomadic spirit” in terms of projects, but you did the “Fast & Furious” sequel, so if “Avatar 2” talk starts up, are you game?

MR: I think that would be amazing. If that guy calls me up to be his assistant to serve him coffee for a year, I’m on. He’s definitely the type of person that I want to learn from in any aspect. He knows. For anything, I’m there.

-- Jevon Phillips


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Top photo: Michelle Rodriguez as pilot Trudy Chacon in “Avatar.” Credit: Mark Fellman / 20th Century Fox. Middle photo: Rodriguez as daredevil Letty in “Fast & Furious.” Credit: Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Studios. Bottom photo: Rodriguez on “Lost.” Credit: ABC