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This summer’s utility player

It turns out that Michael Bay runs an audition a lot like he makes movies. Last year, Ramon Rodriguez visited Bay’s Santa Monica offices seeking a key role in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and, instead of a sedate line reading, the young actor was basically told to run for his life.

“For 90 minutes, he had me jumping, running, diving over the furniture in his office -- that was the audition,” said Rodriguez, who was adept enough to land the role of Shia LaBeouf’s sidekick in what is quickly becoming the biggest movie of the year. “I was drenched in sweat. He told me, ‘OK, hide behind the desk!’ ‘Now, run over here!’ And man, I was looking in his eyes, and he was enjoying it. He’s got a passion for action. It shows in the movies too.”

It’s dizzying to watch “Revenge of the Fallen’s” success from a distance (more than $360 million in worldwide box office so far), but it’s been an especially wild ride for newcomer Rodriguez, whose career is surging this summer with the “Transformers” role as well as his work in Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123,” which put him side-by-side with Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

“I’m coming out of nowhere this summer,” Rodriguez, 29, said on a recent bright afternoon on a basketball court in Studio City. “At least that’s how it seems to people. It feels that way to me sometimes too. And it’s been a major education.”

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For Rodriguez, this summer is the equivalent of a half-court shot that hits nothing but net. The actor, who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but also spent much of his youth in his family’s native Puerto Rico, was a college and prep-school basketball star who didn’t have the height needed to achieve his NBA dream.

After picking up a sports management degree at New York University, he was working for the New York Knicks in their community relations department -- and hating it. “You would think I would love it but working for a team that’s losing is just no fun,” he said. “It was so gray, so dark, there were layoffs and turmoil . . .”

A friend coaxed him to enter a Nike basketball trick competition and, with the lure of a free pair of sneakers, Rodriguez agreed. He ended up winning by spinning a ball, putting it on the tip of a pen and then gripping the pen with his teeth without interrupting the revolving ball.

It was a heck of a trick: It led to the aspiring ballplayer joining the Nike freestyle team and touring Asia and Europe as a sort of latter-day Harlem Globetrotter. At NBA games, Rodriguez performed in front of the sports stars he had hoped would be his peers.

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“They were checking us out at halftime, I could see out the corner of my eye that they were smiling,” he said. “We got paid, we traveled, people cheered. And then there’s another thing: When you’re the halftime show, you never lose.”

His work in Nike commercials gave him a foothold on a new path: acting. In 2005, Rodriguez had an eye-catching guest appearance on FX’s fireman drama “Rescue Me,” in which he played a character who, as a young man, had been molested by a priest.

“The firefighters went to the priest and at the end of the story arc, in front of everyone, I kill myself,” Rodriguez said. “I put a gun to my head in the middle of the church. I was finding out what it meant to be an actor.”

Rodriguez then immersed himself in acting studies even as he did an eight-episode run on “The Wire” in the role of Renaldo, the lover of stickup man Omar Little. Next was Rodriguez’s memorable turn in Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s “Bella,” the 2006 film that won the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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That set the stage for “Transformers.” The role of the fast-talking Princeton freshman Leo Spitz, who is the new college roommate to LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, makes Rodriguez the comic relief in the film about giant alien robots.

Bay has a third “Transformers” installment in mind and, if it plays out as he expects, the next film would have a more substantial role for Rodriguez. The director, speaking at his office a few weeks before “Revenge of the Fallen” was released, seemed to have some pride of discovery when talking about Rodriguez.

“I’ve worked with big stars, people like Will Smith, Sean Connery and Bruce Willis, but casting is a weird thing, it takes you places you don’t expect,” Bay said. “We went looking for a sidekick in this movie, Shia’s sidekick, and we find this new kid who really pops on screen. I think he’s going to have a real bright career. It’s great to work with big stars but it’s always fun to discover people.”

Rodriguez is eager to diversify his resume and do art films and ensemble pieces as well as summer popcorn fare. He said no matter what comes next, he won’t soon forget this summer. “It was the full deal: I remember flying to Egypt to climb the pyramids . . . and then taking a Blackhawk helicopter to Petra [in Jordan] to shoot there,” he said. “We shot on an aircraft carrier. I mean, all of it, it was just mind-blowing. I got my shot and, man, it was a good one.”

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com


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