It was around this time seven years ago that Gina Rodriguez was deemed the “It” girl out of the Sundance Film Festival with her role as a struggling East L.A. rapper in the hip-hop drama “Filly Brown.” Maybe it was naïveté, but she hoped the attention would bring the same sort of career boost it had brought other young ingenues such as Carey Mulligan or Jennifer Lawrence.
“I thought I was going to have a trajectory like Jennifer Lawrence had,” she says. “But I don't look like Jennifer Lawrence, and this industry doesn't take me the way they take a woman that looks like Jennifer Lawrence — and that’s no divisiveness at all. That just is what it is.”
These days, she’s trying to change the way it is. And not just for her.
Since becoming a household name in her own right with her Golden Globe-winning turn as the title character on the CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” Rodriguez has steadily been building her portfolio as a director and producer to help bring steady gains for Latino representation in front of and behind the camera.
This week, she is set to headline her first big studio movie: Sony’s $15 million action thriller, “Miss Bala.” And she’s back to hoping — hoping the film will perform well enough that Latino-fronted films won’t be so rare.
“I've been very aware of what the success of ‘Jane’ has done and what it hasn't,” says Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “And what the success of ‘Miss Bala’ can do — and what, unfortunately, we can miss the opportunity on. I would hate for Sony to have made this amazing opportunity for so many Latinx [creatives], and then, it just kind of ends here. That would devastate me. That [Hollywood] would say, ‘Okay, we tried that. See, it doesn't work.’ ”
It’s a sunny morning a couple of weeks before the film’s release, and Rodriguez had barely settled into her seat in the patio of a Culver City restaurant before confessing that she munched on a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos the night before — pausing to scan her nail beds to make sure she eliminated any trace of that oh-so stubborn bright red powder residue. She attributes the questionable dinner choice to being in director-mode this particular week on “Jane the Virgin.” (Her second stint in the director’s chair this season.)
She speaks quickly and passionately when the conversation veers towards “Miss Bala.”
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight,” “Thirteen”), the film is a remake of the critically acclaimed 2011 Spanish-language Mexican picture by Gerardo Naranjo. In this updated film, Rodriguez stars as Gloria, a young American who, after traveling to Mexico to help her best friend win a local beauty pageant, gets kidnapped and unwittingly caught up in the deadly crimes of a cartel in Tijuana.
It’s a more feminist take on the original film. And Hardwicke gives a lot of credit for that to Rodriguez.
“I remember our first meeting at my house,” Hardwicke says by telephone. “Gina said, ‘Look, I've got some ideas about the character. I want her to be even more active.’ That was already a big thing that the writer and the producer set out to do. And I wanted even more agency when I came in. But Gina was like, ‘Let's push it even further.’ She had notes in the script.”
The topic of her character finding her power has Rodriguez revved up: “Gloria doesn't find her way out of it unrealistically,” she says. “She’s not, all of a sudden, like the most bomb Muay Thai fighter who starts beating ass. She just makes decisions. When we got the script, all I kept asking continuously is like, ‘If this were a man, what would he do?’ It's really cool to see a woman with agency versus being saved or being a victim. The continuous projection of that gives a young girl a very specific idea of what they are to do in those circumstances.”
Rodriguez spent three months living in Tijuana, going back and forth to the States on weekends to get prepped meals because, she says, it was important to her that Gloria have a different body than Jane did (“Gloria going through this tumultuous experience. I wanted that to reflect in her body.”)
Hardwicke recalls a moment when they were shooting at Valle de Guadalupe on a scorching day and turning to see Rodriguez donning sparring mitts during a break in shooting, getting in some rounds with her dad. “Everyone else was wilted like a dead flower and scarfing down food during lunch, and Gina's out there boxing.”
The 34-year-old actress, whose big-screen profile has been on a steady rise with recent roles in “Deepwater Horizon” and “Annihilation,” is eager to have a film like “Miss Bala” hit the marketplace. In addition to having a Latina lead the film, the cast and crew on the project is 95% Latinx, the gender-neutral term for Latino.
“That was something I knew I wasn't gonna have often,” Rodriguez says. “Since then, I haven't had it again. I made that movie two summers ago, dog. Have I been offered anything like that since? Have I auditioned for anything like that since? No. The answer is no. That is profound.”
The film arrives during a charged cultural moment in America. Here’s a movie looking at the world of crime and drugs in Mexico — with a young American in peril — at a time when the president is stoking fears that Mexico’s violence is a threat to the U.S.
“To condemn our action movie because of what's currently happening in our times is unfortunate, because that means only everybody else is allowed to play in the action trope,” Rodriguez says. “I had one person ask me, ‘Do you think this is gonna make people want to build a wall?’ The fact of the matter is that what's happening in reality is not what's happening in this movie. We're living in a pretend space. We re-imagined a film to contextualize it to a woman that is empowered and finds her own strength in saving herself, when we don't see a lot of visions of that, period, in the action space ever.”
For Rodriguez, the film arrives in a period of transition. She’s got a wedding to plan with her fiancé, Joe LoCicero, (and, yes, they’ve been talking babies), and “Jane the Virgin,” the show that helped put her career in motion, is about to come to an end after five seasons.
In the same breath, she’s become the voice of animated character Carmen Sandiego for Netflix, and her company, I Can & I Will Productions, recently sold a Latino-led show called “Diary of a Female President” to Disney’s planned streaming service. Not to mention an upcoming romantic comedy for Netflix, “Someone Great,” in which she’ll star and have a producing credit.
“There’s mad transitions happening, and I love transitions,” she says. “Doors close, and others open up. But I’m definitely feeling the emotions right now of saying goodbye to ‘Jane.’ ”
She adds: “I feel it. I 100% feel it already. I cry really easily these days because I'm a raw nerve.”
Rodriguez will always have a soft spot for her role as Jane Villanueva, who began the series as a virgin and whose life soon rivaled the telenovelas she admired after she was mistakenly artificially inseminated. Her portrayal earned her a Golden Globe in 2015.
“The availability of opportunities, the resources, the networking that I was exposed to because of this show has allowed me to fulfill so many goals I had set out for myself,” Rodriguez says. “ ‘Jane’ has been the ultimate opener of doors and opportunity.”
Jennie Snyder Urman, the creator and showrunner of the CW dramedy, says Rodriguez’s intensity hasn’t slowed as the show heads into its final stretch.
“She's always full-throttle; she's always present,” Urman says. “With the final season — I mean, she’s talked about this at our table reads: about how we're in this very special space and we only have so many more to make, so let's be there for each other and savor it and support each other and make the best last season that we possibly can. It's a combination of sentimental but also just showing up, doing the work and not taking it for granted. And I don't think she ever has, I think she's always walked onto the space of 'Jane' with a sense of gratitude and confidence.”
As Rodriguez ponders the future, all she knows is she’s not waiting for things to happen.