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'Girlfight''s Michelle Rodriguez

She pulls no punches

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HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- Even before the interview begins, Michelle Rodriguez is flashing the attitude that separates her from the 350 other women who auditioned for "Girlfight" and got knocked out of contention. She casts a critical eye at the poster promoting the Screen Gems release, which depicts her kissing co-star Santiago Douglas.

"This is not a love story," she snaps. " It's a hard-ass boxing movie."

It's that sort of talk that makes it clear the 22-year-old Rodriguez is not your typical Hollywood star.

"Girlfight" marks the feature debut of the actress, whose experience had been limited to a few brief appearances in a handful of films, including 1999's "Summer of Sam" and "Cradle Will Rock."

Director Karyn Kusama says she saw something more when she met Rodriguez, who'd answered an ad seeking actors for an independent film. She recognized Rodriguez as "someone who burns up the screen -- who holds the screen by sheer presence" Kusama says.

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She cast her in the role of Diana Guzman, a street fighter who takes her anger into the boxing ring. She matures as a boxer and develops the discipline, self-esteem and passion that make her a better person.

In January, the low-budget feature tied for the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where Kusama was honored with the best directing award. Rodriguez, who also attended the festival in Park City, Utah, began making a name for herself, too.

Her friends and family, Rodriguez told CNN in a festival interview, warned her away from the film.

"You're gonna get whacked and your teeth are gonna fall off," she recalled one friend telling her. "You're a chick."

Her brother was hardly any more encouraging. "You're gonna look like some butch up there," she said, quoting her sibling. "You know --fighting and stuff."

But Rodriguez, a New Jersey resident who spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Texas, is looking more like a diamond in the rough now. The Independent Feature Project, an organization celebrating independent filmmaking, honored her earlier this month with its breakthrough actor award. She's also been cast in two future films.

Now, as "Girlfight" is set to open in limited release, this unlikely star talks again to CNN about life in the ring and in the spotlight.

CNN: Tell us about the casting process and how you managed to come out of nowhere to land this role.

Michelle Rodriguez: Basically I was doing extra work for about a year before that, and I was about to quit because it became monotonous and I wasn't growing out of it. So, I decided to look through Backstage (magazine) and go on my first audition.

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"They call it a cattle call, where a bunch of people are told to go and try out for this movie, (and) basically you're just standing there giving your name. ... And I guess my pessimistic little PMS attitude paid off.

CNN: Tell us about the physical challenges that you had to endure going through this role.

Rodriguez: Hard core - 4 ˝ months of intense training at Gleason's gym in Brooklyn. … It was intense -- just imagine waking up every morning, running for 2 ˝ miles, then after that (you) jump rope for a half hour, then after that you're moving around in the ring.

You get out, you hit the speed bag ... and you spar, and then after that, you're doing calisthenics. While you're doing the sit-ups you've got this 20-pound sand ball thrown on your stomach.

What else? I would lift weights, drink proteins. Right now you're seeing me at my skinniest. I've never really been this skinny.

CNN: Is it true that you were good enough that they wanted you to go pro?

Rodriguez: Yeah.

CNN: Were you surprised that you were that good?

Rodriguez: I didn't think, "I can beat anybody out." No, I wasn't like that! I guess I just put my mind to it ... and when you do, it's like you have no fear. Or you use fear to your advantage, and it just empowers you even more. So I guess that's what they liked about me -- just the fact that I would get smacked up and go right back in (saying), "Yeah, I want more 'til I at least hit you once, for Christ's sake."

CNN: It added to the authenticity of your role, not being afraid to get your face smacked?

Rodriguez: Oh, I wasn't scared.

CNN: What's been going on with you since Sundance, both in terms of the movie and your acting career in general?

Rodriguez: I think a lot of doors have opened for me. I really enjoyed that festival. I think it was a great experience for me to learn from. I mean, it (the festival) has turned into middle-class Hollywood, and it's not all about nuanced performances and not all about new directors anymore; it's kind of like a meat market. But in the end … I'm very thankful it was there.

CNN: What kinds of doors did it open for you in terms of roles?

Rodriguez: I think it just opened up a lot more options and interest. … We got a studio (distributor Screen Gems) and that ... publicity created a lot of awareness about me as a person.

CNN: Was it odd seeing yourself on the screen?

Rodriguez: I think it's odd for anybody to see themselves on screen. You're "volumized" by -- what? I think it's 10 times. You're watching this big giant screen ... and you're just staring at this big face that you've stared at all your life … But it's kind of scary because ... I'm not used to that.

Rodriguez: Do feel like you have to work harder, to pump people up to get them to see this movie?

Rodriguez: I have no expectations whatsoever. I'm not saying, "Oh yeah, you know, we've reached a lot of people." What you might see as far as marketing might not be what you see (in) the movie…

Right now, everything is just like gravy on a bunch of potatoes, or like icing on the cake, because I didn't think we'd reach this far.

"Girlfight" opens in limited release on Friday, September 29.

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