It’s been 10 years since actress Michelle Rodriguez broke into the film industry by beating out 350 other young women for the lead role in the independent, award-winning film “Girlfight,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.

Since that performance, Rodriguez has gone on to earn a number of roles in both independent and mainstream movies including “The Fast and the Furious,” “Blue Crush,” and last year’s history-making blockbuster “Avatar.” She now stars in director Robert Rodriguez’s new exploitation film “Machete.”

In the film, Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, plays Luz, aka Shé, a taco-truck employee who moonlights as a revolutionary. She helps title character Machete (Danny Trejo) seek revenge on the men who double-cross him and leave him for dead.

What attracted you to the role of Luz other than the fact that she is one of these strong female characters you’re known for playing?

I liked the fact that she’s about the people. There’s just something really beautiful about that – about the idea that you can have somebody that is attracted to innocence and attracted to struggle and peace and justice and will literally dedicate their life to that cause. I admire that in people. I personally feel like there’s a more democratic and efficient way to go about things, but this isn’t reality. (Laughs) This is an exploitation film. I enjoy taking things to an exaggerated fantasy limit.

Speaking of fighting for a cause, you recently joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. How did you get involved in that organization and what do you hope to accomplish in a group that is considered by many as very controversial?

I have a love for…anything that can’t defend itself or doesn’t have a voice. I’ve feel an innate connection and empathy towards it ever since I was a little kid. Not to be mushy or anything, but it’s something that rings true with me. I go back to Puerto Rico and I would cry because I would see that they were just destroying all the mountains. I was just always really frustrated at this lack of appreciation for man’s creation over nature. It wasn’t until I shot “Battle in Seattle” where I really started to think that maybe this activism thing isn’t necessarily the way everyone wants to go about it, but they’re doing something about it and I have to respect that. I started getting involved in different organizations and then I landed “Avatar” and [director] James [Cameron] started introducing me to other organizations and people that were seriously involved. There was a whole network. He opened up a gateway. I was like, “OK, this is where I belong. This is where I need to be.” So, I was out at the Cannes Film Festival deejaying some gigs and while I was out there I saw one of the Sea Shepherds. I was partying on a yacht and I saw this Sea Shepherd in Cannes! (Laughs) I was like, “What the hell is a Sea Shepherd doing in Cannes?” I had to go out there and meet him and see what he was all about.

Well, this does sound like a cause that you are definitely willing to fight for, but is it a cause that you’re willing to face danger for? I don’t know if you watch “Whale Wars,” but some members of the Conservation Society were kidnapped during the first season.

What’s that famous scene in “The Lion King?” It goes, “Danger? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I laugh in the face of danger!” I feel like the baby lion. I think they called him Simba.

You’re celebrating your 10-year anniversary as an actress this year. Does it still surprise you when you think back to “Girlfight” a decade ago and realize how far you’ve come?

You know, it doesn’t surprise me because now it feels so right and everything that I’ve gone through and everything that has happened is perfect. Even the hardships and the struggles and all the fights that I’ve had at studios, it’s great to be in a place where you’re like, “Finally, I get it.” I’ve established who I am and it’s just beautiful that I’ve been able to do it and that I’ve had the opportunity to it and that the business has been so open-minded to letting me grown as a person. [When I started] I was a kid, dude. I was 20 years old. I never had money in my life and I get thrust into this game and all of a sudden I’m doing “The Fast and the Furious” and taking mad dough. Next thing you know I’m in Hollywood movies just because Vin Disel liked my character in “Girlfight.” I’m like, “Dude? Do you even know what’s going on?” I’m a girl from Jersey City who knows nothing about cash and nothing about the lifestyle being thrust into it. I had so much education thrust at me so fast, I couldn’t even blink without learning something. It was amazing. I wouldn’t take back a second of it.

Some people are calling Danny Trejo the first big Latino action star…

Wait a minute. I don’t know about all that. People are forgetting Antonio Banderas in “Zorro.” He’s not the first Latin. And you can’t forget “El Chapulin Colorado.” Come on now. You have to give some props where it’s due. Maybe the first Mexican-American superhero. Because Cantinflas, even though he was funny, he was my hero.

Were you able to match Danny’s toughness?

Dude, that guy’s got a heart of gold. All you can do is accent it. It’s like he’s so hardcore but then you look in his eyes and he’s got this pureness about him. You feel like you’re in a good place with Danny…as long as you don’t get on his bad side. That’s one Mexican you don’t want to fuck with.

You’ve done you’re fair share of action movies and have carried a few guns in some of them, but nothing as massive as what you carry in “Machete.” How did making a Robert Rodriguez movie compare to the rest?

I feel like I’ve never really been truly allowed to be sexy before this. I feel like I’ve been able to explore a little bit more of my feminine side.

I guess it’s easier to feel sexy when you have a big gun in your hand.

(Laughs) That and a bra.

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