[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film, starring the late Jenni Rivera, opens in select theaters on April 19th.]
Why She's On Our Radar:
In the Sundance U.S. Dramatic contender "Filly Brown" from directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos, Gina Rodriguez gives a commanding turn as the titular young hip-hop artist. The drama centers on Brown, a Los Angeles based struggling rapper with a mother in prison and one big shot at stardom. Rodriguez, an NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate best known for her brassy performance in the teen dance comedy "Go for It!," also raps in the film. "Filly Brown" world premieres tonight in Park City.
What's Next: Rodriguez, who recently signed a talent deal with ABC, is currently in talks to appear in Olmos' next project, an untitled boxing bio pic. "Michael had approached me after 'Filly Brown,' talking about an autobiography of this girl who was a boxer," Rodriguez said. "She grew up poor with a single dad and boxing was their connection. She just now became a professional. Her story’s just really beautiful. Little did Michael know, my father was a boxing referee. I started boxing at the age of three and it’s what brought him and I together. My dad’s my best friend."
You have amazing rapping abilities, but hip-hop isn’t something you pursued in tandem with acting, correct?
Oh yeah, not at all. I mean, I grew up in Chicago so hip-hop has always been a part of my life. I grew up dancing salsa, you know a traditional Puerto Rican dance. And in school, I would mess around with the MCs and all my melodies, if you will. But MC'ing was terrifying to me. These guys and girls, they were vicious. It always frightened me.
I went to college at NYU for acting since acting was my dream from very young. I did a lot of hip-hop courses while I was there. I helped co-write a hip-hop production for the main stage of NYU, but I never touched rap. I did do lots of spoken word, which I still do.
When I first came on to audition for this project, Filly Brown was a spoken word artist. I was like, “Spoken word? Let’s do this!” When I got to the audition, there were rumors there were changing her to a rapper. But I’ve never been one to say no to a challenge. I showed them what I could do, which was very bold of me because I had never rapped before. Sure enough, it clicked! Five days later, I was in the studio rapping. And now I adore it. It’s a new passion.
This role must have been a godsend for you, given your interest in hip-hop from an early age.
It was definitely a godsend; you could not have said it better. I’ve been very lucky; God has done amazing things for me.
When I came across this movie, it’s not often you come across a script that has a Latina lead that’s seriously well written. Stories like these, you rarely come across.
The director saw my last film “Go For It!,” in which I play this off the wall crazy Puerto Rican from the block. I was the comedic relief. When I got the script and finished reading it, I knew it was for me. She was strong and fierce with a chip on her shoulder. She was this beast of a woman.
I was so happy they saw “Go For It!” and thought of me for this role. It’s so vastly different. To me that’s an honor, because the one thing I pride myself on – I’m not the skinniest girl – but I am a trained actress. I can act my ass off and I want to do it all.
Take me back to the first time you stepped inside the recording studio. This was something totally new to you.
When they told me I was going to go in and record five days after being cast, I was like, “Holy cow, OK. I can do this. I need to eat this alive.” My father always told me, “Gina, you just need to jump.” I went in, I met the producers -- living angels -- and they’re instantly lovely. They knew I had never done this before, so they just had me jump in the booth and play around. Because I was a dancer, beat and rhythm comes natural to me. So I thought about it like that.
I have a deeper voice as a woman, so I really just played with my voice to find my style. And then I just kept going from there. Once I learned the technique of how to work in the studio, I figured out how to use it to my advantage.
It was kind of crazy, but it made me into a hip-hop artist. That’s why I act – to be a platform for young girls everywhere. I’m living the dream.
With that said, what kind of struggles have you faced since graduating from Tisch as a Latina actress?
They were immediately like, “Why do you do that with your eyes, why do you do that with you hands?” I was like, “Because I’m Puerto Rican!”
I just feel very lucky and blessed that the Hollywood community is opening their arms to creating more opportunities for us. But when I went to college, my first big struggle was that I was diagnosed with Thyroid disease. As an actress, having to deal with weight issues, in general, was just like, “Oh brother, here’s another challenge.” I was going to have to deal with a disease that wasn’t going to let me be a 100 pounds. On top of that, I’m going to a school like NYU – and don’t get me wrong the knowledge they gave me was priceless – but there was a lot of stripping down of who I was. They were immediately like, “Why do you do that with your eyes, why do you do that with you hands?” I was like, “Because I’m Puerto Rican!” I thought acting was about showing your life.
But then I also realized that I had to learn a technique in a pool of people that knew that technique. If I wanted to play in that pool, then I needed to learn how to play in it. So I gave into that.
Leaving college, I got an agent and a manager. I’m a Leo, so I’m a fighter. There were a lot of trials and tribulations along the way. But I didn’t let that stop me from being something other than a character actor.
Mexican pop singer Jenni Rivera plays your mother in “Filly Brown.” Did you go to her for any pointers, or was it vice versa since this was her first time acting in a film?
She came to me for pointers, which was very cool! She had never acted before, so we took some lessons together at the directors' request. We just got to know each other. She and I got really close cause our relationship in the film is very deep and very heavy. We got to a place where we knew each other very well.
She rocks the movie, she murders it. This was coming from a woman who didn’t know if she could yell at me when we started shooting.