Michelle Rodriguez has been outside the hotel for only 90 seconds when she gets stopped on the street. ''Uh, excuse me? Hi, I swear I'm not a crazy stalker,'' says a tall and impressively muscled black man on the crowded New York City sidewalk. ''But I am your biggest fan.'' He holds up his phone for a picture. Rodriguez lifts her chin up. ''Oh, hell yeah,'' she says, smiling. ''C'mon, let's do it.'' She squeezes one of his massive biceps: ''Yo, man, where'd you get these?'' The fan's giddy grin stretches even wider, and his very patient girlfriend takes the picture.
In person Rodriguez is smaller than you'd think barely 5'5'' in the flat-heeled black boots she's wearing on this sunny Saturday afternoon. You'd assume she'd loom larger. After all, she's forged a career playing tough-gal characters, from her astonishing 2000 debut as a boxer in the Sundance darling Girlfight to her roles in Lost, Avatar, the Fast & Furious franchise, and the upcoming Machete Kills (rated R, out Oct. 11). She is arguably the most iconic actress in the action genre, as well as one of the most visible Latinas in Hollywood. She has also amassed some jaw-dropping box office: The cumulative global gross of her films is $5.2 billion. That Rodriguez, 35, is a delicate-boned beauty doesn't mean she's any less of a badass, of course. In her downtime she likes to race cars, fire guns, and jump out of planes. Even her lunch order is kinda out-there: salad, bone marrow, and chocolate cake.
But she's also unexpectedly sweet and warm. Her mind moves quickly, pinging brightly among topics: neurolinguistics, Hinduism, diversifying her financial portfolio (she recently invested in Twitter), and why she was disappointed by Million Dollar Baby (''I was excited to see it. I was like, 'Great, now we have a commercial version of Girlfight.' And I watch the movie and I'm like, 'F--- you, f --- you. Why does she have to die?!''') as well as by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (''Why does she have to get raped raped! before taking vengeance? Why do the stakes have to be so much higher for a woman than a man? You wouldn't do that to Pacino'').
Rodriguez, needless to say, speaks her mind. She doesn't shy away from addressing her fraught early days in Hollywood (''I was loud, obnoxious, crazy'') or even her sexuality. ''I don't talk about what I do with my vagina, and they're all intrigued,'' she says of the media. ''I've never walked the carpet with anyone, so they wonder: What does she do with her vagina? Plus, I play a butchy girl all the time, so they assume I'm a lesbo.'' When EW points out that that's not a fair assumption, Rodriguez laughs. ''Eh, they're not too far off,'' she says. ''I've gone both ways. I do as I please. I am too f --- ing curious to sit here and not try when I can. Men are intriguing. So are chicks.'' She shrugs.
''She doesn't hold back,'' says James Cameron, who directed Rodriguez in Avatar. ''There's no filter. She's a lot of fun to hang out with because you always know what she's thinking.''
She was born in Texas to a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father. When she was small, the family moved to the Dominican Republic, where Rodriguez spoke Spanish for three years. Then her mother whom she calls the strongest woman she's ever known had a nervous breakdown and the family moved to Jersey City, where the actress was raised largely by her grandmother. Her new melting-pot neighborhood had an impact. ''That's where I learned to curse,'' Rodriguez jokes. She was brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, and sharpened her wit on the street: ''That's what I used to survive because they were like, 'All right, she's a funny bitch let's protect her.' And then I'd protect all the weaker kids who helped me with my homework.''