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Michelle Rodriguez on Paul Walker’s Death: ‘It Was Like Losing a Limb’

Since 2001’s “Fast and The Furious,” Michelle Rodriguez has played Letty Ortiz, the girlfriend of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who pulls double duty as a speed racer and mechanic. As part of this week’s cover story on “Furious 7,” Rodriguez spoke to Variety about how she almost walked off the set of the first film, why Diesel and Paul Walker became close friends and if there will be more “Fast and Furious” sequels.

How did you first meet Vin?
It met him on set of the first movie, actually. It was his fault I was in the movie. He saw my indie film “Girlfight,” and requested me to play his girlfriend in “The Fast and the Furious.” They read me in New York, and I got cast right away.

I heard at the table read at Universal Studios, Vin had a lot of suggestions to improve the script.
I was so overwhelmed being a little brat from Jersey City. I was amazed I was having a read-through for a big-budget Hollywood film. Defending the street credibility and your race and sex were factors of the first film. When we looked around, me and Vin were like, “Wait a minute.” For me, it was like, I don’t mind going back to Jersey City. If you guys in Hollywood don’t agreed with my character and don’t agree for the appropriate way for a girl to behave, then I’m going to take a walk.

What were the disagreements about?
In the script, she was with the Dom character and she was trying to get with the Paul Walker character. I thought that was stupid. First of all, no girl would leave the toughest guy for a weaker one. In the eyes of the street, it doesn’t work like that. I didn’t want to be a slut. I felt like a lot of Latinas in Hollywood were doing that, and that’s not how I wanted to be viewed by millions of people around the world. I was crying on set, and I remember Rob [Cohen] thinking, “I’m trying to make a good movie with fast cars, what are you bitching about?” I remember Vin saying, “I got this. I’m going to take a bullet for you, kiddo.”

Why didn’t you appear in the second or third films?
I didn’t do two or three because Vin wasn’t in them. And I knew he was my only rock. I don’t fight over action. I don’t care who is beating up who. I fight for integrity. Vin was my only back up. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. I didn’t want to deal with all the chaos.

How did Vin and Paul become so close?
My only backup is Vin. Vin’s only backup is Paul. Imagine the f—ing pain in your chest when you lose your only road dog. And Vin has a brother named Paul. There’s that metaphorical relationship — he assimilated Paul to his real brother. Paul had a street edge to him. A lot of people don’t know that. He had this Ken doll face, but he was not afraid to punch you in the face. That fire is what made Vin and Paul become brothers overnight. Vin is the kind of guy that will test you out. He was amused how Paul would stand up to him and defend himself.

How did Vin react to Paul’s death?
It’s like losing a limb. I can’t explain it any other way. It was hard. I could see it. He’s a quiet, reserved guy when it comes to emotion. For him to f—ing show how he feels. He’s old-school alpha male. I think the only time Vin was able to show his true emotions about everything that happened was when the movie was finally cut and they showed it to us. That was the first time Vin breathed and let go. He texted me right after and I had a long conversation with him.

Were you surprised that technology could finish Paul’s performance?
It’s a game changer when people are capable of manipulating your face and body after you’re gone. You’re taking about a whole new conversation that needs to be had in Hollywood. A person’s brother, mother or sister is not going to have the same integrity or taste as you. There’s a serious conversation to be had with lawyers. Who is going to take your likeness when you’re gone?

Universal took a four-month break in production before “Furious 7” resumed filming. How do you think the studio handled the situation?
I’m incredibly impressed with Universal and the entire “Fast” family. Everyone felt the weight of doing the best work they possibly could to make sure [Paul’s] legacy is something that can be revered. That was the biggest worry for me and Vin. How are they going to approach it? It’s not only a celebration. It’s also a goodbye. They could have been announcing other movies. That would have been an abomination. I’m so happy they were classy about it. I just feel like everybody came through 150 percent.

Will there be more “Fast and Furious” movies?
I think we should take a f—ing break and see what happens with this. I can’t believe we even finished after what happened. I think it’s respectable to take a breather. Oh my god. After walking out of that screening, that breath is the best breath I’ve taken in years. Just that relief. Everybody really tried to put their best foot forward in the name of Paul. I could see that in the ADR. I could see that in the way the studio handled the PR. It’s almost like the tragedy created harmony.

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