The Contender

updated 11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/2000 01:00AM

Shooting a scene in the film Girlfight, Michelle Rodriguez, playing a boxer, really connected with a costar—accidentally landing a wicked punch to the head of Paul Calderon, her onscreen dad. "Michelle was mortified," says director Karyn Kusama. "Here was an actor she really respected—and she dislocated his jaw."

Luckily, he was able to finish the scene, and that was the only thing that went wrong. The film tied for the top prize at the 2000 Sundance. Film Festival—and has turned Rodriguez, 22, into one of Hollywood's hotter ingenues. The actress, who wants to be an action star, says she's ready for more close-ups. "I'm very driven and grounded," she says. "I'm pretty balanced out."

The daughter of Rafael, an Army man who died in 1997, and Carmen, a homemaker, Rodriguez grew up in Texas, P.R. (her father's homeland) and the Dominican Republic (her mother's native country) before her family settled in Jersey City when she was 12. (Twin brothers Omar and Raul, 30, are a mechanical engineer and a store manager, respectively.) After getting her high school equivalency diploma, Rodriguez took work as an extra in New York City-area films. When she read about an open casting call for Girlfight, she Roller-bladed to the Manhattan audition and beat out 350 others for the role. Though Rodriguez, who spends her spare time painting and play-video games, landed an agent at Sundance and is already on her third movie, she insists she's unchanged. After all, she notes, "I still live in Jersey City with my mother."

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