- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

LOS ANGELES Can romance survive when an angry young woman squares off in the boxing ring against her boyfriend?

That is the premise of a gritty independent film that turned writer-director Karyn Kusama and star Michelle Rodriguez into unlikely darlings of the Sundance Film Festival last winter. The movie, "Girlfight," split the top dramatic prize and won the best-directing award.

"Girlfight," which opened in Washington-area theaters Friday, tells the story of Diana Guzman, a Brooklyn teen with a bad attitude, unhappy home life and no prospects of escaping the housing projects.

A chance visit to a boxing gym hooks Diana on the sport. She begins training, eventually competing in gender-blind amateur bouts.

The idea grew out of Miss Kusama's own time in the ring. The St. Louis native took up boxing nine years ago in Brooklyn for fitness. She never competed, but she did spar with men because so few women were boxing at the time.

Gradually, Miss Kusama saw dramatic possibilities: a rough-edged fairy tale about a young woman who stumbles on just the right outlet for her anger and athletic ability. The story had the added twist of romance in the ring: Diana ends up fighting Adrian (Santiago Douglas), her new boyfriend, who is training for the pros.

"You have men and boys who spar who are best friends, father and son, brothers," says Miss Kusama, 32. "I got to thinking, what would it be like to have a personal relationship, even an intimate relationship, with somebody where you decide to get in there and hurt each other?

"The ring to me is sort of like a stage, where, like love in some ways, two people get into a sort of special zone where everyone understands that somebody could get hurt."

When Miss Kusama shopped the script to investors, she was asked, "Is this another 'Flashdance'?" or "Is this 'Rocky' for girls?"

The best comparison she could come up with was to "Saturday Night Fever," with "sort of a working-class milieu, an underdog who is charismatic and attractive but still feels like a loser," she says.

"The hope for escape, the burgeoning romance, or not. That to me was a perfect example of a kind of filmmaking that Hollywood was capable of 20 years ago or 25 years ago, where you could have a film that felt gritty, that was a bit rough on the edges but that still had an appealing story and appealing characters."

Miss Kusama raised $1 million, then set about trying to find an actress with the pluck and athleticism to play Diana. The filmmakers ran through a list of professionals, but none captured the lead character's rawness.

Miss Rodriguez, who had no acting training and had done only a little work as a film extra, showed up at an open casting call mainly on a whim.

"I had never gone on an audition before," says Miss Rodriguez, 22, who grew up in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and was living in New Jersey at the time.

"I decided to just swallow my pride and forget the fact that I'm being judged by people who can't really figure out what I'm capable of in like five seconds," she says. "I just walked in there, late as always, with a pessimistic attitude, just wondering, what are these people thinking?"

They were thinking they had found their Diana.

"Michelle sort of emerged as a fresh presence that I just hadn't come across yet," Miss Kusama says. "As we tested her, she sort of exponentially was learning so fast about basic principles of acting."

After winning the role, Miss Rodriguez embarked on 4 and 1/2 months of training at the same Brooklyn gym where Miss Kusama had boxed. It quickly became apparent that she was a natural athlete.

"She had a fearlessness that for a real boxer would eventually be her downfall, but for a beginning boxer was the stuff of greatness," Miss Kusama says.

Miss Rodriguez lifted weights and bulked up on protein and carbohydrates. Her boxing handlers encouraged her to train for the pros, Miss Rodriguez says, but she declined. "I like my teeth too much. I'd like to keep them."

Like Miss Kusama, she sparred with men, some 20 pounds heavier than she was.

"I'm not afraid of physical contact with other people … as long as it's not some humongous Mike Tyson," she says.

Since Sundance, Miss Rodriguez has gotten an agent and landed movie roles, including one as a deranged cab driver in "3 A.M.," starring Danny Glover and Pam Grier, and another as a drag racer in "Redline," co-starring Vin Diesel. Miss Kusama has turned down offers to direct so she can concentrate on a science-fiction-horror script she is co-writing.

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