PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Gina Rodriguez may have arrived at the Sundance Film Festival as a complete unknown, but the 27-year Puerto Rican is leaving it an indie film star.
Rodriguez became the toast of the Sundance Film Festival's opening weekend playing the title character in new movie "Filly Brown," about a young Latina rapper struggling to keep her family together after her mom is jailed on drug charges.
When Filly gets a crack at musical stardom, she must make a choice between staying true to her poetic lyrics or accepting a deal that focuses on her sexuality but guarantees a paycheck.
Under the tutelage of Latin hip-hop record veterans Lisa "Khool-Aid" Rios and Edward "E-Dub" Rios, who served as the film's music producers, Rodriguez was so convincing as a singer that in a question-and-answer session after the film's premiere, audience members asked where they could buy her music.
The Hollywood Reporter said Rodriguez delivered a "magnetic star turn" and a "dynamic breakout performance" in a film where her screen time is split between churning out dramatic acting and rapping numerous hip-hop numbers.
With reactions and reviews like that, there can be little doubt that "Filly Brown" marks a career-making performance for Rodriguez, who last year appeared on TV soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" and in a supporting role in the film "Go For It!"
She told Reuters that playing Filly Brown was amazing opportunity to portray a character with whom she could identify.
"It's a powerful Latina lead, and seldom do I get the opportunity to audition for something like that," said Rodriguez. "Filly is tough, or least she uses the toughness to hide her pain sometimes, and I think we all do that."
"Filly had a dream, and she didn't know how to go about doing it and she didn't really have help," Rodriguez said. "I can understand that."
FROM CHICAGO TO SUNDANCE
Born and raised in an inner city neighborhood of Chicago, Rodriguez "came from nothing" as the youngest of three sisters of Puerto Rican immigrants who stressed education with their daughters. Heeding that advice, Rodriguez's older sisters went on to become an investment banker and a lawyer, but Rodriguez wanted to act, much to her father's dismay.
She studied at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and worked in theater before booking her first guest-starring role on TV crime show "Law & Order." But it was her father seeing her play Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in an American Stage production of "Casa Blue" that served as a turning point for the young actress.
"He turned to me and said he was proud," said Rodriguez, her eyes tearing up. "Having him accept what I did, that was my big break. It's so important to me to make my father and mother proud. And I want to do it with integrity and respect."
With buzz building, she already has secured a talent development deal at the ABC television network and is plotting to work on a movie where she'd play a female boxer.
Additionally, now that she's a legitimate music artist thanks to the songs she recorded in "Filly Brown," Rodriguez is not averse to pursuing a music career.
"I've always had an alter ego; I sing in the shower like everybody else does," she laughed.
She is spending time in a recording studio with Khool-Aid and E-Dub, both of whom helped Rodriguez find her voice and introduced her to Latino hip-hop and artists and others.
But even as movie and music executives come knocking at her with the riches promised by stardom, Rodriguez wants to use any new fame to be a role model for young Latina girls.
"I want to give a voice to these girls in the 'hood where I grew up and let them know that you can be an investment banker, or a doctor, and we can portray that on screen," said Rodriguez.
"Any dream you have takes hard work, doesn't happen overnight and you shouldn't be afraid of that," she said. "If you put your heart and soul into it, and you do it with honesty and integrity and respect, you will succeed. I am a testament to that."
(Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)