In the Fast and Furious series, the focus is often on its dueling male stars, Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But fans, don't sleep on Michelle Rodriguez. 16 years and five Fast and the Furious films later, Rodriguez has shown that anything those guys can do, her character, Letty Ortiz, can do better. The only woman in Dominic Toretto's gang has managed to stay alive all this time — well, she actually died and then was resurrected, but semantics, right? — by being more than "the girl," or Dom's wife. She's the one you want driving the car next to you, not because she can outrun a rogue submarine filled with nukes (although she does just that in Fate Of The Furious), but because she's the only character brave enough to admit she isn't invincible.
While the guys of the franchise assert their all-powerful masculinity every chance they get, Rodriguez doesn't let ego get the best of her. Letty isn't afraid to be vulnerable: She hurts, she struggles, she suffers. She knows that just as fast as she can win the race, she can also lose everything. Letty, like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, who was tasked with saving women from a tyrannical leader, seems to understand there is always more at stake. And there's something inherently female about knowing that your livelihood can be taken away from you if you don't keep fighting, even when you're not sure you can fight anymore.
Letty keeps the Fast and the Furious movies grounded in reality, which is no easy task when people are flying cars through buildings or driving tanks in a frozen tundra. She stands up to adversity in real, relatable ways; she doesn't dominate her bullies, but does the best she can to take them down. Her fight with Ronda Rousey's character in Furious 7, for instance, is brutal, but it feels real. Letty isn't Dom, who can dominate any person who dares to take him on. Instead, she's scrappy, an underdog, someone you want to root for because you know that she is giving it her all every single time, even if she isn't guaranteed a win.
While her male counterparts seem indestructible, being hit with heavy metal wrenches and being thrown through glass windows without a scratch, Letty actually gets hurt sometimes. Even more, she's also one of the few characters in the series who's experienced real loss. In Furious 7, Letty comes back from the dead without her memory and her identity, an incredibly difficult struggle. And in Fate Of The Furious, Letty battles Cipher (Charlize Theron), who is trying to steal Russia's nuclear weapons, all while dealing with the fact that her husband has turned his back on her.
It's not an easy balance, as Rodriguez told Australia's Herald Sun recently. The hardest part of playing Letty in the eighth movie, the actor said, "is the suffering, the maintaining of the faith in a love that keeps proving itself to be something else in its actions. But she has to maintain her faith that the real [Dom] is in there somewhere." None of this suffering has made her any less tough, though. It just allows Letty to be her own, real kind of woman, one who isn't afraid to be afraid.
While no one goes to see Fast and the Furious movies for their quiet moments, Rodriguez's ability to strike that balance between strength and fragility gives the series an unexpected, but welcome, softer side. Those two characteristics seem at odds for most action heroes, who are generally put in situations where they may be underdogs, but rarely have to show true weakness. Letty's pain, though, never stops her from being powerful. Instead, she pushes on like so many real women do, day in and day out.