Ramon Rodriguez will have bigger role in third ‘Transformers’ movie, Bay hints

June 30, 2009 | 1:37 p.m.

How big will “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” get? The movie was closing in on $400 million on Monday, a number that surprised even some of the people at Paramount Pictures. We’ve had tons of coverage on the film, which is breaking records at the box office, and we’re not done yet. Here’s a longer version of the Los Angeles Times Calendar story I have in today’s paper on one of the new faces in Hollywood, Ramon Rodriguez, who plays Leo Spitz in the No. 1 movie in America right now. A lot of people are expecting big things from Ramon in the future, including Michael Bay, who hinted to me that the third film in the franchise will have a meatier role for the new cast member.

Ramon Rodriguez in Transformers Revenge of the Fallen

It turns out that filmmaker Michael Bay runs an audition a lot like he makes movies.

Last year, Ramon Rodriguez visited Bay’s Santa Monica offices seeking a key role in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and, instead of a sedate line-reading, the young actor was told to basically run for his life.

“For 90 minutes, he had me jumping, running, diving over the furniture in his office — that was the audition,” said Rodriguez, who was adept enough to land the role of Shia LaBeouf’s sidekick in the biggest movie of the year. “I was drenched in sweat. He told me, ‘OK, hide behind the desk!’ ‘Now, run over here!’ And man, I was looking in his eyes, and he was enjoying it. He’s got a passion for action. It shows in the movies too.”

Critics may cringe, but audiences are feeling it: “Revenge of the Fallen,” as of Monday, was closing in on $400 million worldwide. That’s a staggering number, and the domestic gross, $201 million, fell just short of the five-day record of $203 million set last year by “The Dark Knight.”

It’s been dizzying to watch from a distance, but it’s an especially wild ride for newcomer Rodriguez, whose career surged this summer with the “Transformers” role as well as his work in Tony Scott’sThe Taking of Pelham 123,” which put him side by side with Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

“I’m coming out of nowhere this summer,” Rodriguez said on recent bright afternoon on a basketball court in Studio City. “At least that’s how it seems to people. It feels that way to me sometimes too. And it’s been a major education.”

For Rodriguez, this summer is the equivalent of a half-court shot that hits nothing but net.

The actor, who grew up on Manhattan’s lower east side but also spent much of his youth in his family’s native Puerto Rico, was a college and prep-school basketball star but didn’t have the height needed to achieve his NBA dream.

After picking up a sports-management degree at New York University, he was working for the New York Knicks in their community relations department but hating it. “You would think I would love it, but working for a team that’s losing is just no fun,” he said. “It was so gray, so dark, there were layoffs and turmoil.”

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen cast with Michael Bay

A friend coaxed him to enter a Nike basketball-trick competition and, with the lure of a free pair of sneakers, a disinterested Rodriguez agreed. He ended up winning by spinning a ball, putting it on the tip of a pen and then gripping the pen with his teeth without interrupting the revolving ball.

It was a heck of a trick: It led to the ballplayer joining the Nike freestyle team and a tour of Asia and Europe as a sort of latter-day Harlem Globetrotter. At NBA games, Rodriguez performed in front of stars he had hoped would be his peers.

“They were checking us at halftime, I could see out of the corner of my eye that they were smiling,” he said. “We got paid, we traveled, people cheered. And then there’s another thing: When you’re the halftime show, you never lose.”

His work in Nike commercials gave him a foothold in a new sector: acting. That path became more than a lark in 2005 when Rodriguez had an eye-catching, two-episode guest appearance on “Rescue Me,” FX’s firehouse drama, in which he played a young man who had been molested by a priest.

“The firefighters went to the priest and at the end of the story arc, in front of everyone, I kill myself,” Rodriguez said. “I put a gun to my head in the middle of the church. I was finding out what it meant to be an actor.”

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen

Rodriguez then immersed himself in acting studies even as he did an eight-episode run on “The Wire” in the role of Renaldo, the dangerous lover of stick-up man Omar Little. Next was Rodriguez’s memorable turn in Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’sBella,” the 2006 film that won the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

That set the stage for “Transformers,” which allowed Rodriguez to get in touch with his youth – he used to watch the cartoon series while munching on sugary cereal. The role of the fast-talking Princeton freshman Leonardo Ponce De Leon Spitz – who is the new college roommate to LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky — makes Rodriguez the comic relief in the film about giant alien robots.

Director Michael Bay has a third “Transformers” film in mind, and if it plays out as he expects, the next installment would have a more substantial role for Rodriguez. The filmmaker, speaking at his office a few weeks before “Revenge of the Fallen” was released, seemed to have some pride of discovery when talking about Rodriguez.

“I’ve worked with big stars, people like Will Smith, Sean Connery and Bruce Willis, but casting is a weird thing, it takes you places you don’t expect,” Bay said. “We went looking for a sidekick in this movie, Shia’s sidekick, and we find this new kid who really pops on screen. I think he’s going to have a real bright career. It’s great to work with big stars, but it’s always fun to discover people.”

Bay said the actor is a mix of rough charm and refined intellect.

“He’s got a street edge and a realness to him,” said the director, whose past films include “The Rock” and “Bad Boys.” “He’s a New York kid with a street feel to him. He adapted to the actors very well, which isn’t always easy in a big movie, a sequel, where a lot of the cast chemistry has been set already. He’s funny, charming, comes off cool and accessible.”

Rodriguez is eager to diversify his résumé and do arty films and ensemble pieces as well as the huge summer fare. But he said, no matter what comes next, he won’t soon forget this summer.

“It was the full deal: I remember flying to Egypt to climb the Pyramids … and then taking a Blackhawk helicopter to Petra to shoot there,” he said. “We shot on an aircraft carrier. I mean, all of it, it was just mind-blowing. I got my shot and, man, it was a good one.”

– Geoff Boucher

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Images, from top: Ramon Rodriguez in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Credit: Paramount Pictures. The cast poses in Japan, with Rodriguez at top left and director Michael Bay at center front. Credit:  Getty Images.  Other images from Paramount.

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