Diamond in the Rough

A FEARLESS EYE: Rodriguez (right) with Julianna Margulies on the set of "The Good Wife."
Jojo Whilden
A FEARLESS EYE: Rodriguez (right) with Julianna Margulies on the set of "The Good Wife."

"I didn’t want to leave,” Rosemary Rodriguez ’83 says. “It was so nice to finally be taken care of, and have a bed.”

That unfamiliar sense of security descended on a Friday night in October 1991, at Manhattan’s Cabrini Medical Center. Earlier in the evening, Rodriguez had overdosed on heroin. She’d been homeless for three years.

The next morning, a social worker brought Rodriguez a plate of scrambled eggs. Hungry but afraid to eat — she had been throwing up for weeks — she sat close to the bathroom, in case she needed to vomit.

“But this time was different,” Rodriguez says, and begins to cry. “In the hospital, my body had started to recover from the drugs. I said to myself, ‘I don’t know how to survive this world. If I leave the hospital, I’m going to die.’”

The former Brandeis film student had hit her rock bottom. Yet, in a reversal of fortune worthy of Hollywood, she grabbed the second chance her moment of clarity gave her. Today, Rodriguez is an in-demand TV and film director who’s called the shots on 14 episodes of “The Good Wife” and is awaiting the release of her second movie, “Silver Skies.”

“Because of the dark places I’ve been as a survivor of drug addiction, I have instincts that serve me in my career,” says Rodriguez. “I’m not afraid to portray flawed characters or push emotions in an honest and truthful way. It’s one of my assets as a director.”

A love for film has been Rodriguez’s North Star ever since Brandeis. The Amherst, N.H., native aced her film classes by watching every assigned movie at least twice — first with the sound on, and then on mute, to pay attention to perspective. After graduation, she moved to NYC to become a director.

Rodriguez worked at stores that sold and rented film equipment, and at a nightclub, where she filmed live bands. She got a few freelance directing jobs. She took filmmaking courses at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

In between, she partied — hard. “New York was dangerous, and I liked it,” she says. She moved from smoking marijuana to using harder drugs. She lost her budding-filmmaker gigs.

“I started waiting tables, doing whatever I could to get cash, but I ended up homeless,” Rodriguez says. She’d sleep on roofs or in stairwells, or crash on random people’s couches. “I started hanging out with a different group. I learned how to shoplift and break into cars. I lived like a cockroach. It was disgusting.”

After Rodriguez got out of the hospital following the overdose, she called her family for the first time in months and entered a detox facility near her parents’ Florida home. She came out clean and stayed that way. She took a job at a local hair salon. In 1996, she married Nestor Rodriguez, an actor and comedian, on their fifth date. They’re together still.

Nestor encouraged her to resurrect her dream of becoming a director. They moved to New York, where she reconnected with past employers and gradually earned back their trust. They gave her a job looking after an office filled with film equipment.

“I had screwed these people before, and here they were, trusting me with the office key,” Rodriguez says. “That was powerful. One opportunity led to another, and I worked my way up, slowly.”

She wrote and directed her first feature film, “Acts of Worship” (2001), which is based on her experiences as a homeless addict in the East Village. The film was recognized at the Sundance Film Festival, giving Rodriguez her first taste of the big time.

After impressing as a fellow in a shadow program that allowed filmmakers to work with different directors on various television shows, Rodriguez was hired in 2002 by Los Angeles-based John Wells Productions to direct two episodes of the NBC drama “Third Watch.”

Her résumé now includes directing stints on “Empire,” “Manhattan,” “Castle,” “White Collar,” “Rescue Me” and “Law & Order: SVU.” In May, she’ll direct Marvel’s “AKA Jessica Jones,” a Netflix series. Her latest feature film, “Silver Skies,” which stars Valerie Perrine, George Hamilton and Mariette Hartley, and follows a group of eccentric retirees after their apartment complex is threatened with closure, will be released later this year. She’s currently raising financing for a film based on Kerry Cohen’s best-selling memoir “Loose Girl.”

“The stories I tell give voices to characters society marginalizes,” she says. “People aren’t shiny and perfect all the time.”

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Rodriguez's favorite directors

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Then there’s Rodriguez’s highest-profile job. “I love directing ‘The Good Wife,’” she says. “It’s a quality show with quality writing.”

The show’s main character, Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, is the wife of a former Illinois state’s attorney sentenced to jail in the wake of political corruption and a sex scandal. A stay-at-home mother, Florrick has to go back to working as a junior litigator at a law firm to support her family.

“Alicia is the most fascinating character,” says Rodriguez. “Politicians go through scandals, and so often their wives stay with them. In the series’ first episode, she’s in that position.

“All women struggle with being a good girl versus being just a person,” Rodriguez continues. “That’s Alicia’s journey — what does it mean to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’? When her husband goes to jail, she has to learn to navigate the world, to find the gray areas to do what needs to be done.”

Rodriguez understands how going through dark times can deepen empathy and fuel commitment. “With every script — whatever it’s about — I connect with the humanity in it, and I want to serve the story,” she says. “When I’m on set, nothing else matters, and I feel like I’m exactly where I belong.”