Rosa Salazar, after the Maze Runner series and her stint in Insurgent is all set to hypnotise us yet again with her moves in Alita: Battle Angel. Let’s go through excerpts from her recent interview about the film, her character and much more.
Q: How did you first hear about this project and when did you get involved?
A: It was about two years ago. My agent said, ‘There’s this movie called Alita Battle Angel. Would you like to audition for Robert Rodriguez?’ I kind of knew a little bit about it because years ago, James Cameron had talked about making it. I read the script and it was amazing. And I really wanted to go out for it.
Q: How long after you first auditioned did you find out you had the part?
A: It was a while. I went away to shoot Maze Runner 3. And then I came back and still hadn’t heard anything. I knew Robert. I had a couple of meetings with him and before I even knew I was going to test for it, he was helping me with a short film that I wrote. So, it took a while… I mean, it took so long that we forged a friendship and were working on a completely other short films! All told, it took about four months.
Q: What was it about Alita that appealed to you?
A: Well, a few things. Robert Rodriguez, who is Latino, and who I’ve wanted to work with for years. He’s such an iconic filmmaker because he can make a film out of nothing. Like with El Mariachi. And I really love Desperado. That was the first thing I saw of his. With my mom. I was a young girl and I just fell in love with it. It was a strong emotional story, a love story with explosions and guts and guns and bar shootouts. I just really like Robert’s cinematic values. And then, of course, there’s James Cameron.
Q: Oh yes.
A: Yeah, he’s made a couple of movies… And, like Robert, he creates stories with strong, well-rounded female characters. They’ve both been doing it for years. And everything starts with the writing. The Alita script was written for the reader – it’s like something that you could pick up and read in your downtime. Jim will put in these little things that’ll never be shot. They’re not geared for the movie, they’re just for the reader.
Q: Like what?
A: It’s things like ‘Alita holds the Damascus blade for the first time and like the ancient Samurai say, the blade has chosen her.’ That has nothing to do with what they’re shooting, or the direction or anything, it’s just so you can be fully immersed in the story. And it makes you feel things and then you know you’ve got something special. Plus, another big thing for me is that I had been doing these big movies and this felt like graduation for me. I mean, I’ve done stunts. I’ve done wire work. I’ve fallen down. I’ve jumped off stuff. And I’ve done major sequences. In the Maze Runner films, there are some crazy sequences that I did for the second one and the third one. Riding around in a car with a big gun popping through the sunroof. All of that was a great training ground for Alita and I really wanted to test my skills in this big movie.
Q: Did you do any research or prep?
A: I am such a big fan of Andy Serkis that I watched every single behind the scenes featurette a long time ago on DVD. And then I was watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Smog, and a lot of the Apes movies which were done by Weta Digital Effects who also did Alita. I talked to the technician, Paul Alvarez, who was the one hands-on working on the boom and fixing the helmet and making sure I have the dots on correctly. He enlightened me so much to the process and now I go to Manhattan Beach Studios just so I can shadow Jim as a director of performance capture, because that’s where I think it gets really, really technical and interesting because I’m dealing with this set of things that I have to incorporate with the motion capture, but Jim’s dealing with 75 million other things that he has to incorporate to make it work. Performance capture is so interesting. You can be in a scene with someone, say, a love scene that I have with Keean and really it all melts away. You hear actors say that and you’re like ‘Okay, you’re wearing a boom on your head, it’s five pounds. Like, how does that melt away?’ But it just does. The shock value melts away when you’re in those scenes and you’re really focused and on it.
Q: It sounds like you’re already prepping to one day direct a motion capture film.
A: Yeah, I secretly am. I’m eager to learn and I feel like Robert and Jim respond to that. They want to be mentors. There are some people in this business that don’t and that’s perfectly fine. But Robert and Jim do. They are really generous with their wisdom.
Q: Let’s talk a little about Alita, the character. Tell us in your own words who she is.
A: Alita is… just a regular girl! In the same way that all of the mo-cap stuff kind of bleeds out when you’re in it, Alita is a regular girl who happens to be made of cybernetic parts and has an insane, traumatic history. Alita’s just like me. She has a whole palette of emotions.
She’s insecure. She’s brave. She’s courageous. She’s strong. She’s curious and she’s defiant. She’s powerful and she’s weak. She has a real soul and I think that she bares it all the time. She doesn’t really hold anything back. She doesn’t suffer fools. She doesn’t pull punches. But she doesn’t actually know who she is. She’s learning everything for the first time. Now that she’s been reawakened.
Q: So, it’s really about a girl working out who she is and her place in the world.
A: Yeah, that’s it. Her place in the world, but also how she can help. Because there’s a moment in the movie where, spoiler alert, she’s fine to just be there. She’s thinking, ‘I could live here. I could take it.’ She’s totally fine to settle. But who she is, I think, very compelling because, ultimately, she doesn’t settle. Integrity is often very inconvenient.
Q: So emotionally, she’s human. But in terms of physicality, did you have to play her slightly…
A: No. Although I had practised and practised with a friend who helps me read lines. And I was very stiff, very Ex Machina. I had all of these movements, all these intricate finger twitches and whatever. As you do. And right before I went in to audition, I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, wait a second. She’s not a robot, she’s a cyborg….’ Her body was created by Ido [Christoph Waltz] who is a cybernetic surgeon, so he knows what he’s doing. She doesn’t move in a stiff way. In fact, the way she moves is very cat-like. Even smoother than a normal person. Not only is she not stiff or robotic, but her body movements are also very fluid.
Q: When actors do performance capture, often the character they’re playing doesn’t look anything like them. But with Alita there seems to be a reasonable amount of you in the character.
A: Yeah. It’s an anime version of myself.
Q: So how is that?
A: It’s super cool! And it was always the plan, that whatever actress was going to inhabit the role, it was going to be her performance and her face and her features. More and more as they edit the film and draw the film, every time I see it, it looks more like me. Which is eerie. And wonderful. Because if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Smaug, you’re going see a 60-foot tall dragon. It’s cool but you’re probably not going to feel attached to it. It’s like, ‘that’s over there’. But when I was playing Alita, we were one and the same. And they used a lot of my real face and the real scars and divots and muscle pulls and lines and creases and imperfections to look like me.
Q: Did you have to learn a lot of fighting skills?
A: Yeah. Training almost killed me. When I walked in there, I was made out of croissants. I was writing my short film. And writers don’t eat well. So, I was really out of shape. I mean, I was thin, but I had no endurance, no core. I trained with Keith Hirabayashi for months and months and months. And I changed to a plant-based diet and it was very hard. I’d never changed my diet in that way before.
Q: Does it feel almost like you have kind of a different body?
A: Well, now I’m vegan. Because James Cameron convinced me to be vegan and he’s right. Plant-based diet. So, yeah, I am constantly finding that my body is very different. But you feel stronger, more capable. And it’s not just me. I have to say there are nine women that bring Alita to life. Whenever we reach my physical capabilities or abilities, another person takes over who’s been doing this for life. So you have many, many martial artists. You have contortionists. You have rollerbladers. You have different kinds of rollerbladers, trick rollerbladers. And then you have me doing all the acting when they’re recording the bodily info.
Q: Let’s talk about a couple of your fellow cast members. How was working with Christoph Waltz – was it intimidating at all, working with someone so experienced and acclaimed?
A: I don’t know why, but I wasn’t intimidated. Although he has a very strong presence. I started out being extremely excited and that never dipped. The first day I met him, he was doing some camera tests and I was peeking around the curtain, trying to catch him in his natural state. He’s just so graceful and very powerful and centred. He’s very present and he looks you right in the eye. He’s not selfish with his talent. He’s there with you and you’re in good hands. Also, he’s very funny. And that was really great to be around. He doesn’t suffer fools though, you know what I mean? He’s going to tell you exactly what’s up. It’s such an honor to work with him. I feel like I crossed something off my bucket list.