James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez‘s Alita; Battle Angel premiered last week. After attending a press screening of the live action sci-fi, anime adaptation, AsianCrush obtained an exclusive interview with Alita herself, Peruvian-American actress Rosa Salazar. Rosa’s many other credits include The Divergent film series, The Maze Runner film series, American Horror Story, The Kindergarten Teacher, and Birdbox.
Warning: Major plot and ending spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel follow. You have been warned!
Otter Lee (AsianCrush): Describe the process of auditioning for Alita and winning the role? Did it feel like a big game of motorball?
[laughs] It certainly took a lot longer than Motorball. Motorball you go around that track and you’re lucky if you get around once and you’re still alive. This was three months of jumping through hoops. I went in for the preliminary audition, regular casting with LOTS of candidates. I made Robert cry, so that was helpful. I decided I was going to give them the most grounded, organic performance I could possibly give—just tell the story. Luckily, I’m a freak and I love auditioning, so that benefitted me. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was just ready to get in there and show them what I got.
Then, it was just a lot of subsequent meetings with Robert and talking about the role and the intention and his vision, talking to Jon Landau, talking to Jim, and then meeting and greeting with the performance capture suit, seeing if it was something I could vibe with, and I just loved it—I took to it like a fish to water.
Lastly, I did an old fashioned camera test. They shot it in a very cinematic way without the performance capture suit, just black shirt and pants. Then I waited another month and got that fateful call.
Do you remember which scenes they had you read and perform during the audition process?
I do. They gave me such disparate scenes to do that it gave me a chance to show all the levels and my dynamic and range as an actress. A lot of times they give you audition scenes that are all one note, and I’m like “Why do three of the same scene? Gimme something different over here!”
They gave me the scene where I just wake up and I’m vulnerable and confused and I don’t know who I am. They gave me the scene where I meet Hugo for the first time in the streets of Iron City. They gave me the scene where spoiler alert, Hugo dies—I mean technically he doesn’t die because Chiren saves him.
Right, the first time, he almost kind of dies and loses his body, then he actually dies. On that note, I wanted to ask you about the scenes where you find out what happens to Chiren and also when you lose Hugo the second time, for real. What was it like filming those scenes?
Devastating. You’re on set for 14 hours getting completely emotionally eviscerated each time, though that is the nature of the beast—it’s an occupational hazard. They make you go in and find out someone you cared about got murdered then watch someone you love die right in your arms, and you’re just powerless. And that’s exactly the place you come from as an artist, feeling powerless, and when you spend 14 hours a day feeling powerless, it totally takes a toll on you.
What is it like watching yourself as Alita? Do you see her as yourself? Can you recognize specific acting choices and facial expressions in your animated incarnation?
Oh, 100%. All of the artistic choices and movements are made are mine. There’s no enhancing the performance going on here. They can digitize your body, but they can’t really do anything if you suck as a performer. What you give them is what you have to work with. They’re matching it microexpression for microexpression, and if your performance doesn’t work, it’ll definitely show through.
It was a promise that Jon Landau made me, he said ”Look, this is going to be your performance. We know that they only real creative ownership you have is as a performer so we want you to know that if you get the role, it will be your performance showing through.” When I saw it, I was very pleased to see they had held up their end of the bargain. Like you said, I can still see every single artistic choice. Even my little idiosyncratic Rosa Behaviors, things that I catch onscreen that make me cringe, like “Ugh, I’m doing that thing with my mouth again.” And it’s there. It’s all still there! No matter what. And when I was critiquing my little movements and ticks to John, he said “Well, I guess we kept our promise!”
What sort of research did you do on the Alita manga and anime to prepare after you won the role?
I spent so much time reading and rereading the GunM stories, it got to the point where I was just a fan. I became as protective of the material as a fan would be, which is what you want as a performer. You want an encyclopedic knowledge of the IP. When you care about it as much as the fans, you want it to be as good as possible—a film that you want to see as much as they do!
After I read the manga, I couldn’t stop. I got addicted! I started reading Last Order, and that’s where it gets all kinds of crazy.
If we make enough films to reach Last Order territory, my mind will be so blown because I’m like the biggest Battle Angel fan now. The stuff that happens there is just gnarly, like you ain’t seen nothing yet. There’s so much story and information there.
When I was at the party for the LA premiere, Jim and I were like huddled up drinking in a corner just quizzing each other on Battle Angel trivia.
Like, okay “Here’s one. How many bodies does Alita have?” And I’m like “Okay, there’s the Berserker body and the motor ball body, there’s the Imaginos body, and the VIRTUAL one.
What was it like having James Cameron so involved in the creative process along with director Robert Rodriguez? Did they ever disagree in front of you?
Absolutely not. They were such a good team and such a symbiotic relationship, and they were incredibly supportive and loving towards each other. I’ve never seen two titans work in tandem so well. Jim was very respectful, he passed the baton to Robert, but said “I’m here and supporting to do whatever it is you want me to do. This is your movie”
And Robert was always asking him, “What about this or this or this?” and they worked so well together, it was really a joy to watch.
I don’t know if they ever disagreed—it was never that simplistic. They discussed and created as two like minds– disagreeing is for mere civilians!
Were there any moments or scenes that you were sad to see get cut from the final cinematic release of the film?
No. I can only really remember one scene getting cut, and it was actually a repetition in some ways. It was one of Alita’s flashes of memory about her past and training. Even though you get a lot of them in the manga, you don’t want it to be too much of a gimmick in the movie. Maybe they wanted to focus more on her present or on the person she is becoming. I don’t know exactly why they took it out, but ultimately, they just didn’t need that.
Do you have any advice for young actors or actresses of color trying to make it in Hollywood today?
I would tell them to work hard. No one’s going to hand you anything. You have to go out and claw your way through everything!
I’d also personally ask that they go see Alita as an example of what they can do now. Nobody gave me this opportunity. I want to say that my Latina heritage has helped me on every step of my journey—it was always a positive attribute for me. Latinos have the hardest work ethic, we are so passionate, we have so much to give, and we have centuries of heritage to back everything. We can do it! You can do this!
Have you had any memorable or shocking fan experiences since the movie’s release?
Well, the reason that I dyed my hair blonde—I thought that because Alita is CG, I’d be totally cool and be able to fly under the radar. I thought that I’d be able to be in this huge blockbuster movie, but be able to go to a coffee shop and not be recognized.
First coffee shop I went to, the barista was like “Whoa, you’re Alita!” So I immediately dyed my hair blonde—I was like “Time to go blonde.” Then I went to a theater to see Alita in 3D the other night and I realized that I may not be recognizable based on my hair, but when I whisper to my friends in the theater, I have a very recognizable voice. All these people came up to me afterwards and were like “Uh, is that you?” And I was like “Damnit, curse this voice.”
Thank you so much for your time, Rosa. I enjoyed the movie a lot!
Thank you! Please, tell all your friends!
Oh, I have!