Up Close and Personal with ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL - Rosa Salazar

Here we get up close and personal with ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL - Rosa Salazar. Remember we sneaked into the incredibly breathtaking world of James Cameron’s dream ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL helmed by SIN CITY fame Robert Rodriguez. The upcoming American cyberpunk action film based on Yukito Kishiro's ‘manga’. Rosa Salazar the actress best known for her role in the NBC series PARENTHOOD and the FX anthology series AMERICAN HORROR STORY: MURDER HOUSE, also known for THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT and MAZE RUNNER series was recently seen in Netflix’s BIRD BOX. In a free willing interview shares her experience of playing Alita, working with James Cameron, experience with motion capture, and the training/ research she went through to realize the dream of James Cameron on screen.

Excerpts

How ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL came to you?

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.

How long did it take to get the yes as Alita from the makers?

It took about four months, I went away to shoot MAZE RUNNER 3. And when I came back 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, we forged a friendship and were working on a completely other short film! And Bingo!! The news came…

What was it about Alita that appealed to you?

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 his movie with my mom. I was a young girl and I just fell in love with it. I just really like Robert's cinematic values. And then of course there's James Cameron…

Your words on James Cameron

He creates stories with strong, well-rounded female characters. 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. they're just for the reader.

What you really mean for the reader?

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 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 a 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. All of that was a great training ground for Alita and I really wanted to test my skills on this big movie.

How exciting was the performance capture experience?

I wanted to do performance capture, because I love acting. And I love finding new ways that I can bend my craft and use it to funnel it towards this goal we're all trying to create. So it was a combination of things that appealed:  the writing, the pedigree, and these two guys that know how to direct a woman who is dynamic, has a range and is fighting for something. All of that's compelling to me. Even the studio it was at ­– I've worked with Fox for so long that I love them. So, it was everything really: the stars aligned for this. And I really wanted to be a Latin woman who is leading a studio franchise with a big budget. Just to show that you can be a Latin woman leading a huge budget studio film.

Is performance capture acting very different from ‘normal’ acting?

Well I would say that in the beginning you think that there's a huge difference.  After doing it, I would say that there's no difference at all, except that you have to accommodate all of these extra things like the wetsuit they put you in and the dots, and coming in every day and scanning into the system and having a helmet, having a boom on your head, having the extra weight, and then when they take the helmet off, your head leans the other way. Like bodily things, physical things that you have to deal with and incorporate as an actor. But in terms of performance, I found out that it was very much the same.

Did you do any research or any specific preparations?

I am such a big fan of Andy Serkis that I watched every single behind the scenes feature 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 have gained good knowledge, any plans to direct a motion capture film in future?

Secretly yes. I'm eager to learn and I feel like Robert and Jim respond to that.  They want to be mentors. They are really generous with their wisdom.

How was working with Robert

It felt like making a run-and-gun independent film where everyone on the crew was like, "We're making it with our hands” except it was a huge sci-fi epic, with a lot of moving parts. You have a normal-sized crew, and then you have WETA, all the visual effects crew, it's just a huge school of people but Robert’s demeanor is so calm. He knows exactly what he's shooting. Another thing is, he listens. I can't tell you how many times I've been on a set where that isn’t the case. But Robert listens, and he hears you. And for a Latin woman in the film business, it was, well, jaw-dropping. I never felt like I was asking too much or getting in the way.  Anytime I said, "Hey, Robert, if she says this, then wouldn’t it make more sense if this happens?’  I felt like I had a voice, which is great. He taught me so much. It’s really nice to make a film with someone who just the best.

What is your understanding of Alita?

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.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL trailer (courtesy Fox Star Studios)

Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is presented by 20th Century Fox who are also the distributors, made under the banner of 20th Century Fox in association with Light storm Entertainment and Troublemaker Studios, the movie Rosa Salazar as Alita along with Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Keean Johnson in pivotal roles.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL releases in India on 8th February 2019, a week before US release.

Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – 4 (image courtesy – Fox Star Studios)
Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – 4 (image courtesy – Fox Star Studios)

Did you have to learn a lot of fighting skills?

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. Am glad now that I am vegan thanks to James Cameron.

Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – 3  (image courtesy – Fox Star Studios)
Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – 3 (image courtesy – Fox Star Studios)

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 and its 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, 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. 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.

Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – 2 (image courtesy – Fox Star Studios)
Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – 2 (image courtesy – Fox Star Studios)

So emotionally, she’s human. But in terms of physicality, did you have to play her slightly robotic?

No. Although I had practiced and practiced 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, her body movements are very fluid.