“I walk into the waiting room, and it’s like every actress of every age and ethnicity that I’ve ever liked on film. And I was like, ‘Oh, no!’” When it came to winning the lead role in Alita: Battle Angel, however, Rosa Salazar had an advantage over her competition: she already knew that the part was hers. “As soon as I read the script, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is very important to me already,’” Salazar tells FilmInk in Los Angeles. “When you’re an actor and you work on auditions, there’s a sense of ownership that goes into it. You’re like, ‘This is mine already.’”
The role is undoubtedly one of the most hotly contested amongst young actresses in recent years. A longtime dream project of powerhouse producer/director, James Cameron (Titanic, The Terminator), Alita: Battle Angel hit a major snag when the filmmaker got untenably caught up in the making of his gargantuan sci-fi epic, Avatar. Though on board as a producer and screenwriter, Cameron had to release the directorial reins, which sent the project hurtling into development hell. But in 2016, the film was saved from an uncertain fate when the famously can-do Robert Rodriguez (Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado) threw his trademark cowboy hat into the ring.
Based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm, also known as Battle Angel Alita, the film’s heroine (Salazar) is a shattered cyborg who awakens on the streets of the bustling nightmare metropolis, Iron City, painfully unaware of who or where she is. Taken in by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate doctor who realises that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past, Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous world around her. But when the city’s power players come after her, Alita discovers that she has abilities that set her very far apart from all of those around her.
With the character such an otherworldly creation, there was only really one way to truly make Alita sing, and that was through the use of motion capture technology. Salazar was there on set every day, interacting with her fellow cast members, and getting involved in the action, but looks completely different on screen, thanks to the digital wizardry of Rodriguez and Cameron. “Performance capture gives you the possibility to do any role,” Salazar says. “You could be a beast, you could be Gollum, you could be Smaug, you could be Alita. I could play a 14-year-old, even though I’m a 30-year-old woman. Who doesn’t want that? Well me, because being 14 is hard. But it gave me the right to do that. The physiological things – the hot suit, the tightness of the suit, the claustrophobia of the suit, the heavy helmet, the boom, the fact that you’re on camera on every single piece of coverage on every take – can get daunting if you want them to. But all of that falls away when you’re in this scene. I love performance capture because it gives me the ability to do otherworldly things.”
In the film, Salazar literally looks like a manga figure come to life with her big, voluminous, CGI-created eyes the character’s focal point. The actress laughs. “I asked my mom, ‘Mom, people are talking a lot about the eyes.’ She goes, ‘Why?’ I’m like, ‘Because they’re big.’ She says, ‘They look the same to me.’ I love you, Mom!”
Salazar’s creation of Alita – a stunning meld of human performance and computer engineering – is reminiscent of the work of Andy Serkis, the world’s pre-eminent motion capture actor. And just as he breathed life into Gollum in Lord Of The Rings and Caesar in the recent Planet Of The Apes films, so Salazar makes Alita into someone relatable and sympathetic. “Acting is the main thing, the craft is the main thing, and everything else sort of falls away,” the actress says. “I love Andy Serkis. I’ve always loved him as a physical person. When I skipped school to go see Lord Of The Rings, I was like, ‘Who is that? How did that happen? What did they do? Who is that? Is this just an animation?’ And then when you go into it and you find out that there’s a human in there, and then you see side by side what they’ve done with the technology, it’s amazing. Already back in the day, before I even decided I’m gonna do this, I was in awe, and I was enamoured with Andy. I realised it. So many don’t, but I realised it right off the bat. He’s amazing.”
Salazar is also a big fan of Oscar winner, Christoph Waltz, who plays the fatherly Ido in the film. “It’s a jaw dropping experience,” the actress says. “They say, ‘Don’t meet your idols’, but everyone should meet Christoph Waltz! He is so intelligent and his craft seems effortless, but then if you keep talking to him, you know how much he’s put into his craft. He’s got a raw ability mixed with a very specific system that he employs. And then you get on the day and he’s loose, and he’s nimble and he’s ready to be malleable to the scene and to you and it’s very effortless working with him. And you think, ‘Oh, I’m very nervous, it’s gonna be this whole thing’, but it’s not. We really fell into it together, and we have a good friendship. He has daughters, and I was very much a daddy’s girl. So that dynamic already was in place.”
Already a veteran performer, Salazar boasts a number of genre-friendly credits on her resume (Maze Runner, Chips, Insurgent, Bird Box), but is never far from her past. When asked about what drew her to drama, Salazar instantly transports herself back to what sound like dark times indeed. “I was always in love with drama,” the actress says. “But I’ve only been doing it for money for the last seven years. I come from nothingness. I come from the rubble, just like Alita, and I felt very insignificant. I felt that my dreams were unattainable and out of reach. But I threw myself at it nonetheless.”
After graduating from high school, Salazar lived as an itinerant, moving from state to state, staying where she could when there was no friend’s couch to lay up on. “I’ve done it a lot,” the actress says of having no fixed address. “It’s intoxicating, but you get real sick of it. When you haven’t showered in days, and you’re looking for a couch…well, it’s not easy. I’m okay to give that up.”
Salazar’s unstable lifestyle, however, came with undeniable benefits. “What I was doing,” she says, “which I wasn’t aware of at the time, was picking up idiosyncratic behaviour, places, people, things, and weird circumstances that I would find myself in. Adventures. This was an education in what is now my job, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was just busy doing, and not really knowing. That’s a universal thing.”
It was while working the bar back in her hometown of Washington DC that Salazar finally took a major bite out of her acting ambitions. “Along the way, there are many angels that come to you,” offers Salazar. “They go, ‘Wake up! You’ve got something. You’re fucking Alita.’ It took me a while to believe it, but I eventually just packed up my dog and my stuff and moved to New York. I said, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ I said, ‘No, I admit it. I’m an actor.’ It’s like saying, ‘I’m an alcoholic.’ I’m an actor! I admit it. The first step is admitting that you’re an actor. The second step is doing it. So I threw myself at it.”
And speaking of throwing herself at it, what kind of training did Salazar do for this highly physical role? “I trained with Keith Hirabayashi,” she replies. “We did about three hours training five days a week for five months. We did Muay Thai, we did some eagle claw, which is Kung Fu, we did some staff work, we did some forms, and we did kick boxing just to get the endurance up.” So no one’s gonna pick a fight with you now? “They wouldn’t of beforehand,” Salazar smiles. “I’m pretty scrappy.”
Alita: Battle Angel is released in cinemas on February 14.