Alita: Battle Angel star Rosa Salazar on playing titular role, performance capture, and working with James Cameron
Rosa Salazar, who plays Alita, in James Cameron's magnum opus, says she wanted to show that a Latin actress can lead a big budget studio film.
Based on the graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel has been in conception for the past 10 years under filmmaker James Cameron. Known for his magnum opuses like Titanic and Avatar (both received record Oscar nods), Cameron is known for his cinematic acumen with a superior sense of aesthetics that weave magic on celluloid. However, in 2015, he handed over the directorial baton to Robert Rodriguez who, in the past, has helmed projects like Spy Kids, Machete and Sin City.
Below are excerpts from an interaction with Rosa Salazar, who plays the lead role of Alita in the upcoming magnum opus.
How did you first hear about this project and when did you get involved?
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 after you first auditioned did you find out you had the part?
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 film! All told, it took about four months.
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. 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.
Did the fact that it was a performance capture role appeal to you?
Yeah. 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, 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, compensating for the 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.
You don't have to ‘turn it up’ or exaggerate anything?
You don't turn it up. There're certain moments where I was seeing Alita in the animatics on the screen, because you could watch playback as the character, and there were certain things you have to overcompensate with, facially and muscle wise. If you're doing, say, a fight scene and you're stabbing and you want it to be in the character's face, you may have to kind of exaggerate those moments. But other than that, it's really just acting with all of this other world of stuff going on.
Did you do any research or prep?
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 in it.
It sounds like you’re already prepping to one day direct a motion capture film.
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.
Let’s talk a little about Alita, the character. Tell us in your own words who she is.
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 is slated to release in India on 8 February.
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