'Alita: Battle Angel' Star Rosa Salazar On Transforming Into A Digital Cyborg Character [Interview]

Rosa Salazar is the heart and soul of Alita: Battle Angel. The actress, known for her work in the Maze Runner series, breathes life into what's easily Robert Rodriguez's biggest and most sincere movie. The scale of the James Cameron-produced manga adaptation is a treat for the eyes, but Alita is the main attraction of this spectacle, and the reason it's easy to get lost in the world.

Alita is another major accomplishment for Weta, as well as for Rodriguez and Salazar. The character, who was created via motion capture, is as dense and nuanced as her futuristic world, if not more so. Whether she's eating a chocolate bar for the first time or playing a game of Motorball, she's always growing, always learning, and always entertaining. Recently, Salazar told us about the work that went into playing Alita, studying the source material, and one pivotal scene that left her conflicted.

Playing someone who's a robot or cyborg, what was that prep like, figuring out her physicality and how she needs to move and grow through the course of the movie? 

Well, that's interesting, because even for the audition when I got the material, the first thing that came to mind was I need to make a differentiation here between robots and cyborgs, because my first instinct was to do something similar to what Alicia Vikander did in Ex Machina.

I realized that she's AI. She's not a human. She doesn't move like a human. She doesn't know how a human moves. She doesn't have that same kind of fluidity to her movement, so I abandoned that right away. I said, "Okay, this is just a human story. She just happens to be cybernetically enhanced."

But, that being said, when Alita's reconstituted into her doll body, the body meant for Ido's daughter, his actual daughter, it's not her body. So, there are some tweaks that need to be made here. First of all, she's more erect. She's like chest open to the world, heart exposed, a curious, wide-eyed posture, so I had to remember to stand with my shoulders back and my arms open, my palms open, and my head up, kind of embody that sense of wonder. My tone and my voice needed to be pitched up because Alita is a girl now. She's 13, she's 14.

For me, it was really tracking her exponential growth throughout the film over a timeline of a woman's metamorphosis from girlhood to womanhood, so her most formative years. So, just remembering that with every sort of shift that she makes, once she gets to the Kansas bar she's investigating her middle teenage years, 15, 16, where she's got more bravado and she's got more agency over her body, the warrior past is coming back to her and so she's able to move in a more precise way. But it's still not her body and I needed to make a comparison there and say, "Okay, well, this isn't her body." Well, when I was a teenager my body felt foreign to me, too. I was exploding at the seams. I felt like, "Hey, this is not my body. I don't know what's going on."

When she finds the berserker body, this is her moment of complete transformation into womanhood, into the her that she truly is. When the berserker body comes into the picture and Alita is finally given the berserker body she becomes more cat-like, more relaxed. Her shoulders drop a little bit. She's fully her in a comfortable and confident way, and the voice was pitched down again to what my voice naturally is. And I had to really track that growth over the timeline of what it's like to enter and exit adolescence.

When you saw the final result of your performance and Alita in action, what was most satisfying to see?

I think the most satisfying part is that all of the creative artistic choices that I made in my physicality, in my performance, in the emotional moments, they're all there, but what's so marvelous about it is that I was able to create an entirely other person.

As an actor I can transform through prosthetics or makeup, or costumes or hair and I'm creating a character, but partnering with Weta, we can actually build an entirely other person. That was very exciting to me, because that's the deeper transformation. I can build a new car and put my performance into it.

So, it was really just the visual splendor of what I was able to create was unreal, and they kept taking more and more out of how I actually look and my actual aesthetic and putting it on Alita. So, I think just for other people it's more weird, especially the people that know me the best, because they say, "That's you. I keep forgetting that you're not onscreen. That's you." They somehow managed to capture my essence and that's the beauty of performance capture technology, is that everything that I gave is right up there.

Jon Landau told me about the leap of faith he takes with effects-driven movies. With Alita, do you have to make that same leap? I imagine with Rodriguez, Cameron, and everyone involved, you'd have the utmost confidence. 

I have confidence in my ability. I have confidence in James, and I have confidence in Robert, and I have so much confidence in Jon Landau. He's the best producer to ever produce. But it's always 100% a leap of faith. I get weary when people are like, "This could never sink. It's the Titanic," I mean, for lack of a better metaphor, because it most definitely can. Nothing is too big to fail, you know? So, it's always a leap of faith, but I have confidence in my collaborators. Obviously, the thing that was most important to me was the character. All of that technology stuff was really exciting for me, but that's not where I'm coming from. I'm coming from a character standpoint in a story. I want to make sure the story is intact.

Especially doing the story of a heroine of diminutive size, I want to make sure that this is handled the right way, and who better than the two men who have been putting strong, dynamic female protagonists at the focal point of all of their films to help me bring her to life? So, I felt most confident that we would achieve the goal because of the love they have for dynamic women and portraying realistic versions of women onscreen. That was more my concern, but also it wasn't a concern, knowing who I was working with.

I just watched an interview with Cameron and Rodriguez, and I liked that Cameron praised him for keeping the scenes where Alita eats an orange or a chocolate bar, like those were the paramount scenes to him. 

Yeah, they care about the breaths. A lot of these big movies, they have these cool action sequences, and I love those just like the next guy, but a movie needs to breathe and they know how to do that. They know what's essential to the story. We have great, spectacular action sequences, too, but frankly, you don't give a damn if they don't service the narrative, if they're not servicing the decisions the character's making, if they don't push the story forward. And I think that's what Alita does so well. I think that's what these guys do so well, is that they know that you can sink the Titanic and you can have a guy pick up a guitar case and fire a missile out of it, but none of that matters unless you have the beating heart of the film, which is the story and the relationship.

That's why those moments are so important to James, because there are these subtle moments of discovery for Alita and for her character, and also I'll mention that for Weta the chocolate scene was the hardest to accomplish in the entire movie. It wasn't the motor ball scenes. It was the chocolate, because you want to capture what it's like to ... Everyone's had chocolate. Not everyone's played motor ball. Everyone's eaten a piece of chocolate and it's one of those telling moments if the technology's going to fail, is when she takes a bite of that chocolate. They spent so much time making this the photo real version of a human that they wanted to make, and just as an aside, Alita has more geometry, and more mathematics, and more pixels in her one eye than in all of Gollum from Lord Of The Rings.

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I read that you took notes on every page of the manga, so what were some of the major notes you made? 

Oh, my God, there's so many. I read all of them and then I dived into "Last Order," even though we didn't need to. I just needed to spend time with her. I needed to spend time in that world to fully get where Yukito Kishiro was going and where he was coming from. Some of the most indicative moments for me are actually, they only really surface at the very ending of the film, where Alita is truly fractured. The end of the film is where the hero is born. She isn't born in the beginning or the middle, or even close. It's at the end of the film.

This is where she's born, because she's trying to reconcile two parts of herself. She's trying to reconcile the warrior, the killing machine, the compartmentalizing, cold assassin that she finally remembers herself being and now this vulnerable, heart-not-even-on-her-sleeve, on the outside of her chest sort of human person that she discovers along the way. That was really intriguing to me from the source material, which was she's always wrestling with that. She's sort of a tragic character. She's flawed in that way and she throws herself into all of these situations with that conflict sometimes in the forefront and sometimes in the backfront of her mind.

James told me something really interesting. He said, "When I went to Japan to discuss with Yukito Kishiro possibly acquiring the rights back in the '90s," ... He's sitting there in Yukito Kishiro's art studio and he's going on and on in that Jim way, super emphatic about the story. He's like, "Here's how I see her. Here's what I want to make. I want to make the story of Joan of Arc. She's just this badass woman leading ..." Kishiro was like, "No. No. No." He's like, "No, I see her as Joan of Arc," and Kishiro goes, "She's a Ronin," and that's exactly what I picked up. I mean, and he told me the story well after the fact.

We made the movie and we're on a press tour, and I heard that and I was like, "That's exactly how I saw her." I didn't want to say it because we're all on the same page here of what we're making, but it really was informing me towards the end of the film when she cuts that tear drop in half. That's how I saw her. I saw her as a cowboy. I saw her just roaming from town to town. You can't hold her in your hands. She's a samurai. She's a lone wolf. That's something that I really wanted her to have just a little morsel of in this story.

Even though, if we ever were to make a sequel I would really lobby for that conflict to be at the forefront, but she's there. It's always there and it's always brewing under the surface, that conflict within herself. I think that's really what I got and that's what makes her so dynamic. It isn't just all of her many facets that make her so realistic. It's also that inner conundrum.

James Cameron gave you a five-page declaration on Alita, as well. What sort of information was on those pages?

There was so much in there, little things from the Manga, little clips about, "Hey, this is what she might feel like in this moment and this is what she might feel like in this moment." What really stood out to me were two things that really stuck with me and sort of ... It was like they pinged my interest and I kept them in my brain bank, in my subconscious.

One of them was how she's built, literally the sum of her parts as a cyborg. Jim is an engineer, as you know. It came from The Abyss, what he did with Avatar and the world ... If you ever looked into the Avatar book you'll see how much handwritten detail there is about even the Toruk Makto [the flying creature], like what his upper mandivore is doing, just so much detail.

He's like, "This is how Alita's body works," and that gave me an anatomy class on Alita. Then the other thing was just this little line. I might be butchering it at this point, I read it three years ago, but he said, "Alita is like a small pebble hurtling through space, pinging and affecting every single thing along the way." That's how I feel.

Earlier, you mentioned the scene where Alita takes her heart out, which is a great scene that's beautiful and intense, and it left me with mixed feelings. What were you feeling when you shot that scene? What did you want to express about Alita in that moment?

I don't get enough questions about this scene and I'm glad you asked, because on that day, I was so conflicted and I just kept it to myself. I said, "This is my problem to solve here." I'm in my trailer and I'm thinking, "Gosh, I just don't want to see this character do that. I don't want to see this badass, who could have anyone she ever wanted and desired just so selflessly and naively giving her entire self to a man."

Then I realized when I looked in the mirror that I have done that, and that's why it hurt me so much to have to portray that onscreen. I've been that woman for all of the flaws and the faults, and despite any kind of evidence that this person doesn't deserve what you're giving them, to be so incredibly giving and generous.

And to give your entire self to this person, that's what women do. We have ability to overlook, sometimes to a fault, even the most glaring flaws in our partner and say, "I forgive you, I love you, and I'm going to help you." That's so fucking strong. It's not weak in any way. It's not naïve in any way. Actually, it's so intelligent. This is where the spirituality of women comes in, it's like, "I'm willing to see all sides of this, and I want to help you because I love you and that's important to me." When she says, "It's all or nothing with me," it's her truly knowing herself.

I wrestled with that scene. I didn't want to see her do that. Maybe in my version I would have been like, "Okay, bye," but she isn't flippant. She isn't flippant and despite what anyone else thinks, this is what she wants to do. This is actually her agency taking over. This is what she chooses and I think it's beautiful, because it gives Hugo ... That's what saves him. He never had that. He never had someone help him. He's been scraping by in this grim, dire place of Iron City, doing unthinkable things in his own interest.

So, for this pure woman to say, "I want to help you. I will give you the thing that is most powerful inside of me, which is my heart, and I want you to have it," and he says, "No," that's huge for his character. That's huge. It melts the walls of prejudice that he had built up around him and that's why he says, "Thank you for saving me." And she does that systematically throughout their knowing each other. Every single moment together he is changing as a man. I could go on and on about that one scene, but I will tell you, I wrestled with it, and I think the reason I wrestled with it was the reason I needed to do the scene.

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Alita: Battle Angel is now in theaters.