In Alita: Battle Angel, opening February 5, Rosa Salazar breathes remarkable life into the title role of an amnesiac cyborg who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, searching for answers about who she is and where she came from. So perhaps it’s appropriate that many distinct moments from past lives remain vividly with the 33-year-old actress.
There was the childhood spent in Washington, eating Peruvian food at her grandmother’s home and listening to her sing in the Quechua language.
The legal emancipation, at 15, that got Salazar out of foster care and instilled in her the kind of independence that can’t be taught.
The Nomadic teen years spent wandering across America, hungrily amassing an unorthodox education in a spectrum of human experience. The growing feeling that she wanted to become a professional storyteller, despite having no clear path to accomplish the goal.
And the spark that finally led Salazar to invest her hustle into her dreams, picking up and moving to New York City with her pit bull G.G., where she would launch her career.
“This job is like winning the lottery - 70 times - and then you have to keep winning the lottery,” Salazar marvelled during an interview on a bright January day in Hollywood.
Warm, energetic, quick-witted and self-deprecating, Salazar has a natural charisma so forceful it lights up a room. Currently on screen in a supporting role in the Netflix hit Bird Box, Salazar’s major studio lead debut will come in Alita: Battle Angel, a sci-fi epic directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron.
The actress’ appeal radiates through layers of state-of-the-art effects, blended on top of her fierce and expressive motion-captured performance to create a dazzling character unlike any audiences have seen before.
Her Alita is a technical revelation to behold, created with breathtaking VFX so crisp and lifelike she seems to be a wholly new life form, alive within the 2D space of the screen. Scripted by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, she’s also a complex young heroine with plenty to do and something to say.
From the moment she awakens in the futuristic Iron City (built on elaborately designed, multiculturally influenced sets at Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas, and lensed by The Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope), Alita is on a mission - not just to remember her past and figure out why she knows the deadly martial art known as Panzer Kunst, but to figure out the woman she wants to become.
There’s a capable edge to her naivete, a nerviness that draws her to Motorball - the arena sport that keeps the cyber-enhanced working-class citizens of Iron City too distracted to rebel against the class disparity separating them from the elites who live in Zalem, a city in the sky.
And as Alita learns more about the world from her rescuer and father figure, robotics surgeon Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), she also adventures with her new human friend, Hugo (Keean Johnson), and tangles with cybernetically enhanced bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein). Meanwhile, Motorball fixers Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) have dark designs of their own on the young woman.
“It’s this beautiful story,” said Salazar. “It’s a hero’s journey, and that’s what I love about it.”
Salazar, who lives in Los Angeles, is candid when it comes to the hard work it takes to find success in Hollywood. Roles on TV’s Parenthood, American Horror Story and Man Seeking Women, in the indie Night Owls and entries in the Divergent and Maze Runner YA franchises have highlighted her steadily growing filmography.
She was a working actor walking out of yet another audition near Hollywood and Vine one day in 2016 when she missed a call from Rodriguez.
Like every actress in town, she jokes, she had auditioned for Cameron’s long-rumoured passion project (which he first announced in 2003 and publicly handed to Rodriguez in 2015). But some time had passed, and Salazar has never been one to hang her hopes on others. “They saw every actress in the world for this thing,” she said.
(She’s also not one to wait around; between auditioning for Alita and getting the role, Salazar wrote, directed and starred in her first short, Good Crazy, which played in Sundance competition in 2017.)
Unlike Salazar, most of those other Alita hopefuls probably didn’t hunt down out-of-print copies of Kishiro’s 1990 source manga Gunnm on eBay or devour the two-part anime, seeing themselves in the character’s scrappy and tough journey.
So she had marched confidently into her Alita audition knowing the role was hers to lose. And she was pretty sure she’d nailed it, moving Rodriguez to tears while reading the film’s most emotional scene. In later meetings, he showed her concept art of Alita that had been created with her face.
It all felt promising. But “you never want to get ahead of your expectations,” she said. So when she returned that missed call from the director, she was steeled for bad news - and as she crossed the street, she spotted a parking attendant giving her a ticket.
Instead, Rodriguez told Salazar, “‘I really wanted to work with you … which is why I’m so excited that I will be on set with you.’” She was so overcome with joy, “I threw my arms around this parking meter attendant and held up the ticket, like, ‘I know exactly where I was, what time it was, when I got this movie - Thank you!’ And she was like, ‘OK. That’s $68 please.’”
Rodriguez describes being blown away by Salazar from start.
“She has so much life force coming out of her,” he said by phone as the cast and filmmakers headed to New Zealand to visit Weta Digital, who handled much of the Alita VFX. “As an actress, she has a laser-like focus and is incredibly dedicated, has trained relentlessly, but also as a person, she embodied that spirit of Alita from the moment she walked into the room.”
He praised both Salazar’s nuanced and emotional performance and the digital effects teams whose work allows the actress’ portrayal to come through so vibrantly. There was considerable trial and error, notes Rodriguez, seeing as the specifics of what they were attempting had never been done before.
But making the film at Lightstorm Entertainment, where Alita producers Cameron and Jon Landau were also working on back-to-back Avatar sequels, meant Alita was under the roof of one of Hollywood’s most forward-thinking pipelines, guided by producers who’ve been on the forefront of cutting edge storytelling.
Their wisdom was invaluable when the first teaser for Alita was released a little over a year ago, before the technology to perfect the character’s final look was completed. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, Alita’s not-yet-final eyes - designed with a nod to the source material - were trapping some viewers in the dreaded uncanny valley.
“People thought that the eyes were too large, and I thought, this is going to be interesting,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “I wonder what Jim and Jon are going to say?”
When Cameron finally weighed in, it was to counter popular opinion. “‘It’s not that (the eyes) are too big,’” Rodriguez remembers him saying. Cameron’s advice? Make the pupils 30 per cent bigger to give the impression that her eyes are smaller. According to Rodriguez, he was right. “He reminds me a lot of Spielberg; these guys can see around the corner.”
The Alita that audiences will see onscreen come February isn’t just seamlessly integrated into the live-action environments and real filmed sets around her. She’s also “totally Rosa - you can see it,” said Rodriguez. “I think that’s what’s going to make it an endearing character for people who will be seeing a complete human person, who is that alive and feels that real. That’s a testament to her performance and who she is as a person.”
“I love how much I am her, she is me, but we are two halves of a whole,” Salazar said of the heroine.
Only a few weeks ago, two years after shooting began on Alita, Salazar made the nerve-wracking drive to Landau and Cameron’s Lightstorm compound in Manhattan Beach to watch the finished film by herself.
Physical production had wrapped long ago, “but I hadn’t lived without it for one day,” said Salazar. She started crying the moment she saw the 20th Century Fox logo onscreen. “I love movies. I love film. And that logo is so iconic to me - the searchlights popping - that immediately I was overcome with a range of emotions,” she said.
“You did it,” she thought to herself. “This is the moment you exhale. All those moments in your car, eating in your car, changing in your car, learning lines in your car, parking, and rejection, and nerves — every single day of going to sleep and wanting it so bad … You did it, kid.”