Ever since Andy Serkis brought Gollum to life in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the art of performance capture has been going great guns in Hollywood. But, as Alita: Battle Angel producer Jon Landau tells Den of Geek, most of it has “hidden behind some sort of fantasy” – be they blue-skinned aliens, talking apes or big friendly giants. And though Alita herself isn’t exactly realistic – what with being a wide-eyed, manga-inspired cyborg and all – she’s still closer to a photo-real “human” character than much of what’s come before.
As much as filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron were committed to pushing forward the technology on Alita, they both knew that it would ultimately be the “performance” part that would really sell the character. Enter Rosa Salazar, an actress best known for her roles in the Maze Runner sequels and Netflix’s Birdbox. “When she came in to audition, I couldn’t believe it,” laughs Rodriguez, the film’s director. “She was so expressive and so full of life. I was like, ‘Oh my god, she’s going to give the animators so much to work with!’”
When Den of Geek catches up with Salazar the day after Alita’s London premiere, Rodriguez’s initial observation is immediately apparent. Despite the much-talked-about big eyes, it’s amazing how much of Salazar’s mannerisms break through the shiny CG veneer. Warm, eloquent and, yes, expressive, she shows no signs of promo-tour fatigue, and is more than happy to talk about her experience of what is potentially a star-making turn. “I just told the story,” she says. “I didn’t kind of feel encumbered by the idea of performance capture before the shoot, and I didn’t feel encumbered by the act of performance capture when I shot the film.”
Here, Salazar talks about the process of bringing Alita to life via performance capture, the gruelling martial arts training she had to undergo, and the experience of working with Rodriguez and Cameron – as well as her love of working in genre movies.
What was it about Alita that made you want to take on this character?
The main theme really turned me on, which was the idea of a diminutive character being underestimated and then going on a journey inwards to discover who she is and what she’s capable of. And on that journey discovering that she’s actually not insignificant at all; that she can change her circumstances and the circumstances of other people. But more than that, she’s a lone wolf. She’s kind of a solo act. She’s a cowboy going from town to town, and that’s how Yukito Kishiro wrote her. That really excited me. You don’t often get to see a female samurai. And that’s how I see her.
When you first went for the audition, did you know that it was going to involve performance capture from the off? And how did you feel about that?
Past Andy Serkis and watching his YouTube videos, I wasn’t too familiar with the inner workings of the process. I know it was mentioned but even then, only having a layman’s understanding of the process, it didn’t seem to me that it should affect my performance in any way. It seemed like the technology was there to service your performance. And the people working on the film are very performance-centric people. So it seemed more like, just do what you always do.
So was there anything different about the casting process?
I love that I got the script before I went in. Often when you audition for these big movies, they go by a code name and you go in knowing nothing about it. And you’re like, “Well I don’t know exactly what to give you because you haven’t given me any idea of what you want.” Yeah. So in this particular circumstance, I knew what they were going for because I understood the story and then, brilliantly enough, they gave me disparate scenes to perform. It’s it’s odd when you go in for an audition and they give you four or five scenes that all hit the same tone. You’re like, ‘Well, I’ve shown you desire. Do you want to see something else? You know, we’ve got a lot on the menu here…” [Laughs] But on this, they gave me very different scenes from different points in the movie. So there were lots of different tricks that I could pull out of the bag and say, “Hey, I have an array of things that I can offer you.” And I was glad that they wanted to see them.
Presumably, you saw rough footage as you were going along – was it strange when you first saw yourself as Alita on the screen?
I saw lots of concept art even before I got the role, so I knew what she would look like and roughly what they were going for. But watching her on screen for the first time was a phenomenal experience that I think myself and only a handful of actors truly understand. But. What’s so surreal about it is that, for better or for worse, it’s your performance – and eerily so.
There’s no hiding from performance capture. You are acting for two high definition cameras that are on a head rig less than a foot away from your face, and that information gets handed to Weta. There’s no enhancing the performance. They might enhance the eyes, add CGI hair, scale up this or scale down that, but there is no button for “make actress better”. Choosing emotional cues – those are artistic choices and there’s no manufacturing that. So when I saw my essence being embodied by this CGI model that vaguely resembles me, it was crazy – but also very exciting.
There’s a lot of action in the film – how much of the fight choreography and stunts did you get involved with yourself and how much training did you have to do?
Obviously, it takes a few girls to bring Alita to life. I’d be a fool if I if I said I could accomplish some of the things that a woman who’d been training her whole life could accomplish. Having gone through martial arts training, I know how long it takes to master that craft. I worked with a very talented fighter called Mickey Facchinello [Salazar’s stunt double]. I did five months of exhaustive martial arts training. But more than just getting strong and capable, I learned how to accept my limitations. Every day you go in and you train, and some days you are really pleased because you can feel the progress that you’re making your everything is working the way that it should. The mechanism is responding. And then other days, you go in and you’re absolute trash; you’re smacked in the face by your own limitations. And it’s demoralizing. But it’s on those days that you actually make the most progress, because you decide to keep going.
That lesson in determination not only not only helped me as a person – which is why I continue martial arts training almost as a religion – but it helped inform the character almost as a by-product. I was going in to get strong and get my endurance up and make sure I could achieve some of these sequences, but what happened was I became mentally strong. I learned what it’s like to have a warrior’s mindset. And that was really priceless – I wasn’t expecting that. I ended up doing a lot more of the stunts than we were expecting, and it was because I had that education for a long period of time. Five months is longer than you get on other films to prepare. I was blowing some of the stunt people away with what I had to offer. I always say that I take it so far, Mickey takes it from there and then Weta takes it all the way up to the ceiling.
This film is quite unique in that it has been steered to the screen by two high-profile filmmakers in Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron. What was it like working with both of them?
It was great. You know, I wasn’t fangirling. I love their films, but I looked at them as colleagues, as mentors, as artists. And I felt like they looked at me the same way. We were all collaborating partners. And that was quite empowering too to be seen that way by these titans of filmmaking.
What was more remarkable was to watch them work together. I mean, you would suspect that these two guys would be muscling to get their vision on top. But it was actually quite the opposite. They were so respectful and collaborative with each other. And it was such a pleasure to watch these two being so symbiotic. You know, both of their reputations precede them. I think misconceptions about them are out there and people love to create stories. But it’s funny because they’re dads, they’re film geeks…they just like making movies. That’s what they’re about.
Both Robert and James have got a history so of writing strong female lead characters. Was that something you were aware of when you took on the role?
Absolutely. It’s interesting, when Wonder Woman came out I was so confused. I mean I liked the film, don’t get me wrong. But I was scratching my head because everyone was going, “Finally.” I was like, what about Ellen Ripley? Sarah Conner? These guys have been doing it for years, and not only strong female protagonists – on Robert’s side, they’re all Latin. He’s given a platform to so many Latinas – you know, Salma Hayek, Rosario Dawson, Michelle Rodriguez, my friend Eiza González [in the From Dusk Till Dawn TV show] and now me.
I felt like when I got this role, I was being inducted into a very special honor society of strong female protagonists who are dynamic, who are realistic to the women I see every day. So of course, I was overjoyed to hear that they were not only teaming up but they were teaming up to tell this particular story of a woman who is a full spectrum of qualities.
Your career so far has seen you appear in a lot of what you might call “genre movies” – from sci-fi with the Maze Runner films to horror/thriller with Birdbox. Are those areas that you were keen to work in?
Yeah, there are a couple of genres that I that I’m drawn to. And two of the top ones are sci-fi and horror. I’m a huge horror fanatic. I think it’s nice to have a set genre, because within that field is where you become even more creative. It’s like, “OK, we have this set premise. What do we do within that?” And then you get things like Mandy with Nicolas Cage. You can expand on the genre when you have the limitation of the genre. You can actually go outside of it. And I think that’s exciting.
I love horror. It’s a shock to me that I’ve never been invited to do a horror film, like a real slasher pic. Those are some of the first movies I ever saw, thanks to my dad [laughs]. And they are some of the movies that I crave to do. These movies are a really good showcase for women. I mean, look at Toni Collette in Hereditary – that’s one of the finest performances of the last decade. I don’t think that horror films get a lot of [awards] attention because they are so genre-centric. Sci-fi is another one of my favorite genres, and so I’ve been lucky enough to get to do some of that. I love it. I’m glad that the genre’s embraced me.
Alita: Battle Angel is in cinemas now.