A: 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.
Q: How long after you first auditioned did you find out you had the part?
A: 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.
Q: 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…
Q: Oh yes.
A: Yeah, he’s made a couple of movies… And, 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.
Q: Like what?
A: It’s things like ‘Alita holds the Damascus blade for the first time and like the ancient Samurai say, the blade has chosen her.’ That has nothing to do with what they’re shooting, or the direction or anything, it’s just so you can be fully immersed in the story. And it makes you feel things and then you know you’ve got something special. Plus, another big thing for me is that I had been doing these big movies and this felt like a graduation for me. I mean, I’ve done stunts. I’ve done wire work. I’ve fallen down. I’ve jumped off stuff. And I’ve done major sequences. In the Maze Runner films, there’s some crazy sequences that I did for the second one and the third one. Riding around in a car with a big gun popping through the sun roof. All of that was a great training ground for Alita and I really wanted to test my skills on this big movie.
Q: Did the fact that it was a performance capture role appeal?
A: 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.
Q: Is performance capture acting very different from ‘normal’ acting?
A: 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.
Q: You don’t have to ‘turn it up’ or exaggerate anything?
A: You don’t turn it up. There’s 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.
Q: Did you do any research or prep?
A: 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.
Q: It sounds like you’re already prepping to one day direct a motion capture film.
A: 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.
Q: How was working with Robert?
A: It felt like making a run-and-gun independent film where everyone on the crew was like, “We’re making it with our hands” except it was a huge sci-fi epic, with a lot of moving parts. You have a normal-sized crew, and then you have WETA, all the visual effects crew, it’s just a huge school of people but Robert’s demeanor is so calm. He knows exactly what he’s shooting. Another thing is, he listens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a set where that isn’t the case. But Robert listens, and he hears you. And for a Latin woman in the film business, it was, well, jaw-dropping. Because you don’t want to be difficult. I never felt like I was asking too much or getting in the way. Anytime I said, “Hey, Robert, if she says this, then wouldn’t it make more sense if this happens?’ I felt like I had a voice, which is great. And then, because you have a voice, you start to have responsibility for it. You’re like, “Oh. My words mean something. My words have weight. Now, let me be responsible.” He taught me so much. And it’s really nice to make a film with someone who just gets off on making films. Who is a film fan. He’s just the best.
Q: Let’s talk a little about Alita, the character. Tell us in your own words who she is.
A: 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.
Q: And not only does she not know who she is, but she doesn’t know where she is.
A: Yeah. She’s very open and vulnerable and wakes up in Iron City, it’s a post-apocalyptic trash heap. But, for those of us in the real world, if we’re not careful, we could be there soon, you know? So, she wakes up and she doesn’t know what the world is. She doesn’t see it as nasty or horrible or violent at first. She’s just wide eyed, literally, and ready to learn. And what she soon finds out is that there are menacing forces in this world. There are evil people. There are cruel people. There are people who are opportunistic, who are totally fine screwing you over and ruining your life in order to get what they need to survive. It’s like the Gold Rush – everyone’s just clawing for what’s theirs and Alita smacks up against that. Really, it hurts her. Because she’s a soft person until these menacing forces start to trigger her memories. At first, she doesn’t know anything about who she used to be. She’s new. But she knows there’s something there. So, when the world starts to push on her and fight her, she starts to fight back, and that’s when we find out that she’s someone really extraordinary. Someone with insane capabilities. Someone with a warrior spirit and warrior training. And the more she triggers her memories, the more she starts to find out who she really is. And to me, that is a relatable story of someone going through the pitfalls of life, the trials and tribulations, and ending up on the other side knowing who they are, knowing what they’ll stand for, knowing what’s right or wrong. We see someone choosing. What they believe in, what they will and won’t do. She starts to remember her code of who she was.
Q: So, it’s really about a girl working out who she is and her place in the world.
A: Yeah, that’s it. Her place in the world, but also how she can help. Because there’s a moment in the movie where, spoiler alert, she’s fine to just be there. She’s thinking, ‘I could live here. I could take it.’ She’s totally fine to settle. But who she is, I think, very compelling because, ultimately, she doesn’t settle. Integrity is often very inconvenient.
Q: So emotionally, she’s human. But in terms of physicality, did you have to play her slightly…
A: No. Although I had practiced and practiced with a friend who helps me read lines. And I was very stiff, very Ex Machina. I had all of these movements, all these intricate finger twitches and whatever. As you do. And right before I went in to audition, I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, wait a second. She’s not a robot, she’s a cyborg….’ Her body was created by Ido [Christoph Waltz] who is a cybernetic surgeon, so he knows what he’s doing. She doesn’t move in a stiff way. In fact, the way she moves is very cat like. Even smoother than a normal person. Not only is she not stiff or robotic, her body movements are very fluid.
Q: When actors do performance capture, often the character they’re playing doesn’t look anything like them. But with Alita there seems to be a reasonable amount of you in the character.
A: Yeah. It’s an anime version of myself.
Q: So how is that?
A: It’s super cool! And it was always the plan, that whatever actress was going to inhabit the role, it was going to be her performance and her face and her features. More and more as they edit the film and draw the film, every time I see it, it looks more like me. Which is eerie. And wonderful. Because if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Smaug, you’re going see a 60-foot tall dragon. It’s cool but you’re probably not going to feel attached to it. It’s like, ‘that’s over there’. But when I was playing Alita, we were one and the same. And they used a lot of my real face and the real scars and divots and muscle pulls and lines and creases and imperfections to look like me.
Although one thing I had to change was my posture, because cyborgs don’t hunch! And I have the worst posture. So, I had to have my shoulders back constantly and just be standing straight and not lean. But I always knew that it was going to be mainly my face in there. And I think it looks amazing and even though it’s a complete rendering of me, it feels like me. I can see myself and I’m attached to it.
Q: Did you have to learn a lot of fighting skills?
A: Yeah. Training almost killed me. When I walked in there, I was made out of croissants. I was writing my short film. And writers don’t eat well. So, I was really out of shape. I mean, I was thin, but I had no endurance, no core. I trained with Keith Hirabayashi for months and months and months. And I changed to a plant-based diet and it was very hard. I’d never changed my diet in that way before.
Q: Does it feel almost like you have kind of a different body?
A: Well, now I’m vegan. Because James Cameron convinced me to be vegan and he’s right. Plant-based diet. So, yeah, I am constantly finding that my body is very different. But you feel stronger, more capable. And it’s not just me. I have to say there are nine women that bring Alita to life. Whenever we reach my physical capabilities or abilities, another person takes over who’s been doing this for life. So you have many, many martial artists. You have contortionists. You have rollerbladers. You have different kinds of rollerbladers, trick rollerbladers. And then you have me doing all the acting when they’re recording the bodily info.
Q: Let’s talk about a couple of your fellow cast members. How was working with Christoph Waltz – was it intimidating at all, working with someone so experienced and acclaimed?
A: I don’t know why, but I wasn’t intimidated. Although he has a very strong presence. I started out being extremely excited and that never dipped. The first day I met him, he was doing some camera tests and I was peeking around the curtain, trying to catch him in his natural state. He’s just so graceful and very powerful and centered. He’s very present and he looks you right in the eye. He’s not selfish with his talent. He’s there with you and you’re in good hands. Also, he’s very funny. And that was really great to be around. He doesn’t suffer fools though, you know what I mean? He’s going to tell you exactly what’s up. It’s such an honor to work with him. I feel like I crossed something off my bucket list.
Q: Someone else you share a lot of scenes with is Keean Johnson. What’s the dynamic between the two of you?
A: Well I’m a very, like, ‘Hello, world! I’m here!’ person. I’m loud. You know I’m there and you can probably hear me down the hall. I know what needs to be done and I want to do it. I’m very much a strong woman. And Keean is like this extremely kind, soft, young man. He’s quiet and goes with the flow. And we meet in this nice, middle ground where he looks to me for direction and advice and I look to him to be softer and I kind of take some of his happiness and some of his joyous vibe. Because I have these peaks and valleys emotionally, especially on set when you’re 18 hours in. I’m very much an emotional creature. And Keean is very steady. He’s got this through-line of calm in him. And I feed off of that and we sort of helped each other. So yeah, he’s my buddy. I love him!