An Interview with Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson

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From visionary filmmakers James Cameron (Avatar) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), comes Alita: Battle Angel, an epic adventure of hope and empowerment. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world she does not recognize, she is taken in by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate doctor who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious history while her street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) offers instead to help trigger her memories. But it is only when the deadly and corrupt forces that run the city come after Alita that she discovers a clue to her past – she has unique fighting abilities that those in power will stop at nothing to control. If she can stay out of their grasp, she could be the key to saving her friends, her family and the world she’s grown to love.

When Alita re-awakens to a brand-new life in Iron City, she goes through a series of intense transformations.  She begins as a nearly blank slate, devoid of memories so that even the sour tang of an orange peel electrifies her taste receptors.  With no clear identity, she wonders if she is just an “insignificant girl” who has no real purpose, no real family, even as she begins to forge fledgling bonds.  Then, when she discovers the body that was intended to be hers— the so-called Berserker body that has faculties the likes of which Iron City has never seen, Alita has to contend with a whole different idea of her destiny.  Ultimately, Alita realizes she is definitely not going to be an insignificant girl, and she refuses to be just a weapon of destruction. Instead, she turns herself into a passion-fueled instrument for justice.

A massive search ensued to find someone who could embody all this—a diminutive person with a mammoth persona, with both high-flying moves and the sheer force of a bright and openhearted spirit.  There were no particular criteria as Alita could be any ethnicity. Iron City is not so much a nation as a last outpost of humanity, and Alita herself was born in a human colony on Mars.  What mattered most was believability.  After all, tiny Alita must stand up to 13-foot tall cyborg brutes, so the audience had to trust not only in her battle virtuosity but in her growing confidence and determination to both understand the vastness of her power and use it wisely.

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After endless casting calls, the film’s Alita revealed herself in Rosa Salazar, the Canadian-born Cuban-American who has been seen in the Insurgent and Maze Runner series and in the thriller Bird Box.  Here, she would have to carry an entire movie on her shoulders, but everyone intuited she would rise to the challenge.

Salazar says that she felt inspired by an under-the-skin kinship with Alita. “I related to this girl who struggles with not knowing her own power, with not having a voice in this crazy world where everyone’s trying to grab what’s theirs.  I related to the dichotomy of rags and riches in Iron City, and to Alita’s journey of self-discovery.  I related especially to her trying to figure out her desires and what matters to her. And I related to her fierceness. She’s the sum of everything she’s been through to survive.”

The sheer newness of Alita’s experience of the world was especially thrilling to Salazar—a chance to imagine every taste, touch, and sight as your first, to drink in the wonders of friendship, family and romantic love with no expectations. “Everyone else in Iron City has been hardened and numbed.  But Alita is excited to try everything,” Salazar describes.  “She views Iron City as an amusement park at first. The streets are so alive, and she’s just having fun trying new things.”

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She also runs headlong into a first romance, when she meets the charismatic, street-smart Hugo, who teaches her Motorball, the rocket-fueled sport that mesmerizes all in Iron City and so much more.  Audition after audition left the filmmakers unconvinced until total newcomer Keean Johnson came in and nailed the essence of the character.

“For the first time, she comes to know that rush of adrenaline but also the vulnerability of falling in love,” says Salazar. “Alita is fearless diving into things but then she also gets easily hurt because she has such a big heart.”

The Koalition interviewed Salazar and Johnson about their roles in Alita: Battle Angel, discussing the numerous challenges they faced bringing the manga to life and more.

Check out our interview below.

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Dana Abercrombie Entertainment Editor / Media Liaison
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