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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Alita: Battle Angel star Christoph Waltz doesn't want to write an explainer for his character

By Todd Gilchrist
Alita Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is a lot of things — an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's iconic manga, James Cameron's stopgap screenwriting effort between Avatar installments, Robert Rodriguez's first film for a major studio since Once Upon a Time in Mexico — but Christoph Waltz is not particularly interested in sorting them out, much less breaking them down.

Since making his Hollywood breakthrough in 2009 with Inglourious Basterds, Waltz has repeatedly used his merciless intelligence and extraordinary talent to bring to life one vivid, unique characterization after the next, and the actor remains emphatically interested in allowing — or maybe forcing — audiences to discover their meanings and messages rather than decoding them himself.

SYFY WIRE recently sat down with Waltz, who plays Dr. Dyson Ido, a grieving scientist and doctor who takes the eponymous female cyborg (Rosa Salazar) under his wing after discovering her remains in the great scrapyard beneath a floating, futuristic city of Zalem.

Though he politely avoided delving too deeply into his character — or debating interpretations of him or the movie as a whole — Waltz thoughtfully talked about how he collaborated with not one but two skillful filmmakers on this ambitious science fiction odyssey, and explained why he feels like it's important to empower and challenge moviegoers, both on screen and in interviews like this one, instead of feeding into a cycle of simple explanations and simpler consumption of entertainment, like this film, that has the chance to provoke thought and inspire.

"People walk into the theater thinking it's mindless spectacle where things hit each other," Waltz said. "Well they do, but that doesn't mean that it's mindless and stupid."

You've worked with so many directors with very strong visions, but in this case you were sort of working with two at the same time with James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. Robert is humble and very skilled at facilitating another person's vision. So who did you sort of feel like was primarily driving this film?

It was Robert. And that needs to be said to James' merit. I really admired his magnanimity and generousness to actually let Robert make his movie, and he didn't interfere. He came to set once and he kept an eye on it like producers do. But we had Jon Landau, who oversaw the production, and Jim was busy with something else, but he kept an eye on us. That was fine. He initiated the thing, but it's Robert's movie.

Talk about how you saw this character, because what's interesting is that even though the world is very dark and complex, it is a story that feels very hopeful to me?

"Hopeful" speaks for you or for your optimism. I'm not sure that the outlook [of the film] was really what I was required to contribute. I have one. It's less optimistic than yours, but that's just more or less an opinion. The script and the story is what we want to tell, and you can't run around telling people we're doomed, it's all gonna end in a disaster, armageddon is close.

Now, who knows? Maybe it isn't. What I really liked about the script is that it very clearly states it's up to us; the outcome is not like the weather, or like a hurricane that we're subjected to, and the only thing to do is duck and hope. But that will not be enough to save the total. It's more like climate change — we caused it. It's our fault. But it's within our reach to actually try to do something about it. Whether or not it will succeed, we'll see. One thing is for sure: if we don't do anything, it will turn into a disaster. So that in a way hints at the responsibility that needs to be taken. And that's where I really kind of agree with what the script is trying to tell.

In terms of feeling like it's hopeful, it feels like a story about a young person who maybe has more power than they realize to effect change in a world that is complicated and dangerous.

And the realization, the opening of the eyes to say to the responsibility and to the option to do something to bring change and make it happen.

Even as those themes intrigue you, where do you start when it comes to playing your character either to suit or ignore them?

Well, not ignore them, not at all. You try to find the objectives. You try to find what drives a person, what occupies his mind, what defines his existence and what gives his life direction, of course. But in the end, it's not up to me to make the decision. That's the writers and the producers and directors.

Alita Battle Angel Christoph Waltz

Sure. What about the character specifically was something that either you latched onto or you could build around?

I refrain from talking about the characters I play, out of a conviction that we all watch what we can. Meaning, we see what we know, we see what's within our reach, and the hope really is that inspiration in a movie as an experience takes you a little further to see a little more than what you know and to venture out a little beyond your comfort zone.

So if now the actor comes and tells you exactly what he thinks and what it is and what you should see in it, it interferes with that. It is contradicting, and counterproductive to the very purpose of doing it at all. So I always pull my shoulders up and stick my head in the sand and try to talk around it.

Harrison Ford said something fabulous about acting: "It's not my job as an actor to tell you what I think about the character. It's my job an actor to show you what you think about my character." That's it in a nutshell and I totally support that. I'm really behind that approach because I don't want to interfere with an experience. We are all now swamped, inundated, strangled, and suffocated by advertising, and advertising is always an opinion impressed on you and the call to adopt that opinion - meaning go and buy it. Don't think, buy. That's not what movies are for.

Movies are to check our coordinates, in our lives, in this world, in this society. And that's why I really liked this movie so much. The grander framework is still sensationalistic, visual effects spectacle. Great! Why not? But does that automatically mean we need to let all responsibility go and just satisfy or titillate the nervous system? What's wrong with speaking from heart to heart? What's wrong with addressing intelligent people? Nothing. So why not make it a rounded experience and get all the faculties engaged. And I really think Alita achieves that.

Well in that case, how do you juxtapose during the creative process what your interpretation is of a character is with the director's vision or the script's vision?

It's an interesting negotiation. You do that kind of beforehand a little bit, or you try to cover the terrain, even though you may not go into the finer details. I try to do that before I say yes or no, and that's communication with the director, with the producer, and really along the lines that the script prescribes, literally. It's there in front of you. And my opinion is not really what's asked here. It is, can you contribute? That's what they're asking me. Would you like to participate? But that's the polite form of "do you think you can contribute? We think so."

That's what the offer means. And that's why I always think an offer is flattering no matter what, because they think you can contribute one way or another. So now let's define a little bit what that is that they think I can contribute, and let me try to discover whether I actually can. So it's not really opinion, because I think differently about a lot of things in most cases.