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SYFY WIRE Rosa Salazar

Alita's Rosa Salazar is ready for battle

By Cher Martinetti

It was a decade ago that Rosa Salazar moved to LA to pursue acting professionally, but it's only in the last six months that her career made a stratospheric rise. Between appearing in Bird Box, Netflix's biggest original release of all time, and Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez's big-screen adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm, on track to cross $400 million at the international box office, Salazar is a star. 

But it's how she's using that star that is so important. Open about her "unconventional" upbringing as a foster kid, as well as an activist for representation in film, Salazar wants to make a difference and be a mentor. SYFY FANGRRLS' managing editor Cher Martinetti spoke to Salazar about being your own parent, finding your own chosen families, and the power of not "need[ing] your sh*t."

First, what drew you to this part in this movie?

I think obviously collaborating with titans of film, Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron.  Jon Landau's one of the greatest producers to ever produce, that's an obvious first answer. But the story of Alita is, as a woman, it's what I've always wanted to do is to tell a story like this one about a young person, a young girl who feels insignificant, or undervalued or misunderstood, and goes on to discover that she has unfathomable power within herself. That's a message that I've always wanted to see on screen, and a message I've always wanted to put on screen. To play a dynamic, realistic version of a woman on screen, that was the main draw for me.

I read that you had a lot of moving around in your childhood, and a very unconventional upbringing. How much of that do you think lent itself to bringing this character to life in the similarities between Alita not really being sure where she came from or not really feeling like she belonged anywhere?

Obviously I had a lot to lend to the part because of my own beginnings. I felt lost, and Alita feels lost, and I know how traumatic that is. But what's more profound about that is when you are lost, when you have nothing, you actually have the greatest gift of all, which is a blank slate. You can go anywhere and do anything. I think once that dawned on me I stopped feeling sorry for myself and I went on a similar journey of self-discovery and discovery of the world around me. It was because of those humble beginnings or the trauma from my past that I was able to go forth confidently and do that.

I don't look back on my past now and say, "Oh, poor me," I go, "I'm lucky." I'm lucky that I had the right amount, whatever that is, of adversity because it propelled me forward. I don't know honestly, if I had a very traditional upbringing, if I felt already like I belonged somewhere, if I would have been forced to go on that journey. So I'm very fortunate that I have the story that I have, as traumatic as it might have been for me, it was actually my greatest blessing.

When I had read that, and I know we just got super deep really fast—

That's my forte.

Mine too. To be honest, when I read that... I had a really contentious childhood as well.

Oh, you did?

Yeah, I did. I had a parent who's an addict and has mental health issues, and that throws your entire life into chaos, and really feeling like there's no one really parenting you. I think for a long time, for myself, all through my teens and my 20s, I was definitely very much experiencing a lot in life and maybe more than most people would be. At the same time, at some point, I was like, alright here's the thing that I want to do. I want to be a writer, I want to be an editor. I feel like you said, all those experiences and all the not squeaky clean, stellar, rom-com type stuff or sitcom stuff, I think experiencing that actually did help me a lot as a writer, and I think it does tap into something.

You got an education in life. You got a real education. It comes at a cost, I'm sure, that you have the same dark moments that I have where you wrestle with that stuff and it still leaves a lasting impression on you emotionally. It's stuff you definitely have to unpack and face later on. But what you're left with, or what you have, is this deep, deep well of experiences, of perspectives, of emotions that you can lend to your craft. For you it's writing, and for me it's acting.

I'm glad that you made it out, 'cause not everybody does. I think that you and I probably had that same fork in the road, which was like, I could either get addicted to something whether it's drugs, or a dude... I could go down the wrong path, I could just give up, I could be sad. I could choose that or I could realize that I have nothing to lose, so it's all up from here. I have the freedom of choice, I don't have a parent that's like, "You're going to college." I don't have someone making choices for me, so I'm going to do that myself and that gives you agency at a very early age and it's risky, obviously, because when you're young is not when you make all of your best decisions. We're both lucky that we made it out, and I'm happy to hear that. That's incredibly inspiring. I think Alita's inspiring in that same way. She goes forward, she goes inward, and she has that deep well as well. I think that you probably have the same thing I have as well, which is you're self parented, which is kind of like that can be a blessing and a curse as well... It's like you're your own watcher.

It's like, you can't tell me what the f*ck to do. I've been telling myself what to do since 14.

But you have instinct, so you can eff them.

It's interesting because I don't hear many people, especially someone in a position that you're in that's so open with that. But I think there's more people who experience something like that than admit it. One thing I've noticed for myself, especially being a woman in a position where you have any type of platform, or you're capable of using that platform or your voice, or anything to inspire someone else, is that by being open about that one helps, but also that there's not a lot of other women to sometimes look up to or towards for almost mentorship. How have you felt in your career, and especially you're now working with these huge names in the industry, have you found it's been easy to find women to mentor you along the way, or to guide you? Where do you turn for that?

Maybe you can agree with me on this is that when you feel sort of like a motherless child... I have a mother, she just wasn't the most traditional... I don't want to say, "I don't have a mother" — she's there and she loves me to the best of her ability, but we disagree on how much that should be. We give our moms a really hard time, we forget that they're going through what they're going through, and experiencing what they're experiencing. That being said, you need that when you're a young girl, you need that solid foundation. When you don't have that, when you're sort of abandoned in a way, you kind of collect mothers. I have so many women in my story that helped me, that sort of fulfilled that role. I walk into a house where there's a family and they want to adopt me because I have that thing in me and they recognize that, that this person needs a mother. I'm 33 and I still put out that need, and I still receive that. I spent like a day with Jon Landau and his wife in the Keys. Just a one day break from a press tour. We had already done six cities, so he was like, "Just come to my house in the Keys." So we went down there and we were fishing on the boat and having a good time. Jon would be like, "Hey, Rose, don't forget your slippers now, you don't want to slip." Julie would be like, "Hold onto that railing." It's just I laugh because I'm a 33-year-old foster kid. Everyone wants to parent me and it's definitely not like a diminutive thing, I think this is something I will always put out. It's something people will always, especially great parents like John and Julie, who will always subliminally recognize that and give me that. I didn't have one traditional family but I have 35 million unorthodox families.

I was actually talking to James about this too. I said I always wanted a family unit, I wanted that American dream with the white picket fences and all of that stuff. Now, being in the industry, I realize that I have so many families. I have my Undone family at Amazon, and they do truly feel like family. You spend a lot of time with these people, especially as an actor you're exposing yourself on a regular basis to these people, it becomes very intimate. I have my Alita family, I have my Maze Runner family, I have so many families now, more than I know what to do with. So I feel very lucky. I also feel very grateful over the years I was able to find that gratitude for how my mom [made] the choices that she made. Whether I looked at them negatively in the past, or in the present, I am grateful because I don't want a different story, I'm happy to have this story.

Like you said, this gives me an opportunity to be a mentor, gives you an opportunity to be a mentor and say, "I didn't come from the best situation but look, I went on this journey of self-discovery like Alita and look at me. I'm a successful writer, I'm aware. I have my other eyes open and that's truly a gift."

I know another thing that you have spoken about that's really important to you is about representation. Especially being a Latina that's in a movie with this big of a budget, and this prominent of a role. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you think maybe the industry needs, or how important it is to see that representation on screen for other girls that are not white that are trying to break into the industry?

It's incredibly important. It's really obviously, right? It's like if I can see that on screen, if I can see a Latin actress at the helm of a movie of this size and this price tag, then I can do that too. If I see it on screen, then I can do that too. This is a viable career choice for me. I don't need to subscribe to other things, I'm not just gonna leave these roles to Caucasian actresses or actors, I can also do this. I think what's also important about Alita specifically is that the message is important because she isn't a superhero. She's not born with extraordinary qualities, and capabilities, and super powers. She's just a regular girl. Yes, she has the training from her past. Yes, she's like a killing machine, a warrior, but that's all training. I think what's important about this is metaphorically is to say, "Look, this person of diminutive size is not diminutive in ability. We can all go on that journey and find that hero inside of us, and find those qualities, and capabilities inside of us." I think that that's a really important message just as a metaphor for young girls.

Also, to be honest with you, when we screen this movie for audiences, there is such a palpable air of satisfaction in the room when Alita looks at this big monster right in the face and she just says, "F*ck your mercy." She's like, "I don't need your sh*t. I don't need your permission. I'm not an insignificant girl, you underestimated me and that was your biggest downfall." There's so much satisfaction in the air, in the room from women. Literally a woman in London stood up in the audience and was just like, "Yeah," because as women we have so much pent up emotion surrounding this, especially what we're going through right now, what we've always gone through. It just feels like we're pushing the boulder over the other side now.

I have so many women to thank for that. Constance Marie... I looked up to her. Even J Lo. These Latin actresses being in films. Yes, they were in specifically Latin roles. But what I'm doing is I'm taking where they left off and now I'm showing young Latin actresses that, "Hey, by the way, not only can you be cast as an actress in a film, but it doesn't need to be specifically a Latin role, it can be any role." This is the new wave of casting, ethnically.