Playing the heroine in Alita: Battle Angel, the monumental film by visionaries James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, Rosa Salazar found herself computer-animated, shooting the entire film in a motion-capture suit. If Alita follows suit of Cameron’s other career-launching mega-hits like Titanic and Avatar, we’re all about to witness Salazar’s unconventional rise to the top.
Most days, the buxom blondes of Fifth Avenue would have never paid Morty Munch a passing glance, opting to divert their eyes down to the cockroach-infested concrete or up at the skyscrap- er-laden sky should the sight of the Ridgewood, Queens clerical worker come into their direct view. But on an unexpected day, nearly 10 years ago, Munch was in a cramped, CollegeHumor audition room, sitting with those very same blonds, demanding to be seen. Sadly, Munch did not make it in show business. But Rosa Salazar, the woman who dressed up as the fictional Munch for that audition, did end up turning a few Hollywood heads.
“The first job I ever got paid for was working on a CollegeHumor video as an extra. I was happy to be there and I got paid $40 for 13 hours of work and I was so stoked, I was jazzed,” Salazar recalls. “I walked into the waiting room and it was just rows and rows of hot blondes with boobs, tall and gorgeous New York babes, and I was like ‘oh fuck’...that was one of those moments where I thought, ‘I can’t do this, I’m not a gorgeous babe, I don’t have boobs, how am I going to do this?’ But I sucked it up, I walked in there and knocked them dead.”
That audition can also now be seen as emblematic of two of her key traits: a love for characters and storytelling, and an apparent lack of fear when it comes to speaking her mind. For elementary school, Salazar attended Rogers Heights, a French immersion school in Maryland, that laid down some of the key foundations for her understanding of storytelling.
“In order to learn French, they used to give us a book of just pictures and you were supposed to just write a story inspired by the picture,” she says. “That’s my first memory of linking a story to an image and creating a whole world just based off a picture, building a whole narrative with characters.”
“I remember this woman, Myra, she found me, she said ‘what are you doing Rosa?’ I’m just like, ‘I’m writing,’ she said ‘is that what you want to be?’ ‘Yeah, I want to be a writer.’” Even at a young age I had the concept -- I had it down in my mind, writing and doing and stepping into the words it’s all one thing. It’s no surprise that I got into movies, because it encompasses all the things that make me feel most happy and comfortable and alive.”
But making stories was more than just a creative outlet for Salazar, it also helped her get through a difficult living situation, with Salazar saying “I think it keeps me alive. My mom put me in foster care when I was 12. There was sort of a rocky home life situation I’d run away all the time and she kind of said, ‘Listen, if you can’t stop running away, I’m going to put you in foster care,’ and so she did,” Salazar said. “I think that had I not an imaginative side, had I not had that outlet of drawing or writing or making jokes or making people laugh…then I probably would have gone the other way and gotten into drugs or become pregnant or what have you.”
Salazar remarked there isn’t a single moment that stands out for her where she felt she made it or when she realized this dream could be a reality. For her, she says it’s a collection of many, many, many types of those moments, times where she stepped forward and others when she stepped back a bit. One seminal, turnaround moment came from when she was 19, living in DC and bartending illegally. A close friend named Alex grabbed Salazar by her face and said ‘what are you doing?’ giving Salazar a wake-up call about her life. Two weeks later, Salazar, Alex, her dog and a U-Haul full of stuff were on their way up to New York. With a small bedroom in Harlem and classes at the HB Studio and the Upright Citizens Brigade, those forward-moving career moments were coming more often to Salazar.
One thing that Salazar didn’t expect, though, were the type of movies she’d be offered when she made the move to Los Angeles. She expected more indie type fare instead of major blockbusters,but her upcoming film slate showcases the diversity, in both storytelling and size of story, that has come Salazar’s way. In 2018, she’ll be starring in two likely blockbusters that have major fanbases: Maze Runner: The Death Cure, where she’ll reprise her role as Brenda, and Alita: Battle Angel, taking on the lead role in a movie written by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez. She’s also starring in two smaller films, each with immensely talented casts, The Kindergarten Teacher and Bird Box.
Salazar has a strong vision not only for the types of movies she wants to make, but the emotions she wants audiences to experience.“I never wanted to do a movie where someone watches a trailer and they’re like ‘alright, cool, I get it.’ I want them to be excited and I want them to see something new. I want them to be loud and I want them to watch the movie the way I watched movies in the 90s, like ‘WOAH! THAT’S CRAZY!’ You’re in it and it’s new and you’re feeling things and it’s weird and it’s unexpected and it gets you into this really cool zone, this freaky zone. I think it’s great that we have movies that did that to us and I just want to make more.”
One individual Salazar discovered who had a similar passion for unconventional storytelling was “Alita” director Robert Rodriguez. The two shared a connection right off the bat, with Rodriguez even offering notes on Salazar’s short film Good Crazy, an anti-love letter of sorts to LA that Salazar hopes to flesh out into something larger. “I sent it to him and he sent it back with notes and was like ‘honestly, I think it’s imagazing, but if you want my opinion here it is,’ and I’m like ‘fuck yeah I want your opinion!’” Salazar exclaimed. “We could work together on a little commercial and I’m sure we’d get super stoked to do it. We just want to work together, it was really refreshing. It didn’t feel like I was a hired gun I didn’t feel like a Latina broom in a broom closet.”
Salazar spoke about one moment in particular when she raised concerns during the filming of Alita about how a concept with her character wasn’t ready. “I got so heated…it’s a $200 million movie, they set up a whole thing for me to do this, a lot of time, they got all the people there,” Salazar said,” I go over to Robert [and said ] ‘Robert, it’s not there!’ And Robert looks at me and says, ‘it’s so nice how much you care about this.’ And I was completely dismantled, I was like ‘oh my god.’ Any other director would have been like ‘get in there and fucking do it’…he just knew the martial arts meant so much to me, it’s so much a part of Alita and he knew that’s where I was coming from.”
Salazar’s characters tend to be outspoken, offbeat, not at all afraid to use their voices loud and clear, often embodying characteristics from her own life. Like Salazar, Alita is a character who is unconventionally built but still manifests her own destiny. But Brenda in Maze Runner seems to hold even stronger similarities with Salazar. Brenda is an orphan, similar to how Salazar lived in foster care. Brenda also created her own chosen family, just like Salazar did with friends like Alex in DC, or colleagues like Robert Rodriguez and Giancarlo Esposito, who stars alongside her in the Maze Runner films.
The mantra Salazar adopted when channeling that struggle for Brenda can act as a credo for how the actor and writer has lived her own life, in front of and behind the screen.“This body will die when it dies, but until then I have my spirit to give, and that’s what I’m going to fucking do.”
Photographer: Jonny Marlow
Stylist: Chris Horan @ TMG
Makeup: Andre Sarmiento @ TMG
Hair: Carly Walters
Writer: Justin Sedgwick