Exclusive: Keean Johnson Previews ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

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keean johnson alita battle angel

Alita: Battle Angel – the upcoming film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s popular manga BATTLE ANGEL ALITA – had a huge presence at SXSW this year. The opening night party brought fans and media – along with director Robert Rodriguez and cast members Rosa Salazar (Alita) and Keean Johnson (Hugo) – to the Iron City. Not a recreation, but the actual set itself in Austin, Texas.

The morning after this exciting event, Fangirlish had the chance to speak with Keean Johnson (The FostersNashville) about all things Alita. This is Johnson’s first movie, and we can’t wait to see him onscreen opposite Salazar (one of our Maze Runner favorites) as Alita’s love interest, Hugo.

Keean revealed some interesting tidbits about his character, working with Rosa and Robert Rodriguez, and what we can expect from Alita: Battle Angel.

The opening night party for SXSW this year was all about Alita, and it looks like it was an awesome setup. How was that experience for you?

Keean Johnson: It was incredible. I actually hadn’t been back to Austin since I wrapped shooting, so it was just such an incredible whirlwind to walk through and see the set all lit up and beautiful – to be back where we spent five incredible months shooting my very first film.

Tell me about your character Hugo.

KJ: Hugo is from Iron City, which is where this incredible party took place. It was an incredible party atmosphere, but in reality Iron City in the film is a very tough place to live. Hugo’s character spends most of his life getting beat down by it and just trying to survive. He doesn’t have much family – little to no family – so his life is just survival at that point… until he meets Alita. When he meets Alita, his whole life changes.

What can you tease about the relationship between Hugo and Alita?

KJ: It’s one of those beautiful films where it’s just love at first sight. Alita has no memory of anything – she has no memory of boys or any sort of love – so when she meets Hugo, she obviously had that kind of incredible first energetic connection. When Hugo sees her for the first time, he can see the innocence in her and he can see that she hasn’t been beat down by the city. She has hope, which ultimately gives him hope and is why they ultimately are perfect for each other.

How was your experience working with Rosa Salazar?

KJ: Incredible. I tested for the film in September of 2016. I met Rosa, and we just hit it off instantly. I think that we’re both actor’s actors, and we love talking about acting, we love film and everything that is in between. We just fell in love with the film together and had so much fun every single day coming to set and basically playing together. We had an incredible playground.

What about Robert Rodriguez? What was he like to work with as the director?

KJ: My childhood was Spy Kids. And as far as James Cameron, The Abyss was so influential. They create such incredible worlds. When I first started auditioning and meeting with Robert, I obviously didn’t think I was going to get the role, but just meeting him was an accomplishment in my book. Then I kept meeting him and kept going further, and when I ultimately got the role, I was just so excited to work with someone who’s been such an influence on my entire childhood and later in life, obviously.

I had such an incredible time working with him – he gave such great advice, and he gives notes that truly matter. Other than that, he’ll just watch you and basically let you be as real as possible. When he feels that you’re not giving him what you need, he’ll come in and he’ll give you the perfect notes that will change your entire outlook on the character and outlook on the scene. It was incredible working with him.

It sounds like Hugo will also interact with Mahershala Ali’s character Vector – what can you tease about that dynamic?

KJ: Mahershala is the coolest dude ever. He’s incredibly humble, and on top of that, incredibly talented. It’s like he knows how incredible he is, but he doesn’t know how incredible he is. He has just such warm and great energy. He knew that it was my first film, but he didn’t treat it like okay, he’s going to tell me how to go about the scene. He treated it almost as a total collaborative workshop. We have an incredible scene together in his office – it’s just a back and forth that is so powerful.

Are your two characters on the same side, or are they going to be at odds?

KJ: I can’t say too much about that, but there’s ups and downs through all the different characters.

As you mentioned, this is your first film. What about the experience surprised you or maybe was a learning for you?

KJ: I think the visual effects were the biggest surprise and the biggest difficulty. Having it be my first film and on top of that a film that is breaking boundaries in visual effects – working with that and seeing how much work has to go into every single frame of the footage was so exciting to learn about, but also daunting and incredibly nerve-wracking at points. I know that Weta [Workshop] is the best visual effects company that there is, and they really have done no wrong. They just keep going, from Avatar to Planet of the Apes and now Alita. I think they’re doing stuff that no one’s ever done before.

Speaking of the visual effects, there’s obviously a lot of them going into this movie, from the Iron City to the look of Alita herself. How much of the movie was practical while you were filming, and for the parts that weren’t, how has it been for you to see that come to life from the parts of the movie that you’ve seen finished?

KJ: I think what’s so incredible about Weta is they’re able to work with practical. It’s not just all a blue screen stage. We were able to have a party with 800, 900 people on the set of Alita – so we have a massive city that Robert has created with such an incredible team. A lot of it was practical. We had so many incredible extras and incredible wardrobe. You can almost smell the city, and you can feel the energy. It’s almost like it was a real, bustling city. Yes, there was some stuff on a blue screen stage, but truly most of it was on location, on set, a real camera, real extras, real actors in an environment which made it so easy as an actor to just have a blast and be as real as possible.

Are there any favorite corners or details of the set that you can tease for viewers to watch out for?

KJ: The whole main – I don’t know what to actually call it – but there’s an area right in the center where Hugo plays motorball with all of his friends. That’s where he takes Alita and introduces her to his friends. That’s a cool area, and also you’ll see a lot of times in the film how they redress it and make it look like a completely different area.

What for you makes Alita a must-see?

KJ: I think the combination of having such an immersive world, as well as seeing the young female lead figuring out who she is. I think everyone will be able to take something away from it.

Were you familiar with the source material going into the project?

KJ: I wasn’t familiar at all. I actually had never read a comic book. My brother was big into comics growing up, so I’d see he would be reading. I never really got involved in any of it, but when I started reading about Alita and then got the manga comics, I was just [blown away]. Yukito Kishiro created such an incredible world on paper, so to be able to tell that story in live action with Robert and James Cameron and Weta to create the most incredible visuals I think I’ve ever seen – I just hope we make Yukito proud about what he made so many years ago.

Is there a favorite scene or even moment behind the scenes that you can tease?

KJ: Because Rosa is completely motion capture, we were able to on a few occasions sneakily put her in as an extra. I don’t know if anyone will be able to actually ever point her out, but if anyone does, I guess they’ll have to win a prize or something.

At Fangirlish we’re all about sharing the pop culture we love. What’s a book, movie, or TV show you’re loving lately?

KJ: The movie Good Time that the Safdie brothers created last year. I saw this film in Toronto, and it’s just one of the most incredible films I think I’ve ever seen from really cool filmmakers. Robert Pattinson has been on a trajectory – he’s just done incredible indie after incredible indie – and this is the one that got so much traction. Good Time, I think, is the best movie of last year.


Alita: Battle Angel hits theaters on December 21.

Featured Image via What’s Trending

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