Rising star Rosa Salazar has a full slate of buzzy projects on the horizon: Suzanne Bier’s post-apocalyptic “Bird Box” with Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich; the third “Maze Runner” film (and her second one); and Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel,” which has the potential to launch her into a whole other stratosphere.
To land the role of Alita, the 32-year-old beat out a veritable Who’s Who of young Hollywood, many of whom she actually ran into in the waiting room. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re seeing everyone!’ And you get that feeling like you want to be insecure,” she said. Instead, she decided, “I’m going to show them what I can do. I made Robert cry in the audition room, and he picked up my headshot, and he’s like, ‘Huh, why haven’t we worked together before? I think we should work together,’ and I’m like, ‘I agree!’” she said. “And he wrote [producer] James Cameron an e-mail right after, like, ‘This is the girl.’”
After playing an action star for the past two years, she wanted to show off her acting chops in a smaller film, so her agent gave her the script for “Kindergarten Teacher,” which she premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend with Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I wanted to do something that was dynamic with women. I read the script and I fell in love with it. I went from being a big action star to asking [director] Sara [Colangelo] over Skype, ‘Please can I do this?’” she said. While she only has three scenes in the disturbing drama about a teacher who kidnaps her student, “Maggie said, ‘You’re going to be very happy.’ I was shaking with anticipation,” she said of watching the film in Park City, Utah, for the first time.
These days, her life is pretty unbelievable — from hobnobbing with A-listers to serving as a muse for Rodriguez. But before landing in Hollywood, Salazar weathered her fair share of tough times. “I was in foster care, and I was emancipated at 15, so I did live on my own. I wasn’t homeless, but I felt like a child without a home,” she recalled of the time, which included stints in Maryland and Washington, D.C. “It’s not really a sad story. In fact, my trajectory in life was exactly what it’s meant to be. And I don’t blame anybody,” she said. “Then, a friend of mine was like, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got a gift. Don’t waste it.’” Two weeks later, she was in New York.
After a Google search, she found an acting school, and dipped her toes into the experimental theater, improv and comedy worlds. Not that those things paid the bills. “Oh honey, [I had] so many side jobs! I was a bike messenger, everything from a personal assistant to a dog groomer to you name it and I did it. You prove to yourself that you want this with every step that you take because let me tell you, it’s a lot of step forward and then a lot of steps backward.”
She made videos for comedy web site CollegeHumor for “nominal pay, but I was happy to be there.” Then, a five-minute comedy video she made with a friend scored her an agent. “It proved that I had a way to be comedic and serious,” she said.
That allowed her to move to Los Angeles, where she immediately booked a recurring role on “Parenthood.” When that gig expanded from three episodes to 18, she wanted to treat herself. “I promised myself after my first job that I would get a purse for myself,” she said. “So I went to Barneys and bought an Alexander Wang, the one with the bullets on the bottom. It was blue leather. I had such blue-collar guilt about it, I took it back the next day. So I’m still learning how to accept the spoils but also maintain my humble beginnings.” She added, “Now I only splurge on pieces that I know I’m going to wear,” including the puffy Balenciaga coat she donned at Sundance. “My whole style is old-meets-new, hand-me-downs meet couture, or as I like to say, tomboy meets Kardashians.”
So what does Salazar want to do next? Seemingly, everything. She’s turning her Beverly hillbilly sensibilities into an autobiographical “anti-love letter to L.A.” television show, based on a short she took to Sundance in 2017. “I want to keep doing these big action pieces, doing these smaller independent films, having this intimate place with taste-making directors, and then also doing comedy,” she said.