Keean Johnson on Hugo and Alita: Battle Angel

Alita Battle Angel Character poster keean Johnson as Hugo thumb

In February, fans and audiences will finally get to see Alita: Battle Angel on the big screen. It follows a powerful cyborg girl (Rosa Salazar) with a mysterious past and is based on the manga by Yukito Kishiro, produced by James Cameron & Jon Landau and directed by Robert Rodriguez. One of the main characters is Hugo, Alita’s love interest, and he’s played by newcomer Keean Johnson. We had the chance to interview the actor during our visit to Passport to Iron City, an immersive Alita: Battle Angel experience in Los Angeles.

Nerd Reactor: Have you been researching Alita or were you a fan before?

Keean Johnson: I knew absolutely nothing about it. And there is actually a family member that read all of the mangas and loved it and he’s like, “You’re auditioning?” James Cameron had this for so long. I didn’t know they were making it into a movie. I was like, “Yeah I didn’t know anything really about it.”

I auditioned and started to learn more about the world then. And I kind of got a little cheat where James basically gave me a dossier on my entire character, on who I was and why I was in this town and what made me the way I am. So on top of that and on top of the source material, I finally felt like I was able to give Hugo the best performance that I can possibly give.

Nerd Reactor: Were you nervous about tackling a project like this?

Keean Johnson: Yes, I’m nervous about any project. This is my very first movie, period. So on top of that, you have these die-hard fans that are like, “Don’t mess it up.” But I don’t know. I was more nervous about how I would do and not nervous about how the film would do. Because when you have Cameron and have Robert Rodriguez – you see Sin City and you look at the Sin City comic book, it’s the same exact shot. So there’s going to be a lot of that in Alita, like photo exact to the actual comic, which is really cool.

Nerd Reactor: Did you go back and then read the manga?

Keean Johnson: Yeah. Rosa had every single edition. And it was crazy. As we were shooting, sometimes she would run up to me and show me playback, and then she would show me the comic book and it’s the exact replica of what Robert was doing. And he was cheekily not even telling us he was doing it, but he was.

Nerd Reactor: What was your memorable or favorite moment during the shoot?

Keean Johnson: I think my most favorite moment was my first day on set because they created a larger scale of what we’re in now and acres of land that’s all of Iron City that’s still standing today. Just to think about the small details in this one warehouse. It was like this for streets after streets. It was absolutely incredible. If you see Alita, you’re like, “Is it all green screen?” How many levels of live-action and green screen was it? But there was almost no green screen. But at the end of each set, they would add a green screen so they could make it look even longer. But it was already a massive, massive set.

Nerd Reactor: So basically your first day is walking into a large city.

Keean Johnson: Well, I remember I was testing for the film, waiting in one of Robert’s offices and I’m looking outside the window and it’s the outside of the city. I’m like, “What are they building?” It was just constant, huge structures. It’s incredible.

Nerd Reactor: Did they give you any tips on how to play your character?

Keean Johnson: Not really. The audition process was really important for Robert. I auditioned three times and it was a year that was spread apart, and there were many people. I think what Robert did was once he found who he wanted in every character, he would only tell us things if it truly needed to be said. And that’s why Robert is such an amazing director. He doesn’t feel like he has to give you a note every single take. If he feels like there is something, he’ll mull over a little bit and come up to you and say the most profound sentence you’ve ever heard. It not only changed my character, but it changed how I acted.

We stuck to the source material as far as the feeling, the look, and there are definitely some lines that are exact. But I think that he wanted it to feel as real as possible. Once he gave us the world, we kind of had to figure out how we lived in it.

Nerd Reactor: How are the Motorball scenes?

Keean Johnson: Yeah, I saw a lot of it. I was also on set a lot just observing Robert. The Motorball was the most green screen we had. I was like, “How are they going to create a sport that no one has seen before?” I think people are just going to actually fall in love with this game that Yukito Kishiro created so many years ago. I’m pretty sure Yukito is excited to see how they did it. It’s pretty brutal.

Nerd Reactor: If you can pick any superhero character to play, who would it be?

Keean Johnson: Man, I don’t know. I’ve always dreamed of playing the Joker or any villain. I think villains are the best to play. All you have to do is win.

Nerd Reactor: Sometimes they don’t win.

Keean Johnson: And they’re okay with that sometimes as well. It’s kind of the f*****-up nature of bad villains. It is where my head is at.

Nerd Reactor: So it’s kind of the opposite of your character, Hugo.

Keean Johnson: Hugo is the opposite, but not if you read the source material. There’s also a deeper side to Hugo that most people don’t know. You have to wait and see. I can’t wait for you to see it.

You can watch Keean Johnson as Hugo in Alita: Battle Angel when it hits theaters on February 134, 2019.

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