Ana de Armas is fumbling with a packet of sugar and talking about her breakneck schedule on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles when her already enormous almond eyes widen even further.
“Do I have avocado on my face?” she asks somewhat nervously. She doesn’t, but the 31-year-old Cuba-born actress has been feeling a little frazzled lately. It’s been hard to find time to eat, let alone do a spot check in a mirror.
De Armas left the New Orleans set of Adrian Lyne’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Deep Water” the night before to attend the premiere of Rian Johnson’s Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit “Knives Out,” which opens on Thanksgiving. It was a brief respite; after a few days of interviews, de Armas flew back to continue filming.
And it’s been that way for a few years now. She’s filmed not only “Knives Out,” but the next James Bond, “No Time To Die,” the Marilyn Monroe movie “Blonde” (she plays none other than the former Norma Jeane) and a film about the late United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.
In fact, she was looking forward to a little bit of a break when “Knives Out” came her way at the tail end of the grueling three-month shoot for “Sergio” in Thailand. And the description she got wasn’t exactly an enticing one.
“I get this email saying, ‘Nurse in a house and she’s Latina and she’s pretty and this is the scene,’” she recalled. “And I was like ‘Are you kidding me? I don’t know what this is about.’ That little description doesn’t say anything to me, it doesn’t speak to me.”
De Armas knew that Johnson had written and would direct the film and that a big star, Daniel Craig, was attached. She’s also protective of her career and needed to know more before she would even agree to audition. Although she speaks naturally with an accent, she’s worked hard to prove herself capable of playing characters outside of her ethnicity and pushes her team to send her out on auditions for everything.
This innate determination and unwillingness to settle has gotten her where she is and now she’s on the brink of full-fledged stardom. After attending theater school in Havana, she moved to Madrid with $300 saved up to try a bigger pond. It was an amount that she assumed would help her survive for a few months (it would have in Cuba) but she quickly discovered otherwise. Still, de Armas found a way and started landing roles in television and film. After 8 years there, she was ready to move on and try Hollywood even though she knew very little English.
One thing she had going for her was that she had an agent and manager, thanks to her “Hands of Stone” co-star Edgar Ramirez, who had introduced her to his team. When she arrived in Los Angeles, where she and a friend rented a single room and shared a bed, de Armas enrolled in English classes but also told her agents that she didn’t want to wait. She wanted to start auditioning.
“It was clear that the reason I was here was not to get a degree in English,” she said. “I forced them to send me out to auditions and meetings, even though I couldn’t understand half of it.”
Her big break came in true Hollywood fashion. Standing at the valet outside the CAA agency, producer Colleen Camp spotted her and started taking pictures and screaming about how she had to meet Eli Roth immediately. They were casting for the thriller “Knock Knock” with Keanu Reeves, but de Armas was literally on her way to the airport. She managed to meet Roth, suitcases in hand, and make the flight. They closed the deal the next day.
“My agent was like, ‘I need to take you out to lunch more often,’” de Armas said, laughing. Still a little shaky with English, she got through the shoot by pronouncing her lines phonetically.
“Knock Knock” opened the doors for other opportunities. She landed a role in Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs” and then in “Blade Runner 2049” as Ryan Gosling’s hologram girlfriend. It’s also why Andrew Dominik thought of her to play Marilyn Monroe.
De Armas knows she’s demanding with her team. She had to fight for access to the closely guarded “Knives Out” script, but after she read it she realized she had to do it. She flew from Thailand to Boston to audition for Johnson, who had cast a wide net for the role of Marta (one of the only non-movie stars in the film that includes Craig, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Plummer).
“The first thing I did was google Ana and of course, all these crazy glamorous shots of her come up and it looked like the exact opposite of what I imagined for the character. But then I met her and knew that she was right,” Johnson said. “She’s got those Audrey Hepburn eyes and you’re instantly on her side when you see them through the camera.”
De Armas flew back to Los Angeles, picked up her dog and some winter clothes, and within five days was in New England filming “Knives Out” and feeling a little intimidated as the lead alongside all the megastars.
In her first scene as an immigrant nurse called in for questioning about the mysterious death of the wealthy patriarch she cared for, she realized she was shaking. Curtis, who has since become a friend and mentor to de Armas, came up to her in between takes and took her by the shoulders.
“She came this close to my face and she said, ‘You have the most expressive eyes I’ve ever seen. You’re going to be OK,’” de Armas said. “She gave me that little push that I needed to chill.”
De Armas didn’t know it at the time, but she also would be forming a connection with Craig that would carry over into a major franchise: James Bond. But once again, de Armas wasn’t just going to say yes because it was Bond. She needed to know about her character.
“Fleabag’s” Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote her scenes and de Armas was heartened to discover that Paloma wasn’t the stereotypically “perfect” Bond girl but “messy and kind of crazy.”
“I thought, ‘That Bond woman, I can be,’” she said.
De Armas doesn’t have a specific plan for her future in movies, but she likes a challenge (she studied and worked with a dialect coach for a year to prepare for “Blonde”) and loves working with interesting directors, like Johnson, Dominik and Bond-helmer Cary Fukunaga. As for whether or not some downtime is on the agenda, she just laughs.
“2020 is the year for my break,” she said.
From ‘Knives Out’ to Bond, Ana de Armas is on the Rise