Ana de Armas’ ‘Blonde’ Ambition: How She Channeled Marilyn Monroe’s Body and Soul for Netflix’s NC-17 Gamble

A few years back, Ana de Armas needed to convince Netflix that she could be Marilyn Monroe.

She was already the first choice of director Andrew Dominik, whose film “Blonde,” a surrealist vision of the life and death of the screen legend, had been reportedly cast with various leading ladies before alighting on de Armas, but “Knives Out” — the hit film in which the previously little-known performer sat at the center of the mystery — hadn’t yet come out. In 2019, few knew her name.

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De Armas brought her accent coach to the in-person screen test with Netflix. “I hadn’t had the training and the voice and everything,” says de Armas, who was born and raised in Cuba. “So my coach was crouching on the floor, under the table.” The stakes were high. “I just knew that everything we did that day was going to be the definitive test of the movie to be greenlit or not.” The scene was one in which Monroe pleads with husband Joe DiMaggio to let her move to New York so that she can “start from zero, away from Hollywood,” de Armas recalls; passion had to enter Monroe’s voice, all as the woman under the table fed de Armas the proper pronunciations of the lines.

The performer, toggling between listening and speaking in her second language, all while trying to be in the moment, became overwhelmed. “It was just getting worse and worse and worse — it was a constant reminder that I wasn’t good enough,” de Armas says, her voice rising in frustration simply recalling her feelings from three years ago. “It doesn’t matter what I say or how I say it, it is still not good enough. And I’m not going to be accepted for this.” And if she wasn’t accepted, she wouldn’t be Marilyn.

Was the screen test successful? Well, “Blonde” arrives on Netflix on Sept. 28. De Armas managed to harness the tension of the moment to become a character who feared rejection. “Using my emotions — how I felt about playing the role — was the way I approached the entire film,” she says, “embracing my fears and my vulnerability, my feeling uncomfortable and my insecurities.” With a laugh, she notes, “My coach wasn’t under the table the whole time.”

Ana de Armas Variety Cover
Ana de Armas Variety Cover

Some of those insecurities followed de Armas off the set. It’s been three years since “Blonde” filmed in the pre-pandemic era. Since shooting it, “Knives Out,” as well as a now-concluded relationship with Ben Affleck, have made her both an in-demand star and a paparazzi magnet. And “Blonde” has been the subject of intense scrutiny.

“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions,” she tells me over green tea in a hotel drawing room in Manhattan, 10 days before the movie’s premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where “Blonde” would go on to receive a 14-minute standing ovation — longer than any other film, making it a victor in this Oscar-season arms race. “There were moments where I thought maybe this movie would never come out.”

Which would mean that the public might never get to see everything this star can do. Before the film was set to premiere in Venice, it seemed possible that COVID and editing-room delays might doom “Blonde.” Netflix had held the film for more than a year amid what de Armas calls “problems with the cut” — a back-and-forth over a brutally explicit and challenging film. But in Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel from 2000, we’re now able to see de Armas embody Monroe from every angle, not merely transforming herself into a ringer for Monroe but conjuring the star’s anguish over her feelings of abandonment by parents who couldn’t love her and a culture that only lusted for her. In this NC-17 film, the first Netflix has produced with that rating, de Armas is pushed to the limit as Monroe explodes with anguish and suffers genuinely brutal sexual violence and degradation. What’s at stake for the streamer is a potentially conclusive data point about whether taking huge artistic swings is really worth it. For de Armas, the risk is more personal.

While waiting to find out if the world would get to see her work, the actor held screenings for friends and for the film’s craftspeople; she watched it with her “Blonde” hair and makeup team in Prague while shooting the Netflix action movie “The Gray Man.” “I couldn’t contain myself for these three years and not show it to the crew, because they deserve to watch it,” she says. Affecting a somewhat strained lightheartedness, she adds, “I was like, ‘It’s movie time.’”

What they saw is what audiences will see soon enough: an emerging movie star bringing the humanity back to an unknowable icon. “I think this was one of the first opportunities she had to really sink her teeth into something incredibly demanding,” says Chris Evans, her co-star in “Knives Out” and “The Gray Man.” “I didn’t see one bit of fear; I saw excitement.”

When de Armas first showed Evans a still from her camera test, he says, “I remember looking at it and saying, ‘OK, that’s Marilyn … where’s your shot? That’s you? Holy shit! You’re going to win an Oscar for this!’”

It certainly seems possible. “Blonde” is the kind of showcase an actor dreams of, one that looks very different from the conventional biopic. Following the emotional cartography of Oates’ book, “Blonde” traces a path through the life of Norma Jeane Baker, from her unloving childhood to her emergence as a star perpetually seeking solace and affection. The gently nostalgic “My Week With Marilyn,” this isn’t: “Blonde” bears a stronger resemblance to “Jackie” and “Spencer,” the image-subverting Pablo Larraín-directed films about Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Diana that earned Oscar nominations for Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart. But it thrums with a quicker pulse, using surreal visual metaphors to push de Armas into raw, broken anguish.

Ana de Armas Variety Cover Story Blonde
Ana de Armas Variety Cover Story Blonde

It’s all in service of a painful point: Monroe, searching for something as simple as love, got among the rawest deals our culture has offered a woman in the public eye. Its shifts in time and aesthetics make it what its director calls “a dream film, or a nightmare film,” probing hypnotically into Monroe’s public life, and into the pain she suffered in her private life as Norma Jeane Baker — from multiple miscarriages to the impossibility of knowing her father. “Blonde” is eager to thrust her suffering forward, to put de Armas through hell so that we, too, can feel its flames.

“The performance is remarkable,” Oates writes over email. “In a sense, Norma Jeane Baker represents the authentic self — as we all possess ‘authentic selves’ usually hidden beneath layers of defensive personae. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ is the performing self that really exists only when there is an audience.”

As Monroe, de Armas can’t help putting on a show of bravado, especially for a lineup of men who don’t deserve her, including Bobby Cannavale’s DiMaggio and Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller; as Norma Jeane, de Armas is so raw a nerve that her numbing herself with substances begins to make sense.

Which is why the casting of de Armas is a masterstroke. In conversation, her wide eyes and her seeming guileless inability to hide what she’s feeling make the listener lean forward, waiting for what she’ll say next. “She’s got an amazing emotional force field,” says Dominik, who’s best known for directing Brad Pitt in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” “She’s just really compelling in any situation — you can always feel her.”

Dominik describes the casting of de Armas as finally clicking the film into place: “Something shifted when we found her.” At the screen test in which de Armas grew increasingly flustered and channeled her frustration, “it was just so obvious,” he says, “she had this thing — and that’s the reason why the movie happened.”

And it happened in a different era for Netflix; “Blonde” was greenlit in a moment in which filmmakers like Dominik were given a blank check to realize whatever vision they wanted.

But now, with its stock in freefall and new competition for subscribers from Disney+, HBO Max and Hulu, Netflix can no longer afford to be as indulgent. This awards run may be a swan song: It seems unlikely that the streamer will produce such risky, auteur-driven dramas in this climate. From a certain point of view, this makes the release of “Blonde” itself a fortunate thing. And that the lead-up to its release has been protracted doesn’t faze Dominik. “It’s been a very lucky movie in its way,” the Australian auteur says. “Anytime it felt like something’s gotten in the way, it’s turned out to be good luck. I found Ana after I’d been trying to make the movie for more than a decade — I’m used to waiting around for ‘Blonde.’”

Ana de Armas Variety Cover Story
Ana de Armas Variety Cover Story

Oates’ novel, despite Dominik’s best efforts, was hardly an obvious candidate for the big screen. (It was adapted for CBS in 2001, with Poppy Montgomery playing the lead.) Its vision of Monroe’s life as a journey through a particular American torment demands to be told at full length (“Blonde” runs at 166 minutes) and with a performer willing to track Monroe’s emotional state as well as the physical violations she suffered at the hands of her lovers (including, in one shocking scene, President John F. Kennedy, played by Caspar Phillipson, forcing her to perform oral sex on him while he speaks on the phone).

“He and I took the time to build that trust between us,” de Armas says about her relationship with Dominik. “I felt from the beginning how much respect he had for Marilyn. You don’t pursue and fight so hard for something for over 10 years if you don’t really believe in that. He was so passionate and sure.”

De Armas and Dominik discussed why it was necessary to present Monroe’s sexual experience in such a raw manner: “We’re telling her story,” de Armas says, “from her point of view. I’m making people feel what she felt. When we had to shoot these kinds of scenes, like the one with Kennedy, it was difficult for everybody. But at the same time, I knew I had to go there to find the truth.”

De Armas was willing to commit, and, Dominik says, she’s not a performer who takes a long time to get in the zone. “She’ll allow the room to get tense if she needs that space — and in doing that, she puts even more pressure on herself to deliver.” One stumbling block Dominik placed in her path: She was not permitted to show rage.

“He put me in a very, very specific emotional state,” de Armas says. “Just imagine for a second that you can’t express anger. What that does to you is definitely not healthy.”

To distance herself from Monroe, de Armas didn’t stay in character between takes: “When I’m doing my hair and makeup, it’s just me, it’s Ana.” But she describes her state of mind while playing Monroe as “deeply sad. I felt heavy. I felt helpless that I couldn’t change what was happening. I just had to go through a story that I know how it’s going to end.”

This came during a period of heightened activity for de Armas: She was preparing for her final “Blonde” screen test in the midst of shooting “Knives Out,” her breakthrough film, and she approached the double duty without fear. “She was literally shouldering the entire movie, but still just came in with incredible focus, incredible confidence, incredible conviction,” Evans says.

After hours on “Knives Out,” de Armas did two hours a day of the Monroe accent and voice classes; on “Blonde,” she spent her off hours learning the choreography for re-created musical numbers and movie scenes. (For instance, she had to get note-perfect for her re-creation of the famous “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number over a single weekend.) The day after “Blonde” wrapped, de Armas flew to London to shoot “No Time to Die,” in which her character, Paloma, pops off the screen as a worthy partner for James Bond, in combat and in repartee.

The ebullient action scenes were filmed as she still felt a kind of grief. “I couldn’t say goodbye,” she says. “I couldn’t shake it off. I couldn’t let her go. I went to visit her at her cemetery a few times — I would have liked to go one more time.” Walking away from Monroe demanded emotional processing that de Armas wasn’t given the time to do; the surprising benefit may have been that all the best of Monroe found an additional outlet. “If you think about Paloma now,” she says, “I am sure that there is some Marilyn in there. There is! Her energy and her charm and this thing where she was lit from the inside — Paloma stole a little bit of her.”

Ana de Armas Variety Cover Story Blonde
Ana de Armas Variety Cover Story Blonde

Marilyn and Paloma both appeared ready to debut in 2020, the year that was meant to cement de Armas’ post-“Knives Out” trajectory as a new leading lady. During the run-up to her films’ slated release, de Armas started dating Ben Affleck, her co-star in the erotic thriller “Deep Water,” which was released on Hulu earlier this year. The movie, in which de Armas plays Affleck’s wife and partner in a tricky game of sexual jealousy, features her sharp and charismatic performance. But in another disappointment for de Armas, the film was something of a disaster, receiving poor reviews and an ignominious dump on streaming. “I learned that I cannot compromise on a director,” she says of that film, which was helmed by “Fatal Attraction’s” Adrian Lyne. “Because at the end of the day, that is what the movie is going to be, and that’s what the experience is going to be, and that’s the person that you have to trust the most.”

As her feature films got put on ice during the early, stay-at-home days of the pandemic, she became known in a new way: as a figure of intrigue and tabloid fixation. Her ongoing role seemed to be as a partner in romantic walks with Affleck around Los Angeles in view of invasive photographers. This wasn’t exactly new for de Armas, whose screen career began in Spain after studying theater in Cuba. “When I was living in Madrid, I was a very well-known actress and had press and paparazzi after me. It’s something that you learn, unfortunately.”

But the intensity of focus on de Armas’ romantic life frightened her. “I have never been someone that wants any attention that’s not about my work,” she says. “So when the attention is not about my work, it is upsetting, and it feels disrespectful, and it feels inappropriate, and it feels dangerous and unsafe. But, especially in this country, I don’t know how you can find protection. I don’t know how you can stop that from happening, other than leaving.” Her breakup with Affleck was first reported in early 2021; now, de Armas lives in New York City.

Still, she remains the subject of intense fascination for reasons beyond her talent. “It was one of the things that brought me closer to Marilyn,” she says. Monroe was, after all, serious about performing, even as she was only seen as an object. “She loved what she did,” de Armas says. “She loved the profession, and she respected it very much. She just didn’t receive that back.”

Returning the conversation to her role as Monroe brings de Armas back to her comfort zone: “I’m just interested in my work,” she says. “I want to be remembered for that. The other side, I’m not interested. Some people have a better time making peace with that. Some people even like it. I’m in the group of people who would prefer not to have that.”

“Blonde” represents de Armas’ latest and best chance to reorient her persona once and for all around her gifts as a performer. Many of the reviews out of Venice were glowing. But the film comes with sticking points, among them the scandal over just how far it pushes Monroe’s character. De Armas says, “I did things in this movie I would have never done for anyone else, ever. I did it for her, and I did it for Andrew.”

Unprompted, de Armas brings up the idea that clips of her nude body — available to anyone with a Netflix subscription — will circulate the globe, outside the context of the film. “I know what’s going to go viral,” she says, “and it’s disgusting. It’s upsetting just to think about it. I can’t control it; you can’t really control what they do and how they take things out of context. I don’t think it gave me second thoughts; it just gave me a bad taste to think about the future of those clips.” But this, too, exists outside the world of de Armas’ work, and as easily as she brought the topic up, she lets it go.

The daring trick of “Blonde” is what Oates might call its Marilyn/Norma Jeane energy: As Monroe, de Armas plainly gets there, conjuring the vitality and spirit of the “Some Like It Hot” star. De Armas recalls a day on set where her hairstylist, watching de Armas and footage of Monroe on separate monitors, ended up baffled that the fixes she was making to de Armas’ hair weren’t sticking; turns out, the two looked so similar that she’d confused star and subject. Dominik says he strove never to call “cut,” so that his lead actor could surprise him: “She tried to surprise herself — always the best takes are the ones where the actor says, ‘I don’t know what the fuck I just did.’”

Getting to that place of freedom required a mastery of Monroe’s bearing and cadence, but also an understanding of what lay beneath Monroe’s performance. “I could see Norma quicker than I saw Marilyn,” de Armas says. “I could feel her in my body.” Finding Monroe took understanding what it was that made her perform: “Someone’s voice has many qualities,” de Armas says. “It’s not just an accent or the pitch or the breathiness. You can imitate someone very well and have no soul. As much as I wanted to get it as close as possible to her voice, if that voice didn’t have a feeling, that meant nothing to me.”

Which means that de Armas inhabits Monroe’s manner of speaking — the insecurity and performance that underlay her breathiness — while a bit of de Armas’ own voice, and accent, bleeds through. “She sounds like a fully fledged human being, as opposed to a cardboard cutout,” Dominik says. “What a lot of people think Marilyn Monroe sounds like is probably an imitation they’ve heard as much as it is the actual person.”

Still, de Armas may have had an extra bar to clear in tackling the role as a native Spanish speaker. “She’s got no doubt about herself as an actress,” Dominik says, “but the muscles in her face, her mouth and her tongue have formed differently than a person who is a native English speaker. It’s a big ask.” De Armas spent nine months training for the role, “and honestly, if I would have had another whole year, I would have used it,” she says. “And not just because I’m Cuban playing Marilyn Monroe. Anyone would be terrified.”

In past screen depictions of Monroe, Dominik says, “I don’t see what the fuss is about; with Ana, I understand what the fuss is about. Her being born in Cuba wasn’t to her advantage when it came to her getting the part, but we weren’t going to let it get in the way.”

Indeed, de Armas’ Cuban identity didn’t enter into her personal calculus about taking on a role as a woman who is also an all-American symbol. “As drama students, we did Tennessee Williams,” she says. “We did Shakespeare in Spanish. To me, this concept of ‘You can’t play this or play that’ — what does that mean? I’m an actress, I want to play that role.” Her eyes glitter. “It’s a personal desire and ambition to play roles that I wasn’t supposed to play. To me, art is to be repeated and replicated and reinterpreted; that’s the whole point of culture. And I deserve that challenge.”

Chasing the challenge has been a goal of de Armas’ since at least 2006, when, as a teenager, she boarded a flight to Spain to try for a screen-acting career. “I said it out loud to my parents, just as an idea, with conviction, but didn’t know what they were going to say. Right away, I got a yes.”

De Armas knew she could always return to Cuba but felt the need to try: “I think that sometimes, being ignorant, in the best sense of the word, helps,” she says. “Because I just didn’t know what was on the other side.” Breaking into the European entertainment industry after growing up without VHS tapes or DVDs helped de Armas become scrappier. “Your survival skills take over,” she says. “I’ve always been very brave, and I like to take risks.”

“Blonde” might begin a new chapter in de Armas’ career, one in which daring dramatic parts fall more frequently into her lap. Asked how the balance between blockbusters and character roles is working for her, de Armas laughs. “Well, not so much lately, because ‘Blonde’ has taken so long coming out that after Bond, everything that’s happened has been in that vein.” After making “No Time to Die,” de Armas booked roles in “The Gray Man,” as well as “Ghosted,” an action romance from Apple (and her third film opposite Evans), and “Ballerina,” a “John Wick” spinoff, which she will shoot this fall.

“Without me planning on it, I’m doing all these action films that are fun,” she says, “but touch me in a different way. I hope that now I can start balancing both things, because it has felt very one-note. I’ve done too many together.”

Dominik opened up de Armas’ creative universe, so much so that the wait for “Blonde” felt especially burdensome. Unlike Monroe — who, in “Blonde,” is disgusted and put off by seeing herself on-screen — de Armas has taken solace in rewatching the film. And her screenings of “Blonde” have made for something of an emotional litmus test. “For three years,” she says, “a lot has happened in my personal life, so every time I watch the movie, a different part touches me more.”

The years since “Blonde” filmed have been turbulent ones for de Armas, and the movie has radically shifted in meaning lately. When I ask her what touches her the most about “Blonde” now, she instantly wells up. “A year and a half ago,” she says, “I lost my dad.” The movie deals in frank terms with Norma Jeane’s angst over the lack of a father figure. De Armas’ confession has all the rawness, and the random timing, of grief; her loss has reframed the “Blonde” experience for her and made the film almost too powerful to watch. “I see this movie completely different now. There are days I watch it, and I don’t think about that at all — or I leave the room. I had an incredible father for 32 years. And not having it now, I can only imagine what it would have been, not having it at all.”

Her father did not see “Blonde,” but de Armas brought her mother, who lives in Cuba, as her date to Venice. Her mom had previously seen an unsubtitled cut of “Blonde” despite not speaking English. It was another viewing in which de Armas registered something new: This time, it was her mother’s attention. “She understood everything. There was nothing I needed to explain to her.” De Armas seems for a moment teary once more, then sniffles and grins. Monroe’s emotional truth had come through. “If she can understand that with no subtitles,” de Armas concludes, “then we hit the spot.”

Conveying Monroe’s reality so vividly presents a test case for how far Hollywood has come — or not — since her day. “One might wish to say that things have changed dramatically,” Oates says in her email, “at least, for such strong performers as Madonna & Lady Gaga who have forged identities most remarkably.”

De Armas may not be Gaga-level famous, but she’s certainly willing to traverse untold boundaries in order to explore what celebrity does to women. In revealing so much of herself on-screen in every sense, de Armas tests whether the headline will be about her body or her spirit; in making a movie about the most media-hounded figure of the 20th century, she attempts to put her own paparazzi era behind her definitively. The success of “Blonde” will be measured on the Netflix charts and, perhaps, at the Academy Awards; its longer-tail impact may come in the form of the roles de Armas gets offered.

“In a way, Ana’s not aware of how good she is,” says Dominik. “Certainly, when we were shooting the film, I don’t think she had an inkling of how extraordinary it really was.”

The next time I speak to de Armas is over the phone, two days after the film’s Venice premiere. Pictures of her on the red carpet in a “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”-pink gown have traveled widely, as has the news that she sobbed during the standing ovation. De Armas had previously thought that an ovation wouldn’t matter much — she knew what she felt about the work. “‘How many minutes is your applause?’ Why is that a thing to be considered? Why is that important?” de Armas says by phone. “But then it feels so authentic when it happens.”

De Armas says that she cried for a few reasons, if reason can be applied to emotion. One aspect of the experience felt uncannily meta: Although she’d seen the movie too many times to count, she had never seen it with an audience of strangers. “This time was so much more immersive. It’s so big, it’s on top of you. It’s undeniable.” She was up in the balcony, and from there her character’s degradation felt raw and powerful. De Armas watched the audience consume Monroe’s story — a tragedy in which Dominik’s alluring and hypnotic direction implicated them. “It was like a double image. We were looking at the people looking at her. It was such a surreal point of view.”

And soon enough, de Armas’ haunted work in “Blonde” will be available on every Netflix-subscribing laptop, tablet and smartphone on Earth. After Venice, she sounds both weary and ready. “It’s very nerve-racking! Because it’s literally not just a movie theater — it is everybody,” de Armas says. “The world will see it. So I am very excited — and it is time to let go.”

Set Design: Justin Rocheleau/ Wanted PD; Styling: Samantha McMillen/The Wall Group; Makeup: Melanie Inglessis/Forward Artists; Hair: Jenny Cho/ A Frame Agency; Manicure:  Ashlie Johnson/The Wall Group/Dior Vernis; Look 1 (cover): Louis Vuitton; Look 2 (wearing hat): Hat: Janessa Leone; Sweater; Louis Vuitton; Jewelry: Shay and Anita KO; Look 3 (white outfit): Top: Nili Lotan; Skirt and Scarf: Louis Vuitton; Jewelry: Shay and Anita KO; Look 4 (tan sweater): Sweater: Louis Vuitton; Tights: Wolford

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