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Ana de Armas’ casting in Blonde was an intriguing risk from the get-go — she even says so herself: “It was against all odds that a Cuban actress was ever going to play Marilyn Monroe.” Add to that the nature of writer-director Andrew Dominik’s script — adapted from the Joyce Carol Oates novel, which does not shy away from speculation or the imagined darker, violent parts of Monroe’s life — and the movie was all but guaranteed to cause a stir.
When Blonde premiered at the Venice International Film Festival over the summer, the NC-17-rated film garnered a 14-minute standing ovation, though reception to the movie since has been decidedly more polarized. Some critics and audiences have taken issue with the film’s creative liberties with Monroe’s story, including scenes of sexual assault and graphic violence. But de Armas has been hailed as a tour de force, as evidenced by her Oscar nomination — her first — for the role.
THR caught up with the star, whose breakout Hollywood role was only a few years ago, in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, for her take on the experience of making Blonde and the stark reaction to it.
When you first hear about the possibility of being a part of something like this, what goes through your head?
Seeing other people trusting and believing in you sometimes gives you the courage to believe that you can do it. That was the case when I met Andrew. He said he knew we had a problem with my accent, but there was something else that somehow convinced him that I was the right person for it. I think that was contagious — it’s that little push that we all need when in doubt. He was so confident about it, after the audition especially. There’s nothing better than working with a director [who] really looks up to you, really believes you’re the person he was looking for. It made me feel that I was in the right hands. It wasn’t an easy yes, but at the same time, it was like, “I cannot let this go. This is my chance. This is the part that you wait for your entire life. And it’s here.” It was against all odds that a Cuban actress was ever going to play Marilyn Monroe. I was like, “I really have to do this, for myself. This is a gift to me. I have to take advantage of it. It’ll be what it’ll be — maybe I’ll never work again. But I have to do it. Because what are the chances this is going to ever happen again?”
What was the casting process like?
He reached out to my agents. I met him, I read the script. And I asked him for a week to prepare for the [audition]. That was an audition for Andrew. Then we had a lot of other people — producers, studios — everyone that we needed to convince because they were not very sure. And that was a bigger production day — camera test and hair, makeup, the whole thing. But it was crazy because I was shooting Knives Out. And [in] Knives Out, I was playing a very different character. So my brain was trying to figure it out.
When you read the script, what was your initial takeaway?
It was shocking. I remember telling Andrew when we met after I’d read the script that it felt like a horror movie to me. He agreed with that. I think one thing that I had that helped me was actually not being American. All this information that people have of Marilyn, [they] just have a very specific narrative about her life and who she was. I didn’t have all that. [Blonde] is a shocking way of telling her side of the story. I thought it was really interesting and real. I have watched movies about Marilyn before, and they’ve always felt in the same tone — repetitive, following the things that we already know [about] her as a movie star. That intimacy, that private, deeper side of her in her psychology, or trauma, which is what Blonde is about, that was missing for me. When I read [Blonde,] I was like, “Oh, this is it. What I’m reading makes sense to me for someone whose life ended in a very tragic way, so soon.” To have that ending, you need to fill up the gaps between all the beauty and the glamour and the superstar story that we know — there were pieces that were missing.
How did you protect yourself from not being traumatized, as an actor, filming some of these scenes?
I can tell pretty soon what the environment on set will be like because, to me, it all comes down to the director, and the director’s energy, and how much you trust each other. With Andrew, thankfully, we had nine to 10 months of prep. We got to know each other very well. We have a real friendship. There’s a shorthand in the way we communicate. That made everything very easy and transparent. Those scenes — sometimes they look harder for the audience than what is actually happening on set, because I can tell you: The environment on set was very nice. And everyone was having a great time because they’re very creative environments. Everyone felt like they were doing their best, doing what they love the most. I was more worried about the mental part of it than the physical. I think my very first scene on the shoot was meeting [Monroe’s] mother for the first time in the hospital. I was panicking. This was also the first time everyone was going to hear me talking. I was very self-conscious.
What were the big takeaways for accessing Marilyn from all the prep that you did?
I’m horrible at imitating people. If you told me to impersonate someone, I cannot. Not even my friends. People always said, “Can you do Marilyn’s voice?” For me, it was not like that. It’s not a switch that I could just turn on and off. It needed some preparation and thinking before it could come out. There were not little things or tricks that I could do to make it work. There were no shortcuts. I had to be mentally there, in that emotional state, for the whole thing to come together. It was like a study of her whole [inner] state, what she was thinking [and] feeling at all times.
There were some strong reactions to the film. How do you respond to some of the criticism?
When we premiered the movie in Venice, or San Sebastián, [the reaction was much warmer than the reception was in the U.S.]. Of course, the reaction that gets the most attention is the one in the U.S., but that wasn’t the whole experience. It’s hard to hear these reactions, but you can always go back to what you experienced, and why you did it, and the reasons why you were attracted to the project. That is not going to change. You have the director, and you have other actors that you can always talk to. As hard as it is to hear when people don’t like your film, it is what it is. It was not a movie that was made to please people or to make people like it. It is a hard movie to watch.
I don’t think the movie speaks badly about her a bit. I think it’s the opposite. I think it speaks badly about the environment and the industry, and that’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes for other people in the business. I feel like the movie also makes the audience feel like participants. We contributed at the time, and we still contribute, in the exploitation of actors, people in the public eye. We, the audience, do this. And I feel like it’s possible that some people have felt like [someone] pointed a finger at [them].
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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