‘Knives Out’ certifies Ana de Armas as a star, just in time for 007 and Marilyn Monroe

Ana de Armas stars in the ensemble film "Knives Out," a comic, twisty, murder mystery.
Ana de Armas stars in the ensemble film “Knives Out,” a comic, twisty, murder mystery from director Rian Johnson.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Three days into filming her next movie in New Orleans, Ana de Armas was on another flight back to Los Angeles. It’s typical of the career roller coaster she’s been on for the last year that she found herself back in town for the Hollywood premiere of “Knives Out,” the star-studded murder mystery she steals out from under an estimable ensemble cast led by Daniel Craig, her costar in next year’s 007 flick “No Time to Die.”

The pace of De Armas’ career ascension has been relentless; after “Knives Out” opens Nov. 27, she has at least five films on tap for release in 2020, including the Bond adventure and a Marilyn Monroe biopic for Netflix. So as De Armas sipped coffee and the breeze blew in through a sunny balcony window in Beverly Hills, she took a moment to catch her breath and consider what it’s meant to be working nonstop.

“I’m not complaining, because it’s taken me a long time to get here, and I’m living my dream,” said De Armas, wearing a delicate gold chain over a black suit jacket. On the ground floor below, a statue of Monroe greeted visitors, the skirt of her iconic white dress caught in an imaginary wind.

Writer-director Rian Johnson understands Hitchcock’s disdain for whodunits, but he just couldn’t resist those mansions and snooty suspects for ‘Knives Out.’

Nov. 18, 2019

“This is exactly what I want to be and what I want to do — but gosh, I’m tired. I feel like I repeat that a lot. But I’m tired.” De Armas smiled at the thought of resting even for a moment after all she’s done to get to this point in her life, in the world, in her career. “I think 2020 will be the year for me to sleep a little bit more.”


Sleep can wait; for De Armas, the time is now. She’s already stolen scenes as a heart-wrenching A.I. named Joi in 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049,” but the Cuban actress turned Spanish-TV star is poised for a true breakout run beginning with “Knives Out,” written and directed by “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” mastermind Rian Johnson.

In addition to Craig, the film’s murderer’s row of talent includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Lakeith Stanfield.

Yet as the credits roll, “Knives Out” leaves you marveling: Who is she?

De Armas, 31, stars as Marta, the caretaker of legendary mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), whose extended family is too busy counting the zeroes in their bank accounts to recognize their own privilege. After Harlan dies a sudden and grisly death, Marta is plunged into a shark’s tank of relatives hungry for his estate, while two local detectives and a Southern fried private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Craig) snoop around, suspecting foul play.

It’s a career-making role that gives De Armas her biggest stateside spotlight to date.

Hailing from the small coastal town of Santa Cruz del Norte outside of Havana, De Armas caught the acting bug as a child. She moved to Spain at age 18 and quickly became a TV star. Three years ago, she made her second big leap of faith when she moved to Los Angeles, focused on breaking into Hollywood.

It wasn’t the easiest transition in showbiz history. When she arrived in L.A., De Armas had experience and cachet overseas, but she didn’t speak English. That didn’t stop her from taking meetings, including one with 007 producer Barbara Broccoli (the payoff came years later when director Cary Fukunaga was casting a new kind of Bond girl for “No Time to Die”).

Far from home and new to Hollywood, De Armas dived into months of intensive language study. She landed a succession of English-language roles: In Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock” opposite Keanu Reeves, the boxing drama “Hands of Stone” with Édgar Ramírez and Robert De Niro and “War Dogs” with Miles Teller. But it was the poignant humanity she lent to a self-aware A.I. in “Blade Runner 2049” that put De Armas on the radar of many filmmakers — including Johnson.

De Armas 'dun it: After this month's "Knives Out," the Cuban-born actress will be seen in Bond film "No Time To Die," Marilyn Monroe pic "Blonde" and "Deep Water," opposite Ben Affleck.
De Armas ‘dun it: After this month’s “Knives Out,” the Cuban-born actress will be seen in Bond film “No Time To Die,” Marilyn Monroe pic “Blonde” and “Deep Water,” opposite Ben Affleck.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

The director of “Brick” and “Looper” was following his own big leap into the “Star Wars” franchise with an intimate crime comedy with a social and political bent. Now that “Knives Out” was getting made — and quickly, thanks to an opening in Craig’s hectic James Bond schedule — he needed the right emotional anchor to hold it all together.

De Armas was in Thailand wrapping the Netflix biopic “Sergio,” about U.N diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, when she got a call to put herself on tape for the part. The logline didn’t say much and, frankly, didn’t impress her — “Nurse. Latina. Pretty,” she remembers — but she insisted on reading the script, as she always does, no matter the size of the film.

When she did, she was surprised to discover that Marta was not only multilayered but also the center of the story. The working class character, specifically written as Latina, holds her own against a clan of upper-crust frenemies. She’s not just peripheral window dressing or a stereotype or expendable.

“Usually, when you’re Latina, what is usually highlighted is not necessarily the most positive qualities,” said De Armas. “These characters, they don’t exist.”

Johnson wanted to meet her to see if she was the right actor to carry the heart of his twisty murder mystery, so De Armas flew to Boston to read for the part. She was cast and had five days to stop at home in L.A. to fetch her dog, Elvis, before filming began.

Johnson saw in De Armas a quality akin to that of Audrey Hepburn. “You’re immediately on her side when she’s on camera,” he said. “That, combined with her inherent strength and the fact that I knew she would play Marta as a fighter was very important, considering she is a good-hearted person at the center of this. The first thing she said to me was, ‘This girl has to fight.’ And that really made me think, ‘Ana can pull it off.’”

The dizzying time frame was one matter, but the caliber of her costars was even more daunting, De Armas says. A crucial scene that sets the rhythm of the movie and seeds pivotal information took three days to film — just her and Oscar winner Plummer, bringing the most important moment in the picture to life in a tiny study filled with books.

She recently rediscovered a journal she’d kept around the time filming began, last fall. “It said, ‘I’m days away from starting this movie and I don’t feel prepared,’” De Armas recalled. “I didn’t have an idea of what Marta was going to be; it just happened. I felt scared. I felt like she was thrown into this situation and had to deal with it and navigate it the best possible way she could. So I thought, ‘Maybe I’m feeling exactly what I should be feeling.’”

By the second week of filming, she had Marta down. “This part just gave me so many things to do,” she said. “I was nervous about the tone. I was nervous about the comedy. I never thought I was funny.” She paused and laughed, as if it had truly never occurred to her before “Knives Out,” in which Marta plays foil to a motley crew ranging from passive aggressive to downright despicable. “I think I’m funny!”

She’s got the chops. She can do it all. And it’s about time people sat up and noticed.

— Daniel Craig on his “Knives Out” and “No Time To Die” co-star

Craig, who describes himself as “the least anecdotal actor you’ll ever meet,” gives De Armas even more credit after working on two back-to-back movies with her.

“She’s just a really good actress — there’s not much more to it,” said Craig, whose watchful Blanc enlists an overwhelmed Marta to aid in his investigation even as he keeps her on his list of suspects in “Knives Out.” (The nature of Bond’s relationship to De Armas’ Paloma in “No Time to Die,” on the other hand, remains under wraps, but you can expect a very different dynamic in the sleek spy thriller.)

“She’s got the chops. She can do it all. And it’s about time people sat up and noticed,” he said, “The performance she gives in this is remarkable, and amidst all the chaos of the scene-chewing and all that’s going on in the movie, she has this consistency — and she’s very funny because of it. But she’s the heart and soul of it, and it’s a real achievement. The scenes with her and Christopher Plummer are heartbreaking. They’re beautiful. And to have that within the movie is just a testament to her skills as an actor.”

Underneath the pomp and suspenders, Craig was already training and prepping for Bond when “Knives Out” was filming. But De Armas had no idea she’d be joining him until later, when she got a surprise call from Fukunaga, whom she’d met previously for a project that never materialized.

“He said, ‘Part of the movie takes place in Cuba. This role doesn’t exist, but I think I’m going to write something for you. Do you want to do it?’” she said. On top of being offered a custom-tailored Bond role, Emmy-winning “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge was going to write her dialogue, which sent her excitement skyrocketing. “I was like, ‘Aaaaaah! Of course.’ And then I was like, ‘Wait — I’d like to read it first.’”

They sent over her scenes and she was sold. Bond women of yesteryear had never felt relatable to her, said De Armas. Paloma, however, felt real.

“I wouldn’t say she’s ordinary, because when she needs to perform her job, she does,” she said. “But [she] is flawed. She says what she feels, she’s nervous, she’s scared. It’s human. When I read it, I was like, ‘Oh, wait — I can be a Bond girl. I’m that. I’m that messy.’ That’s what felt so attractive, on top of what she’s actually doing in the story, which is another step toward giving women a more powerful and strong place in the films.”

Johnson, for one, can’t wait to see his two “Knives Out” stars together again in the Bond film in April. “I will be thrilled,” he said. “I’ll be the one in the audience opening night shouting, ‘Marta, kick his ass!’”

De Armas has many more projects set to come out in 2020, for which she apologizes in advance. “I’m sorry, you’re going to get bored of me!” she joked. They include “Sergio,” “Wasp Network,” which she shot for director Olivier Assayas back home in Cuba, and the currently filming “Deep Water,” which marks “Fatal Attraction” filmmaker Adrian Lyne’s first picture in 18 years and pits her opposite Ben Affleck as a married couple embroiled in a dangerous game, adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith.

She admits she sometimes carries her characters with her after filming, and given how lightning-fast roles have fallen into place in the last year alone, there’s one she hasn’t had the time or space to put aside just yet. Everywhere De Armas goes in L.A., she feels Marilyn.

The original plan was to train for and film Bond, then come back to L.A. to let her mind and body relax into playing Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Netflix drama “Blonde,” adapted from the historical novel by Joyce Carol Oates. But after filming on the spy blockbuster was delayed due to Craig getting injured, De Armas dived into “Blonde” first, portraying the Hollywood icon over an intense three-month shoot.

“It was kind of crazy, because the physicality of the two characters are so different, and their mind-set,” she said. “I’ve never done such intense work and research and preparation as I did with Marilyn. I have never done — or will do — anything like it ever again.”

After wrapping “Blonde” at 2 a.m. on a Friday, she was back to the London set of “No Time to Die” the next Monday. “So I will be a Bond girl with a Marilyn Monroe body,” she laughed.

"It feels good," said De Armas. "I feel like it’s finally paying off, all the hard work. Leaving family behind, leaving friends behind… all that sacrifice and risking things — risking everything."
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

She thought of the Marilyn statue on the pavement below, frozen in time, as many would like to remember the icon. She thought of her own early years in Hollywood. After learning English, the harder part came when the industry’s persistent toxicity and image obsession crept in, planting seeds of self-doubt when she went out for roles, before good friends reminded her to be confident in herself.

Growing up in Cuba without video games or VHS tapes or Barbie dolls, she remembers playing outdoors with neighborhood kids and using her imagination. When she did watch films and TV, it wasn’t the stars in American movies who inspired her.

“The actors that I admired and that made me want to be an actor were Cubans, because those were the people that were telling my life,” she said, naming a few: Daisy Granados, Luis Alberto García, Isabel Santos. “I never thought I would be Marilyn Monroe, or a Bond girl, or of any of these opportunities that I’ve been given. Or — not really given,” she corrected herself. “I got them.”

Soon, it’ll be back to New Orleans to resume filming “Deep Water,” whose central characters are “so far distant from everything I would consider rational or acceptable in a relationship.” Then, she figures, she’ll be done with L.A. For now.

Her plan is to split time in Havana, closer to family, and give New York a shot. “For a little bit — just to try,” she grins. “I don’t know for how long, but I feel like it’s time to get out of here.”

And if in the future she’s not finding more interesting projects with interesting directors to keep her schedule busy and her spirit fed, she plans to write her own. “I think I need some writing classes first,” she said, “but I do have ideas.”