Ana de Armas found herself in a familiar setting while filming No Time To Die, the 25th instalment of the James Bond franchise. The Cuban-born actor traveled to Pinewood Studios, just outside London, which had been transformed into a near-identical replica of downtown Havana for the film.
“It was completely freezing, so it did not feel like home,” de Armas laughs, recalling the cavernous set. “But I was impressed by how beautiful and realistic it was. It went on and on forever. And working with Daniel [Craig] again was so great.”
Her character, the mysterious CIA agent Paloma, is set to be a new brand of Bond woman, described as “flawed” and “messy”, who also happens to be Cuban. She reunites with Craig – making his fifth and final outing as Bond – having starred together in Knives Out, last year’s hit whodunit.
“I was really NERVOUS [at the Golden Globes] and kind of wishing I WASN’T going to win, so I wouldn’t have to go up on STAGE”
De Armas shone in the Agatha Christie-esque, but originally written, film, even amidst an ensemble of Hollywood names at the top of their games. “It was incredible,” she says of the experience, wearing a fluffy white robe on her PORTER shoot while the crew waits for the LA sun to emerge from behind thick clouds. Receiving a Golden Globe nomination for the role was also “surreal”.
“It was very unexpected for me, and obviously I was proud and honored. I was really nervous and kind of wishing I wasn’t going to win, so I wouldn’t have to go up on stage. At first, I thought, ‘What am I going to do there by myself with all these people?’” she says. “Of course, I knew Rian [Johnson, the film’s writer and director] and the actors at my table. Then I started looking around and I saw Robert De Niro, who I did a movie with, and Todd Phillips, who I also did a movie with. I’ve just never been in this kind of environment with them. It made me relax a little to know I wasn’t alone in a scary room.”
Knives Out became a box-office success at the end of 2019, and put the actor’s face on enough screens to ensure people wouldn’t forget it. “There’s something about Ana on screen that instantly earns an audience’s empathy. Maybe that has something to do with her genuine good heart and open demeanor in life,” says Johnson, who cast her as Marta, the caregiver at the center of the film. “With Ana, what you see is what you get. She’s very confident and comfortable as a person. No games, no drama. Just a cool woman who’s very good at her job.”
Despite her Golden Globe nerves, de Armas, now 31, doesn’t seem the type to be easily intimidated. She moved from Cuba to Spain, becoming a television star at the age of 18, and then to Los Angeles. She showed up out of the blue and knocked on Hollywood’s door. They answered, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. This year, she will add five further films to her resumé, including her Bond turn and the lead in Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, Blonde.
By the time de Armas was a teenager, she was studying at the National Theater School in Havana and had already worked on three local films, but she had never been away from home. The average income in Havana is the equivalent of about 30 US dollars per month, and travel visas can be hard to come by, which makes leaving the country something of a challenge.
When she describes her childhood in Cuba, the actor is careful not to suggest that she was deprived in any way. Recycling clothes was an economic necessity at the time (she wore her brother’s hand-me-downs for many years – “his old school uniform pants cut into play shorts”), but she says it’s helped her maintain a healthy perspective when it comes to fashion and consumerism. While she enjoys dressing up for events, she doesn’t spend much time thinking about it.
“In the morning, I get up so early to go to set. I see the cute boots or the sneakers when I’m deciding what to wear, and I always choose the sneakers,” she says.
Growing up in an apartment building, she was surrounded by music. “Cuban people don’t know boundaries very well,” she laughs. They would “listen to each other’s music and parties whether you wanted to or not”. Entertainment was limited to 20 minutes of cartoons on Saturday and the Sunday movie matinee.
“In some ways, it just made it more special,” she recalls. “There was such a short time to watch something. You knew you had to do your homework and help clean the house in time to watch the midday movie. When you finally got in front of the TV, you didn’t want to be bothered.”
De Armas is proud of her Cuban heritage, but decided she needed to leave her home country to pursue acting. “I always knew what to expect. I knew the limitations of the country, in terms of production,” she says, “I had to go.”
Her mother, who worked in human resources and is retired, had a Spanish passport, and her father, also now retired, studied in Russia. Moving to Europe was the obvious next step. “So before I even turned 18, I told my parents that was going to happen. They’ve been so supportive, I was lucky. But it was me going into the unknown. I was just like, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life.’ I put myself in their shoes and realize now what they were thinking, and how terrifying it must have been.”
She arrived in Spain, as the story goes, with about 200 US dollars in her pocket and was cast in her first role within a matter of weeks. Yes, her looks are undeniably striking, and she possesses a presence that leaps off screen, but it is her steely hard work and talent that have propelled her career. She has worked with some of the top directors of the moment: Denis Villeneuve cast her as the “perfect” holographic girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049 and landed her the part opposite Ben Affleck in Adrian Lyne’s first feature film in 18 years, Deep Water, which she is filming in New Orleans.
With a non-stop schedule, de Armas has a constant companion who keeps her grounded: her white Maltese dog, Elvis. But she’s considering where she’ll land when she has time to unpack her suitcase. Recently single – she split from her Cuban artist boyfriend Alejandro Pineiro Bello last year – she may move to New York to be closer to her brother, who lives in Brooklyn. During her rare downtime on set, she FaceTimes with her friends, back in Madrid, and reads – slower than she’d like – in English. You will not hear her complain about the frantic speed of her schedule, though. “When I was living in Spain, work was moving at a very slow pace that I’m personally and artistically not comfortable with. I get very anxious and I feel like I’m wasting time.”
While de Armas’s English-speaking film debut back in 2015 – starring opposite Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock, an erotic thriller by Eli Roth – might not exactly have been a classic, it was enough for the actor to make a lasting impression. In fact, she was called in for the Blonde role after director Andrew Dominik saw her in it.
“I read EVERYTHING I could about Marilyn. It was about understanding her EMOTIONAL life, how intelligent she was, and how FRAGILE”
“She stole the movie,” they said via a co-written email. “She is extremely talented. She’s versatile, hardworking, professional, beautiful and loved by everyone. She has all the makings of a global star.”
By any measure, de Armas fits the profile of “next big thing”. However, her research on Marilyn Monroe for the eagerly awaited Blonde biopic has made her deeply aware of the emotional toll that kind of attention can bring. “I read everything I could about Marilyn,” she says. “It wasn’t just about transforming physically to look the part, it was about understanding her emotional life, how intelligent she was, and how fragile.”
At the end of 2020, when her five new projects have all premiered on screens big and small, de Armas’s fate as a household name may well be sealed. And those who have worked with her seem to think that is exactly what is meant to be.
“Stardom is such a weird roll of the dice, and also not necessarily something you’d wish on someone you consider a friend,” Johnson says. “But I’m confident Ana’s something special. She’s an incredible actor who is making daring choices both on screen and in her career. I can’t wait to watch whatever she does next.”
No Time To Die is released on April 3 (UK) and April 10 (US)