Why Ana de Armas almost turned down the comic whodunit ‘Knives Out’
By TIM GRIERSON | Los Angeles Times | Published: November 27, 2019
Ana de Armas is looking for a place to call home. “I’ve been in L.A. for six years,” she says, lounging in a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about her latest film, writer-director Rian Johnson’s spry whodunit “Knives Out.” “But I’m in an in-between moment of deciding where I want to go next. I’ve been working so much that I miss my family — I might want to spend more time in Cuba, or maybe move to New York and try a different kind of city with another energy and vibe. But right now, I’m neither in L.A. or New York because I’m working in New Orleans.”
Warm and playful in person, the 31-year-old actress, who was born in Havana but spent much of her childhood in the small Cuban town of Santa Cruz del Norte, is in the midst of a whirlwind string of performances. De Armas first gained the spotlight as a soulful hologram in 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” and next has a hush-hush role in the upcoming James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” where she reunites with her “Knives Out” costar Daniel Craig. (She’s currently filming “Deep Water,” a thriller with Ben Affleck, in New Orleans.)
De Armas is grateful for her busy schedule and rising profile, even if the nomadic lifestyle has its disadvantages. “It feels kind of freeing: When I finish a job and have downtime, I can literally go anywhere I want. But it feels kind of lonely, too, because you don’t have a home. I guess you’ve got to be careful what you wish for, right?”
Her hot streak continues with “Knives Out,” in which she plays Marta Cabrera, a Latina immigrant who lovingly cares for Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist and patriarch of a wealthy, conniving family of vultures. When Harlan is found dead after his 85th birthday party, Thrombey’s entire clan becomes suspects, with the investigation led by the eccentric detective Benoit Blanc (Craig).
Initially, though, De Armas wasn’t interested when she found out she’d only be shown one scene to audition — and that Marta was described simply as “Caretaker, Latina, pretty.”
“I’ve seen that before,” she says unhappily about that thumbnail character portrait. “’Latina,’ I have no problem with, because I’m Cuban and very proud to be Cuban. But that [description] didn’t say anything to me. There’s no information at all about her character.” De Armas knew that the film had already cast big stars like Craig and Chris Evans, so she figured Marta would be just another small, possibly stereotypical ethnic role that she wanted to avoid.
But after insisting on reading the script, which the production resisted for fear of spoilers leaking out, De Armas discovered what audiences will learn about Marta: She’s actually a central figure in “Knives Out,” serving as this darkly comic film’s moral compass and unexpected scene-stealer. In the process, De Armas gives her richest and most nuanced performance to date.
“She’s the one who knows all the secrets and who’s actually mourning the death of her friend,” says De Armas, who points to Marta’s most amusing character trait, which is that she’s incapable of lying without throwing up — not an enviable attribute in a movie rife with deception. But it’s one of the reasons why De Armas fell in love with her. “It’s like a metaphor for being true to yourself and to always do the right thing. I thought it was beautiful. I had so much to play with. Rian gave me all the tools to make it work.”
De Armas is not sure what drew her to performing when she was young. With a laugh, she offers, “I think I just had a lot of time to get bored. I used my imagination to have fun. No one in the town I grew up in had a video game. I never had a VHS video player. I just knew that I wanted to be seen by people and do something bigger.”
After studying acting in Cuba, she moved to Spain, quickly realizing she didn’t have nearly enough money to stay afloat. But fate intervened: A friend of a friend of her brother let her crash on the couch. Soon after, De Armas was getting cast in Spanish TV series and movies, although she knew she’d eventually travel to Hollywood, despite not speaking English.
Her experiences as an outsider made “Knives Out” especially resonant, for while it’s largely a crafty mystery/comedy/thriller, De Armas also sees the movie as a commentary on the cruelty of the rich to those less fortunate.
“We’re dealing with this nowadays all the time,” she says. “It’s really hard for people to put [themselves] in someone else’s shoes. [We’re] incapable of empathizing and helping each other, especially when you’re in a position of power and have all that money, like this family. Just the entitlement — that sense that you deserve everything and you can get away with anything — it happens all the time.”
The sun sets outside the window of De Armas’ suite, which means that shortly she’ll be whisked away to a “Knives Out” screening this evening. She has a big smile on her face, invigorated by all the projects she’s doing — including “Blonde,” her Marilyn Monroe biopic directed by Andrew Dominik, who spent a decade trying to find his Norma Jeane. De Armas prepared not just by watching Monroe’s movies but also studying her era. And she worked with an accent coach for a year. Whether it’s Marta or Marilyn, she wants to get it right.
“It was a lot of work,” she says of “Blonde,” “but each character deserves that. If I’m not energized, it’s not fair to that part. I don’t want to get into that automatic-pilot mode. I don’t just want to show up for work. I want to do things that excite me.”
Ana de Armas may not have a home, but she knows where she’s going.