By Scott Huver. Photographed by Mike Rosenthal | November 20, 2017 | People
After her knockout turn as an all-too-human hologram, Cuban actress Ana De Armas' Hollywood career is materializing into something more substantial.
Dress, $5,020, miumiu.com; jewelry, worn throughout, de Armas’ own.
Ana de Armas takes pride in her ability to zero in on the emotional core of a character, but she admits things get a little tricky when her character is composed of ones and zeroes.
That’s the case in visionary filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi/noir epic, Blade Runner 2049, in which de Armas plays Joi, a hologram who, in pulp detective tradition, serves as a faithful high-tech gal Friday—and maybe more (think Siri with a digital body and the devotion of Mike Hammer’s secretary, Velda)—to Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunting K. And although artificial, Joi is also in many ways the story’s beating heart, which made for some serious acting challenges for de Armas, such as when her character suffers tech glitches.
Take the scene in which K’s flying vehicle crashes into a city-size landfill, and a panicked Joi flickers and freezes up as her operating system crashes. “That was not all in the computer—Denis made me move like that!” recalls de Armas ruefully, describing how Villeneuve had her act out the herky-jerky stop-starts of Joi’s system failure in the midst of the sprawling, trash-filled practical set, wearing a tiny wardrobe in the middle of a cold November day, all while Gosling, unconscious in character, watched her perform in physical fits and starts.
“I told Ryan, ‘You’re not allowed to look at me! You passed out, so keep it that way,’” she laughs. She summoned “robotic and cold” movements while still emoting Joi’s moment of terror, not knowing if K survived the crash. “It’s scary because you don’t know what it’s going to look like. It can look great or it can be embarrassing.” Ultimately, her acting combined with FX trickery resulted in one of the tensest and most haunting sequences in the film.
Pearly polyurethane coat, $24,550, Chanel; dress, $28,000, Dior.
The character’s surprisingly rich emotional life was there on the page, but the visual details of Joi’s sci-fi nature had yet to be fully developed. “When I read [the script], my intuition was telling me she was very emotional and very real, but I was so confused,” she says. “Denis was always asking for that vulnerability, [but] even when we had conversations with the visual effects team, nobody knew what she was going to look like. It was kind of like a blind process for me... I normally speak by moving my hands and I’m very expressive with my face— something Cuban, I guess. This one had to be everything emotional inside, but little physically.”
Other unique technical conundrums arose: Joi’s holographic physique allows her to shift her wardrobe to a new look in the blink of an eye. “I had to be scanned again and again and again [in different outfits],” de Armas says with a laugh. “Everyone stopped for two hours so I could change my clothes and makeup, and then go back and say one more line, and then go back and change again. It was really challenging.”
Dress, $28,000, Dior
Those elements, added to the fact of a massively budgeted 35-yearslater sequel to Blade Runner—one of cinema’s most revered and influential films—starring acting heavyweight Gosling and full-fledged icon Harrison Ford, and helmed by the thoughtful filmmaker behind Arrival, came with no little amount of expectation, which made the job both terrifying and thrilling.
“I think you only throw yourself into those kinds of moments when you have a director like Denis who you know is looking at every detail,” de Armas says. “He thought I was the right person, but then you still have five months ahead of you. You still have to deliver. I wanted to give back that trust he gave me, and that was the scary part. You don’t want to be the one in the movie that’s like, ‘The movie’s great, but she...’ But I knew if I was [messing] it up, at least he was going to fix me.”
“I WAS NOT GETTING THE ROLES I WAS CRAVING BECAUSE THEY STILL [SAW ME AS] THE SCHOOLGIRL.”
Messing it up was unlikely. De Armas, 29, has been performing all her life, beginning in her native Cuba. “I would watch movies on the couch in my house. If I saw a scene played by a woman or a man— it doesn’t matter—a scene I really liked, I would right away run to the mirror and repeat it.” When her family moved to Havana, 12-year-old de Armas learned of the National Theater School of Cuba and persuaded her parents to let her audition. She was admitted.
By then, her dream of becoming an actress had become real to her. “I knew that was what I was going to do,” she remembers. While still in school, she landed roles in a number of Spanish productions shooting in Cuba. Upon graduation, with a foot in the door and 200 euros in her pocket, she moved to Spain at 18. “I had the balls and a Spanish passport,” thanks to her Spanish-born grandparents, she notes, “so I bought a ticket, and I told my mom, ‘When I run out of money, I’ll come back.’”
Almost immediately upon arrival, she met a prominent Spanish casting director who swiftly placed her in a key role on the wildly popular boarding school drama-thriller El Internado. “The TV show helped me a lot. It was one of the best things that ever happened to my career,” she says of her first taste of fame, fortune, quality material and typecasting. “[But] because I was wearing a school uniform for three years, it was hard to get rid of that. I was not getting the roles I was craving because they still [saw me as] the schoolgirl.”
Single-breasted blazer, cropped knit top, and five-pocket skirt, all price upon request, at Louis Vuitton.
A fresh start in Hollywood beckoned. “But I didn’t speak English,” says de Armas. She threw herself into learning the new language, which she soon relished. “It was like a new superpower, and I was learning how to use it,” she admits. “I could tell how hard it was for Penélope Cruz at the beginning to feel and to act in English because it was [using] a different part of your brain. I always thought, ‘I have to get good at that. I have to be able to feel and not think about what I’m saying.’”
During the steepest grade of her learning curve, de Armas instructed her U.S. agents to send her out on auditions regardless of how wary they were about her accent. “And I didn’t want to audition for ‘Maria’ and ‘Juana’—none of that,” she says. “I wanted to audition for the same parts everyone else was auditioning for.” After a few bumps in the road, she found her groove. “I knew emotionally what the scene was about, so my feelings were in the right place, even if my mouth was going somewhere else. I guess that made directors like Eli Roth and Todd Phillips [who cast me in their respective films Knock Knock and War Dogs] change their minds.”
"I WANT TO SHOW HOW STRONG AND SMART WOMEN ARE. WE GO THROUGH SO MUCH. WE NEED TO SEE THAT ON SCREEN"
“I think these three and a half years of working, being anonymous again and having that freedom of walking down the street—not having many people paying attention to what I’m doing—was a good detoxifying period,” she says of the fame-free benefits of her Cuban exodus. But with rave reviews for her turn in Blade Runner 2049 filled with the phrase “breakout performance,” she admits: “I may have to start getting used to it again... or maybe not. Maybe nothing happens!”
But “nothing” isn’t in de Armas’ game plan. “I want to do everything and beyond. I want to create impact,” she enthuses. “Until now, I’ve always been the wife or the girlfriend of the lead actor in a movie. I’ve learned a lot from it, and I played it because I really wanted the part, but there’s more than that,” she explains. “There are great female roles that are not only reacting or creating the situation for [the man] to be the hero. I want to show how strong and smart women are. We go through so much. We need to see that on screen. Those female parts are not many, but they are out there, and I have to find some. I want that chance.”
styled by JACQUELINE ZENERE. Hair by Suave Professionals celebrity stylist Jenny Cho. Makeup by Melanie Inglessis at Forward Artists using Chanel. Manicure by Pilar Noire using Chanel Le Vernis in No. 578 New Dawn. shot on location at THE JEREMY WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. Video by Nardeep Khurmi