How Ana de Armas Used Her Own Insecurities to Play Marilyn Monroe

“In the same way that I don’t think Norma Jeane felt she could live up to Marilyn…those were the kind of things that were happening to me."

Like entire generations of women, men, and movie studios before her, Ana de Armas covered her walls with photographs of Marilyn Monroe. 

To prepare to play the Hollywood icon in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” the actor sifted through the countless images left behind by one of the most-photographed human beings ever to walk the Earth. But she wasn’t looking for magazine covers, pinups, or promotional images that graced billboards and marquees. De Armas was trying to find the candid shots caught between poses—moments when the lens captured not the timeless blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe, but the woman born Norma Jeane Mortenson.

“There were a few pictures where you could see that she was not prepared. She was just thinking in between shots,” de Armas remembers. “Her expression—it was this kind of exhaustion and heaviness.”

It was these rare, revealing photos that de Armas displayed in her trailer during production. “I have seen way too many pictures of [Monroe] smiling and being happy,” she says. “I needed to remember how exhausting it was to keep that show going.”

For another movie, this would be an innocuous piece of behind-the-scenes trivia; but for “Blonde,” it’s hard to ignore the context. We’re speaking at the tail end of a marathon day of interviews, just a few days after de Armas broke into tears of gratitude during a 14-minute standing ovation for “Blonde” at the Venice International Film Festival’s Sala Grande. She’s only 24 hours removed from a cover shoot, one of several this year. “Blonde” hit theaters and Netflix a few weeks after we spoke, leading to even more conversations—about its NC-17 rating, its relentless brutality toward its subject, and its graphic depictions of everything from assault to abortion. De Armas is at the center of those discussions, even as she’s in postproduction for the Apple TV+ action-adventure flick “Ghosted”—her first starring role that also comes with an executive producer credit. She’s also in preproduction for Emerald Fennell’s “Ballerina,” the “John Wick” spinoff that saw de Armas taking an active role in finding a screenwriter. 

Ana de Armas photoshoot

The actor delivers a remarkable performance in “Blonde,” a film about how the performances we see onscreen are just a sliver of what keeps the proverbial show going. 

“It does feel different,” she says of discussing “Blonde” in the under-the-bright-lights circumstances the film critiques. “I’m very proud of the work we did and very proud of the movie and the performance,” she says. “And at the same time, I know things will be taken out of context or misinterpreted. It’s a very vulnerable place to be.”

But reflecting on her own experience always brings de Armas back to Norma Jeane. “She was probably in this position many, many times,” she says. 

It’s impossible to discuss “Blonde”—and its star—without talking about the divide between the faces we see onscreen and the ways they mask the real, often unknowable humans underneath. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name, Dominik’s film feels less like a biography than a nightmare. Changing color palettes and aspect ratios seemingly at random, “Blonde” is a hallucinatory exploration of why Norma Jeane needed to create Marilyn Monroe. The persona was an act of self-preservation, a way to separate from and survive the constant cruelties that came with her stardom. For Norma Jeane, Marilyn was “an armor and a prison at the same time,” de Armas explains. 

One of the main challenges of preparing for the role became finding the cracks in that armor. “[I found] this interview; it was only audio; you couldn’t see her,” de Armas recalls. “It was at her house, and you could tell she had been drinking. She was a little tipsy; her voice was very raspy, and she was laughing. It [sounded like] a completely different person. Of course, we’re familiar with the onscreen voice and onscreen image. Everything else that you find really feels like it’s kind of shocking. You say, ‘Oh, my gosh, is that the same person?’ ” 

The better de Armas came to know Norma Jeane, the more she empathized with her. “I was just playing Norma for the most part. It’s easier for me to connect to that. It’s relatable. I can understand it. I have experienced it,” she says. With that empathy came a sense of anger and protectiveness, emotions Dominik advised de Armas to leave off-set. 

Ana de Armas photoshoot

“Andrew told me, ‘You can’t get angry. Rage is not allowed for you. You can’t afford that,’ ” de Armas says. “[Norma Jeane] doesn’t have that in her survival kit. She had no way of pushing back. That’s why people kept taking and taking and taking.” 

For de Armas, removing anger from her acting toolkit was a “huge revelation,” like walking blind through a dark room with only her other senses to guide her. “It makes you really good at other things. You enhance all your other skills and abilities to survive,” she says. “Once you understand that, it’s amazing. It makes you pull from other places. Anger is a very healthy thing for all of us. Not having the luxury of using it was very interesting.”

De Armas is no stranger to navigating the entertainment industry with vital pieces of herself missing; the early days of her career were marked by major departures from the familiar. She left the four-year drama program at Havana’s National Theatre of Cuba without officially graduating, but with three feature film credits to her name. Stardom followed shortly after she left her home country for Spain, thanks to a role in the teen drama series “El Internado (The Boarding School).” She filled the gaps between seasons with lead roles in projects like the coming-of-age comedy “Mentiras y Gordas (Sex, Party & Lies).” Boasting a veteran’s bio by age 25, de Armas moved to Hollywood, where the language barrier is often large enough to cast a shadow over an actor’s résumé. For early American projects like 2015 horror thriller “Knock Knock” and 2016 black comedy “War Dogs,” de Armas learned her lines phonetically. 

“I’m very proud of the work we did and very proud of the movie and the performance…. And at the same time, I know things will be taken out of context or misinterpreted. It’s a very vulnerable place to be.”

By the time her public profile exploded stateside thanks to the one-two punch of Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” and Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” she had worked tirelessly to become fluent in English. But even now, with her undeniable talent and her career at an all-time high, she’s still aware of the vicious chatter, a holdover from a version of Hollywood best left in the past. Case in point: One of the more toxic reactions to de Armas’ casting in “Blonde” involved the question of whether one of the most recognizable American movie stars in history would have a Cuban accent.

“In the same way that I don’t think Norma Jeane felt, ever, that she could live up to Marilyn…those were the kind of things that were happening to me. How she felt her entire life, I have been through that myself,” de Armas says. “I’m Cuban. I have a dialect coach for every movie, not just this one, because I want to do better. I’ve felt judged and not appreciated many times.”

That vulnerability followed de Armas into the early days of filming “Blonde.” The very first scene she shot is a harrowing one; it depicts a nightmarish abortion procedure that transitions into a dream in which Norma Jeane runs through a burning building, searching for a crying baby she cannot find. It was a taxing introduction to the role, but de Armas describes it as “a nice way to break the ice,” because she didn’t need to say a word. 

Day 2, however, was devoted to a long dialogue scene with her co-star Julianne Nicholson, who plays Norma Jeane’s mentally ill mother, Gladys. “I was terrified,” de Armas says. “It was the first time I was speaking. 

Ana de Armas photoshoot

“I had been practicing with the dialect coach for three to four hours every day, but no one had ever heard me talking like that,” she continues. “All the actors who saw me the first day, they know Marilyn better than me. They’ve seen her more than me.” 

Those familiar, unfortunate feelings fueled the actor throughout her performance. “I put aside what wasn’t helpful for the part, and I kept the rest—feeling nervous; feeling insecure; feeling like I was not being, at times, as good as I wanted to be; feeling judged,” she says. “All of those things I felt myself, and they worked for the role.”

Contrast that uncertainty with de Armas’ final day on set, filming a scene in which Norma Jeane stargazes on the beach beside Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). It’s one of the only moments in which de Armas gets to play Norma Jeane with a sense of optimism, when the starlet is free to look up at a night sky that isn’t painted on the ceiling of a studio backlot. 

When Dominik called “Cut” around 3 a.m., production was over. “It didn’t feel like I was saying goodbye. Maybe I didn’t want to say goodbye,” de Armas says. Less than 48 hours later, she was on a plane to London to start shooting James Bond flick “No Time to Die” as CIA agent Paloma. “I think there is a little bit of Marilyn in Paloma as well, which is really beautiful,” de Armas says, thinking back to the parts of her “Blonde” experience that lingered long after production wrapped. 

“It’s kind of like you’ve done something so big and so meaningful to you,” she says, “and you’re still not processing that you did it.”

Over the years, de Armas has learned that she has to decide which aspects of the job to process and hold onto—and which ones to leave behind. One of the first things she let go of was the idea of being an overnight success. 

“It’s funny, because I’ve heard so many times, with each project, ‘This is the time; this is the one.’ The momentum. Big words! Big expectations!” she says with a laugh. “You’re kind of like: These are people that I’m supposed to trust. If they’re saying it, it must be true.”

But much like Monroe’s, de Armas’ career is proof that the idea of immediately hitting it big is a myth. A breakthrough moment like the one the actor is currently experiencing is the result of years of setbacks, close calls, and plans that didn’t pan out. She urges any actor at any point in their journey to let themselves accept the wins—a good review, a positive audience reaction, an award here and there—without pinning their hopes on these successes. 

Ana de Armas cover“What does ‘This is the one’ mean?” she posits. “To me, all I’m doing is working. The expectation of something changing, or the thought that this dramatic thing in your life is going to happen and now people are going to see you in a different way—very quickly, I understood that’s just not something I want to look forward to or pay attention to. That’s not the reason why I do my job.

“At the end of the day, the reward, for me, is the experience,” she continues. “The reward, for me, is getting the opportunity to do something more interesting or [land] a better role, not that big change that’s going to happen. Nobody knows that.”

And when the experience is over? “What matters is only the recognition of the effort and the work. That turns into respect for your craft. The rest…” 

She trails off, because the rest is just noise; and as with her preparation for “Blonde,” she only tunes in to what works. The rest is 14-minute standing ovations and concerns over using accurate dialect; it’s junkets and interviews and cover shoots like this one. The rest is how you look at a candid photograph, or hear a snippet of an audio interview, and come to know the difference between Marilyn and Norma Jeane. 

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 13 issue of Backstage Magazine. To hear our full conversation with de Armas, listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast

Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia on 9/14 at the Four Seasons in L.A. Styling by Samantha McMillen. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.

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