Cuban actress Ana de Armas may seem like an overnight success, but behind her rise to stardom are fifteen years of hard work, starting at Havana’s famous theatre school. Caroline Taylor says her biggest successes are still to come. Published in the November/December 2020 issue of Caribbean Beat
The long wait for No Time to Die — the twenty-fifth instalment of the James Bond franchise, now slated to premiere in April 2021 after two pandemic-induced delays — has only increased the anticipation among faithful 007 fans. And many Caribbean fans have a particular curiosity, as the series aptly returns to Jamaica, the place where author Ian Fleming dreamed up the mythic secret agent nearly seventy years ago. Even more aptly, the film has recruited three women of Caribbean heritage for its female leads: Naomie Harris (of Jamaican and Trinidadian parentage), Lashana Lynch (of Jamaican parentage), and Ana de Armas — the Cuban actress whose speedy climb up the Hollywood ladder almost beggars belief.
De Armas moved to the United States only in 2014. She didn’t speak any English, and had only ever worked in Spain and Cuba. She’d landed a key Spanish-speaking role in her first studio film — a US and Panamanian co-production called Hands of Stone, with Robert de Niro, Edgar Ramirez, and Usher. On the strength of that, she’d managed to assemble US representation, and — undeterred by casting agents who pilloried her chances of getting quality work because of the language barrier — resolved that it was not going to be her accent that stopped her. “At the beginning, it was a disaster,” says de Armas. “Nobody understood what I was saying. I had no clue what I was saying. But I knew emotionally what the scene was about. So my feelings were in the right place; my mouth was going somewhere else.”
She followed up Hands of Stone with a string of both Spanish- and English-speaking parts in movies with some of Hollywood’s top talent. Late last year, one of those films saw her receive her first Golden Globe nomination: Knives Out, featuring a stellar ensemble cast including Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, and Jamie Lee Curtis (who described de Armas’s eyes as “the most expressive eyes [she’d] ever seen”). Ironically, it was a role she nearly didn’t take, when the breakdown described her character as “pretty Latina caretaker.” In 2020, she had two films released pre-COVID, with three more delayed until 2021.
Born on 30 April, 1988, in Santa Cruz del Norte, Cuba, de Armas says her most significant growth and greatest successes have all come from big, risky moves. “You can dream very high,” she explains, “but very few people dream that they can really go outside and have the balls to make that dream happen.” When she was nine, her family — father Ramon (a teacher); mother, also named Ana (who worked in human resources); and brother Javier (now a photographer) — moved to nearby Havana. Her instinct for acting was already making itself manifest in ways it so often does: young Ana would feverishly recreate scenes and performances she’d seen on screen. So when she learned of the famed National Theatre School in Havana, she made her parents take her for auditions, and enrolled when she was fourteen.
The school was part of Fidel Castro’s grand vision for the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) — a national arts school offering free, world-class education in ballet, modern dance, art, music, and drama to students from Cuba and the developing world. The school has produced internationally acclaimed alumni — almost against the odds, as the buildings for the ballet, theatre, and music schools were never finished, and soon began to crumble. The ENA campus is recognised as an architectural marvel, and there are significant international efforts to complete and restore the structures. Despite these infrastructural challenges, Cuba built a robust arts education system, where every child who demonstrates aptitude for a particular artistic discipline can access rigorous instruction.
It was in this system that an ambitious, restless, and fearless young de Armas began to cut her teeth, hitchhiking to school every morning. “When I speak of ENA, a smile comes back to me,” she says. “But when I think about it for more than ten minutes, other things come to mind. There were many good, incredible, unforgettable, beloved, and delicious times that filled me with experience and matured me, but there were also some very difficult and painful moments that I experienced at that time, as if it were the end of the world, and those that I benefited from years later. It’s a school where I had great teachers, ones with big hearts, but of course I also had some who weren’t so great . . . It was the place where I had my first contact with the theatre and it was the place where I fell in love with this profession . . . Many of the things I learned in the school have definitely contributed to my professional development.”
In her second year, fate came knocking, and she landed her first job in the Spanish film Una rosa de Francia. “That movie taught me all the rules of a film shoot: discipline, study, late nights, respect for all team members, and above all, to realise how lucky we are to do what we love and make a living from it,” she reminisces. “When you experience that at the age of sixteen, it can scare you or it can fill you with courage and hunger for more. And I wanted to eat up the world.” However, coming events would cast their shadows, as she was technically forbidden to be working while still enrolled at school — sneaking out to film at night, and falling asleep in class the next day. Her days at ENA were numbered, as she was already plotting her next big move.
Two years of social service are required of all graduates, following which prospects for work as professional artists may be limited. De Armas decided to roll the dice, leaving school before graduation, and armed with just two hundred euros, a Spanish passport (citizenship she acquired from her Spanish grandparents), and a plane ticket for Madrid. “I almost never question my instinct,” she says. She promised her mother she’d return if her money ran out. Two weeks later, she was cast in the popular Spanish TV series El Internado, which she starred in for four seasons, taking other film and television work in between. There was no need to return home, as she continued building a successful career in Spain until 2013, when she was cast in Hands of Stone.
Cue the next big move. “When I left Cuba, then again when I left Spain, it was always because I wanted more,” says de Armas. “I was ambitious, and I wanted to just be in a place where I was exposed to the best projects . . . I was chasing, maybe unconsciously, the filmmakers that I wanted to work with.”
She spent several months learning English full-time, and insisted to her agents (with whom, at first, she couldn’t even carry on a conversation) that she didn’t want to be limited only to Latina roles. She told them to just get her the audition, and leave the rest to her. “Then you can try to do your best and convince them that maybe that part that was not written for someone with an accent or Latina [could be] just someone in the world. It doesn’t matter from where. You can play that, and you can do something special, and you can make that part remarkable and something different,” she says. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to fight for the part they want.”
The good news was that by now she was getting cast in films with top-drawer talent — including Keanu Reeves, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Clive Owen, Penelope Cruz, and Gael García Bernal. The genres were varied — science fiction, psychological thrillers, dramatic biopics, and dark comedies — and she was able to show off her range. She could be vulnerable and tender, fierce and fiery, sexy and seductive, or goofy and funny. But the bad news was that nearly all of the films were either critical or box office bombs. That is, until Knives Out — a clever, funny, and moving film that scored with critics and audiences alike, and which had de Armas at its heart.
Anyone who hadn’t caught her chameleon-like performances over the previous fifteen years suddenly took notice. Her strategy of getting into auditions so she could show people what she could do was also paying dividends. Acclaimed director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who was directing No Time to Die, had seen de Armas for another project which didn’t materialise. With the Bond film’s plot taking a turn through Cuba, Fukunaga called her to say he wanted to write a role specifically for her. “People either have that magic quality you want to watch,” he said, “or they don’t.”
Next up for de Armas: the pandemic-delayed releases of No Time to Die, Deep Water (with boyfriend Ben Affleck, whom she met on set), and Blonde, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and for which she worked hard with a dialect coach to transform into Marilyn Monroe.
The possibilities moving forward seem limitless. De Armas also has an active desire to contribute to the Cuban film industry, and believes fervently in the calibre of talent on the island. She’s returned to film various projects there, and has asked friends and colleagues to let directors in Cuba know that she’s actively looking for projects to come back and work on. In the meantime, though, she returns to Cuba as often as she can, to visit her family and friends, and to just disconnect. “Cuba is always in my heart,” she says. “I miss it terribly. Every day.”
Though she says she doesn’t have rigid ideas or plans for what she wants her career to look like, there are still some specific goals she wants to achieve. “I want to create some impact,” she says. “There are great female roles that are not only reacting or creating the situation for [the lead actor] 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.”
Your move, Ana.