As a girl growing up in Cuba, de Armas saw Monroe's films on television. "I wasn't aware at that age that she was Marilyn Monroe," the actress, 34, tells EW. When she moved to Madrid at 18 and started studying films, she realized the beautiful woman she'd been enamored with as a child was Monroe.
Now, de Armas is playing the legend, or more accurately, she's portraying Norma Jeane Mortenson, the real woman behind the alter ego Marilyn Monroe, in Netflix's Blonde. The movie is in theaters now (it hits Netflix on Sept. 28), but since the earliest whisperings of the project, it has generated controversy amid polarized opinions. Adding fuel to the fire: Blonde is based on a novel by iconoclastic author Joyce Carol Oates, and not a work of conventional nonfiction biography.
At this point, de Armas has heard it all, from criticisms of her take on Marilyn's voice (which at times still bears hints of her Cuban accent), to reviews interrogating the film's continued exploitation of a woman who was herself exploited for her voluptuous figure.
De Armas is topless for a significant portion of the film's nearly three-hour running time, and her Marilyn suffers a host of indignities: a rape by Fox studio head Daryl F. Zanuck, a forced abortion (complete with a camera shot from within her vagina), an unflinching depiction of Monroe giving President John F. Kennedy a blowjob in extreme close-up.
These are enormous asks of an actress, requiring a level of vulnerability and exposure few are asked to give. But de Armas is adamant that the only way out was through. Unlike the film's version of Monroe, she says she felt entirely in control of each of those scenes.
"It's harder for people to watch [those scenes] than for me to make them, because I understood what I was doing and I felt very protected and safe," de Armas says. "I didn't feel exploited because I was in control. I made that decision. I knew what the movie I was doing. I trusted my director. I felt like I was in a safe environment. We had hundreds of conversations about these scenes. Everyone felt a deep respect for the movie we were making. And in that sense, I had no fear. I didn't feel uncomfortable at all, even though they were really hard scenes."
The blowjob scene in particular is likely to raise eyebrows — it has already resulted in a rare NC-17 rating for the film — but de Armas tackled it as if it were all of a piece with the version of Monroe's story that they were telling. To her, it was essential in conveying the message that she and writer-director Andrew Dominik set out to give audiences, a sense of sad dislocation. "We actually did two takes of that scene only," she recalls. "We had an intimacy coordinator with us all the time, and she was very helpful. But I wouldn't even say these scenes were more difficult than any other scene. It was just a part of a whole story. I knew exactly what the shot was going to be. I knew exactly what was going to be seen, what was not going to be seen, and it felt like it was the right thing to do."
Matt Kennedy / Netflix 'Blonde' charts Marilyn Monroe's life as a violent fever dream.
Besides the more explicit aspects of the film, de Armas was tasked with creating both a believable version of Monroe, the Hollywood star, and stripping her down to her essence as Norma Jeane. She researched for nine months, watching films, working with a dialect coach, and conversing with Dominik about their version of the blonde bombshell.
One thing Blonde doesn't dwell on is how much Monroe utilized that fabricated image herself to gain advantage. Instead, the movie foregrounds an actor trapped in a vise of her own making. "People have been ignoring the woman that was underneath the character," reflects de Armas. "This character was created, and Norma Jeane was completely trapped inside her."
A particular director's note from Dominik helped de Armas find her way through the gauntlet. "Andrew said to me that I had to choose one moment in the movie where I could show rage and anger," de Armas recounts. "The rest of the movie I wasn't allowed to use that. She couldn't afford that — that was not in my survival kit. She had been the unwanted child and unloved for so long, she just couldn't do that."
Netflix Ana de Armas in 'Blonde.'
"Something clicked in me that I understood, that if you can't do that — which is very healthy to get angry and push back — then you need to really get good at other things and figure out a way to survive and try and protect yourself," she adds. "It was the moment of understanding how much damage and how difficult it must be for someone to live life like that, under so much pressure and expectations, without that defense mechanism."
Monroe's internal workings are what fascinated de Armas, not the idea of creating a facsimile of a movie star, though there was plenty of opportunity for that. (Dominik created a production bible of nearly 700 images of Monroe, some of which de Armas recreated for the film, along with Monroe's most famous cinematic moments.)
"Her voice changes a lot throughout the years," de Armas notes. "She used to stammer and felt insecure. She wanted to sound more elevated and well-studied and smart. You see one movie and it sounds like this, and then you watch another one, it sounds completely different. I really wanted to have that voice in the re-creations, but the voice that we are familiar with is the onscreen voice. I listened to a lot of audio where she doesn't talk like that at all. She has a more raspy voice — she laughs in a different way."
"She was more relaxed because she wasn't being Marilyn," de Armas says. "I really wanted to honor that. Someone's voice has a lot of different qualities, and trying to imitate Marilyn's voice in a movie that is mostly about Norma Jeane was going to be restrictive. I prefer to move people and do something real, rather than just imitate something."
Netflix Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in 'Blonde'
So much has already been written about this film and de Armas' performance in it, but one thing she says she wants to set the record straight on are reports that she was "haunted" by Monroe.
The actor says it was more just a sense of feeling Monroe's presence. "We went to her spaces," she says. "We went to her apartments, drove her car, went to her house — she's all over L.A. You go to restaurants and there is Marilyn's table. She's everywhere. It's impossible not to feel something bigger with you [in those moments]."
De Armas says she was determined to give every ounce of herself to her Blonde performance in striving for something true. "That openness goes to everything," she says. "You're open not just to give, but to receive and be perceptive."
In talking about Marilyn Monroe — something de Armas has done a lot — she could just as easily be talking about her own high-wire act, and the scrutiny it has received.
"It's unfair for anyone to be put in a position of being an icon," de Armas muses. "People are less forgiving of things because you're supposed to be perfect, and you represent this ideal of something that people want to be. It's very tough to change that narrative."