Cuban star Ana de Armas made waves with her controversial take on Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the late star. De Armas’ endlessly emotive performance makes an interesting contrast to London-born Eddie Redmayne, tightly controlled in “The Good Nurse,” as serial murderer Charles Cullen, whose crimes eventually raise the suspicions of the film’s title character, Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain). In conversation, de Armas and Redmayne rave about each other’s work — an especially meaningful compliment for de Armas, as Redmayne knows his Monroe: He starred opposite Michelle Williams in 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn.”
Ana De Armas: I’ve been a big admirer of yours for a long time. I remember going to the premiere of “The Danish Girl.”
Eddie Redmayne: Really?
De Armas: And the after-party. I was just blown away by your performance. So it’s pretty surreal to be here with you today.
Redmayne: I was astounded by your work in “Blonde.” It was one of those rare performances where you want to go and hold that person afterwards and check that they’re OK. Your range is insane, comparing “Blonde” to your other work.
De Armas: Look who’s talking.
Redmayne: Was this the first real person that you’ve played?
De Armas: This is the second, but a completely different approach. The first person I played was in this movie “Hands of Stone,” and I was playing Roberto Durán’s wife, who I was friends with. I spent Christmas with them in Panama. She was Panamanian, and Cubans are the same people, basically.
Redmayne: But still terrifying when the person you’re playing is going to watch your work. There comes a moment when you have to go, “This isn’t a documentary. I’m getting it wrong. I’m just going to do my best and give my heart to it.”
De Armas: Correct. It’s only fair that you have your space to do your job. At least, you just don’t want to imitate this person, because then it’s very restrictive — you have nothing to explore, you have nothing to add to the character.
Redmayne: Am I right in thinking the book is a slightly fictionalized version?
De Armas: It is.
Redmayne: I had this with “The Danish Girl,” about Lili Elbe. Lili’s story was true, but there was a book written called “The Danish Girl” that was a fictionalized version. Our script was an adaptation of that book. I find it complex when there’s a true person, and you’re playing an adaptation of a fictionalized version. I find it complex to wade through what truth I was looking for.
De Armas: There is this photographic memory that we all have of Marilyn. So we think we know what was happening at that time. The film is giving a different interpretation to those images, mixed with the story of the book. I think that’s what has been tough for the audience to understand about the movie; the emotional truth is so powerful in the film that it’s hard to separate that it’s not a biopic. I’ve heard, “You missed this part of her life,” and “She was not only sad or depressed.” And I’m like, “I know, but we’re not telling that story.”
Redmayne: The film about Marilyn I did was a film called “My Week With Marilyn.” And it was, I believe, a true story — maybe apocryphal. But it was when she was making “The Prince and the Showgirl.”
De Armas: That performance that Marilyn gave in that movie is incredible.
Redmayne: When you see that light delicacy that she has, it’s kind of overwhelming.
De Armas: It’s just not fair to only be that one thing — she needed more dimension to who she was, even though it’s the difficult part or the dark side. So it’s important in the movie to show that. Because even though it’s a fictional book and movie, it was true, what happened. You don’t end up dead at 36 years old if everything was amazing and perfect.
Redmayne: The weird thing about our jobs is going from job to job, city to city, and to these new families that you make. To do our job, you have to be vulnerable, and you become very close to people very quickly. There’s such a complexity to that.
De Armas: That only happened to me in my first movie, “Una rosa de Francia,” when I was 16. I was devastated.
“Blonde” also talks a lot about the public self and private self — we all have that.
Redmayne: Maybe more than one, I find. I have no idea who I am.
De Armas: The real Norma Jeane was completely unseen, and nobody was really paying attention to that. That became her lifesaver and, at the same time, a prison, because she couldn’t do anything else without Marilyn. I have nothing to do with Marilyn, in many ways. But I could understand how you manage to navigate life and an industry that spits you out if you’re not wanted anymore. What do you do to stay there longer and feel wanted by people, even though it’s not who you really are? They want something else.
Redmayne: They want a version. It’s pretty devastating.
De Armas: The other day, I found a notebook. I’m horrible at keeping a journal. But I took notes for a week, and every day was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. What is this? I have no idea what this character is like.” I’ve seen “The Good Nurse” twice. And as hard as it is to play a character where you have to do so much research, and you have to be so specific about things, it’s so hard to do what you do in “The Good Nurse,” because you’re boiling, but you never boil over. It’s just so subtle. It’s so specific. How did you come up with this?
Redmayne: I read Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ script, and I was astonished that I didn’t know anything about him. I was like, “This guy might be the most prolific serial killer in American history who was aided and abetted by these hospitals that just moved him on.” But there was lots of footage. I got to speak to the author, Charles Graeber, who spent a lot of time with him. But primarily, it was the real Amy. And she described how kind he was, how gentle, how self-deprecating. And that there was this other human being that she only met twice — this thing happened to his eyes, where one eye drifts up, and it was like a different human being.
De Armas: When you did the scene in the interrogation room, do you always think of what you’re going to do? Or is it in the moment?
Redmayne: I’m not Method at all. But when I arrived on the set, the director, Tobias Lindholm, had my wrist locked up. And I didn’t know that was going to happen. I’m an actor who quite likes working with intentions. And my overriding intention for that scene, despite the fact that he’s broken and completely lacking any power, was to somehow try and retain the upper hand.
There was a thing that happened in court when the judge was giving out his opinion, and a lot of the victims’ families were there. And Charlie, with that arrogance, just started shouting to the judge about his ineptitude. And this built and built to a really violent place — he ended up being bound and gagged in court. So it was also trying to find that moment.
De Armas: It’s hard because you feel for this person. I think I would be his friend. And at the same time, he’s so evil. Do you think you know now why he did it? Do you have your opinion about it?
Redmayne: It’s that human instinct to want to know why. The more I thought on it, the more I realized we want to know why so that we can “other” that person. We can go, “This happened to this person so they’re a monster and I would never do that,” to make ourselves feel safe.
But actually, he never did say why. He gave a whole host of reasons, some of which don’t make sense. Charlie’s mother died when he was 15, and he was very close to her. He went to the hospital and they’d lost her body. Years later, after having been thrown out of the Navy, he came back to that same hospital where his mom died to train. I felt like there was something specific in that choice: trying to expose a system.
But for me, the great treat of this is, I’ve been doing the “Fantastic Beasts” films, which I’ve adored making. There’s a scale, and I imagine it’s like the films that you’ve been doing as well. There are so many people involved that actually getting back to having that intimacy of working …
De Armas: Stillness. The playing off each other and listening to each other and every take doing something different.
Redmayne: We’re so lucky to get to jump into both of those worlds. How did it feel for you, as a Cuban actress, playing this American icon?
De Armas: At the beginning, it felt like, “How is this Australian director thinking that a Cuban woman can play Marilyn Monroe? He’s insane.” It was not supposed to happen. It is one of these roles that you think about, but that’s not going to be you. Not in cinema, at least. In theater, sometimes you get to play parts that are very far from who you are. So for me, getting this role was a very personal challenge. It was an opportunity for me to prove to myself what I could do, what my limitations were. And it was a big risk, because I knew, “Oh, my gosh, if I don’t get this one right, this is over.”
De Armas: I’ll be raising cows and chickens in the countryside. I’ll be doing something else. I will never work again. And then it’s such a beautiful thing because you realize that you do have a lot more in common. And then you hear your people and your friends saying these beautiful things — how proud they are, how they feel represented.
I left Cuba when I was 18. I was acting there, but then I left and I haven’t done any films in Cuba for a long time. So you go back and see your friends, but you’re not a part of that industry anymore. And you feel like you’re gone. They don’t see you as a Cuban actress anymore because you’re now working in Hollywood. And it’s very sad. But then you see the reaction, and then you understand how they really feel. And, actually, it’s very personal for them too. You realize that you were doing that for many other people without even knowing that they cared.
Redmayne: How amazing.
De Armas: They played “Blonde” in Cuba in the theaters. Original version, with the subtitles and everything, for five or six days. And they were packed. The lines outside the theaters were going around the corner.
Redmayne: I always say to young actors who are at drama school or university, “Play as far away from what you look like as you can. Because the second you get into the real industry, you will be playing to type.” For me, it was Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” — suddenly you’re expected to take this massive punt without having done any of the steps between. That fear in that moment when you get cast, and then you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is the greatest thing.”
De Armas: “Great. But now what?”
Redmayne: A millisecond later, it’s like, “Oh, terrible.”
Set Design by Jack Flanagan