A Star (in Quar) Is Born

In the absence of everything that makes a star, Ana de Armas has still managed to become one this year.

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; BG004/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images (de Armas); Robert O’Neil/SplashNews.com (Cabello); Madonna/Instagram; Adele/Instagram; Armiehammer/Instagram
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; BG004/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images (de Armas); Robert O’Neil/SplashNews.com (Cabello); Madonna/Instagram; Adele/Instagram; Armiehammer/Instagram

The year 2020 was supposed to be a big one for Ana de Armas.

Fresh off her breakout turn in the holiday hit Knives Out, the Cuban actress was booked and busy for the year to come: in April, the James Bond movie No Time to Die; over the summer, the spy drama Wasp Network; in November, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Deep Water. If all went well, it would be a seamless ramp up to de Armas’s first star vehicle: playing Marilyn Monroe in the biopic Blonde, set to come out in 2021.

Of course, all did not go well. Like every spring tentpole, No Time to Die was delayed until the end of the year owing to the coronavirus, which would have made its title depressingly unapt. Wasp Network did come out, and de Armas was quite good in it, but the film joined her Sundance movie Sergio alongside so many other Netflix Originals in streaming oblivion. November, the month the Bond film had fled to, briefly seemed like it might be de Armas’s moment, but once it became evident that Tenet had not saved theatrical moviegoing, her calendar got wiped again: No Time to Die was moved to next April, a full 12 months after its originally scheduled release, while Deep Water was pushed all the way to August 2021.

And yet, despite all that, this cloistered clusterfuck of a year has still managed to be a big one for de Armas. As our lives have stubbornly continued despite the loss of so much that gives them meaning, de Armas has proved to be the celebrity of the moment — a star who shines despite the absence of everything that makes a star. It just hasn’t been quite how she’d pictured it.

Rare is the actor who hits it big in their first opportunity. More common are those who face years of struggle, taking shitty part after shitty part in the hope that it’ll all amount to something someday. For de Armas, the story was somewhere in the middle — rapid ascent, then plateau. Raised outside Havana, she got her start in Cuban productions while she was still in drama school. Thanks to her Spanish grandparents, she was able, at age 18, to move to Spain, where she was cast on the hit series El Internado (Boarding School). After seven years as a big fish in an Iberian pond, she began plotting a move to the U.S., arriving in 2014. She taught herself English between auditions and, that year, landed her first Hollywood movie, menacing Keanu Reeves in Eli Roth’s erotic thriller Knock Knock.

In her early American roles, de Armas got firsthand experience in Hollywood’s favorite type of diversity — the kind that provides what director Anna Biller calls “sexual variety” for the male gaze. Which is to say that after Knock Knock, she played a lot of girlfriend parts — Miles Teller’s in War Dogs, Scott Eastwood’s in Overdrive, Ryan Gosling’s in Blade Runner 2049. There was a sense in the industry that she was perpetually about to bubble up, but at this point in her career, she remained a name more than a face. It didn’t help that her image varied wildly in all these movies: In Knock Knock, she was an aggressive blonde, in War Dogs, a sensible brunette, in Blade Runner, a gigantic pink hologram.

Then came Knives Out. De Armas was the least famous member of the murder mystery’s stacked ensemble, and her character, Marta Cabrera, was essentially hidden in the film’s marketing. What a surprise, then, that the role helped transform her into a star. De Armas has said she was reluctant to take the part at first, especially after reading a preliminary script that described Marta as simply “Latina caretaker, pretty.” Only after getting the full script did she learn she would actually be playing the protagonist. In a film full of cartoonishly big characters, Marta was the audience surrogate, and de Armas made the part sparkle with her emotional accessibility and crack-comic timing. The film grossed over $300 million worldwide and earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. It was that most precious of accomplishments, a non-franchise blockbuster, and she was at the very center.

Where de Armas was at in the beginning of 2020 is a high-stakes moment in the journey of any ascending star: The door is open, but it won’t stay open forever. You have aroused the audience’s curiosity; if you want to hold their attention, you must transform from mere performer to something more, crafting an image that, as celebrity historian Anne Helen Petersen puts it, demonstrates “a particular way of life, a way of being in the world that resonate[s] and inspire[s] emotion.” With Blonde, de Armas had already nailed the all-important task of finding the right follow-up role. Now it was time to set the star-making machine in motion.

Step one: a Vanity Fair cover, the actress’s first major American media moment, back in February. Ideally, a celebrity profile introduces its subject to the world, drawing parallels between the persona the audience has enjoyed onscreen and the “real person” behind it. This one hit a few key themes. Like Marta, de Armas was a hardworking, down-to-earth immigrant. Her facility for comedy was underlined — No Time to Die director Cary Joji Fukunaga revealed he’d rewritten de Armas’s role to take advantage of her comic chops. And, as is customary for a freshly minted celebrity, the profile included the requisite disavowal of stardom. Much of the story focused on de Armas’s decision to move back to Havana owing to her disillusionment with the Hollywood rat race. “The lifestyle, exposure, and constant business situations are not for me,” she said.

De Armas’s Vanity Fair profile was the initial salvo in the No Time to Die promo campaign. In an unfortunate twist of timing, the issue was still on newsstands in early March when the film’s release was first pushed from the schedule. The following week was more eventful. That was the week Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson revealed they’d caught COVID, when Trump banned flights to Europe, and when the NBA season got put on hold. Because of all that, you may have forgotten that was also the week de Armas unveiled her relationship with her Deep Water co-star Ben Affleck, with whom she had enjoyed a well-publicized Caribbean vacation. De Armas had been briefly married back in Spain, but this was her first big Hollywood romance. Fairly or unfairly, it was hard not to detect an air of strategy around the new couple, especially as Affleck was also promoting the addiction drama The Way Back. But whether this was true love, as anonymous sources frequently attested, or phase two of a preplanned Ana de Armas rollout, it had one very real effect: Interest in the actress skyrocketed at the time. Per Google Trends, searches for de Armas were three times higher than their most recent peak, the week she’d stunned at the Golden Globes.

At this point, her stardom took a strange turn away from the prestige track. While the rest of the A-list hunkered down, de Armas and Affleck were photographed by the paparazzi seemingly every day. The movies had disappeared, but the media apparatus around them was still standing. Savvy stars know how to manipulate this obsessive attention to their own ends; through curated snapshots, Angelina Jolie was able to rebrand herself from chaotic brother-kisser to devoted mother and human-rights activist. But if Affleck and de Armas were attempting something similar, the meaning was lost — there was nothing for them to be photographed doing. Besides the movies, the coronavirus leveled the entirety of public life, the very location where stars do their extratextual work. In normal times, actors in between projects will maintain their profile by attending red-carpet events, being seen at popular nightclubs, or acting charming on late-night talk shows. None of that is now possible in America the way it was before.

So mostly the happy couple took walks. Or, in the parlance of the Daily Mail, they shared “a warm embrace in matching workout gear,” enjoyed a “flirty shopping trip,” and “giggled like a couple of lovestruck teens” as they took a stroll in Venice. This was celebrity culture stripped to its bare essentials — two attractive people performing the most basic human functions. Their tabloid omnipresence lent a strange cast to de Armas’s burgeoning stardom. Her choices before this had been the tasteful decisions of someone striving for the A-list: Vanity Fair, not People; Denis Villeneuve, not Michael Bay. Now she was getting the type of coverage usually reserved for Real Housewives.

While it was unclear how much of a hand de Armas and Affleck had in the media frenzy (maybe they were just the only celebs who went outside?), eventually, they began to play with it. But if they were trying to be self-aware, their choices only further cemented their place as gossip-page fixtures. Affleck’s penchant for sporting T-shirts with Cuban slang recalled Tom Hiddleston’s infamous I ❤️ T.S. tank top. And when de Armas trolled her observers by erecting a cheeky cardboard cutout of herself on her lawn, did anyone believe she didn’t welcome the attention?

By summer’s end, de Armas had done something few could boast: She had used quarantine successfully. To ingest any celebrity coverage was to be confronted with her face over and over. Still, something was missing. Turns out the movies still mattered; with no onscreen reference points, she was not an avatar of glamour, a relatable best friend, or a recipient of public sympathy. She was a tabloid face with a hole at the center of her celebrity.

There is a place where stardom is shaped during the pandemic; it’s just not in the real world. Social media has enabled stars to take back control of their images from the paparazzi and gossip sites. But it’s an arena that has become particularly fraught during lockdown, when celebrities couldn’t even sing “Imagine” on Gal Gadot’s Instagram without everyone getting mad at them. Back in March, Amanda Hess of the New York Times identified the pandemic’s “swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity”: The audience who could previously be relied upon to take a vicarious thrill at Hollywood lifestyles were suddenly locked inside with nothing to do but stare at their phones, where they were exposed to an unending series of horrors. The contrast between stars’ anodyne antics and the turmoil going on in the real world couldn’t help but make them seem hopelessly out of touch, whether they were throwing a birthday party on a private island like Kim Kardashian or posting a Breonna Taylor thirst trap like Lili Reinhart. The stars were using social media but had lost control of how their narratives were shaped.

De Armas never teetered that close to cancellation; her Instagram presence was careful not to reveal too much. But her narrative was still open to being shaped by other authors. Into this void stepped @Armas­Updates, a Twitter account run by an anonymous fan that delivered daily coverage of de Armas’s banal comings and goings while lightly trolling her. (A sample Tweet: “Ana de Armas & Ben Affleck walk their dogs outside instead of praying for the pandemic to go away on Easter Sunday.”) @ArmasUpdates had been around since 2019, but it remained under the radar until April, when the account revealed it had been blocked by its subject, giving it the vibe of a samizdat Us Weekly. It quickly became the thinking fan’s preferred way to follow her journey; in the cadence of internet fandom, the writer’s affection for de Armas was simultaneously sincere and ironic. In this way, it was similar to Deux Moi, the blind-item Instagram account that has amassed a large following by posting stories of peoples’ interactions with celebrities, which are as detailed as they are uneventful. (Its thrilling secrets include the speed setting at which Harry Styles runs on a treadmill.) In the quarantine era, it’s not the extra­textual but the meta-textual arena where the star-making happens; anonymous observers are making the meaning for them.

Where did this leave Ana de Armas? Thanks to @ArmasUpdates, she had managed to acquire a star image, even if it wasn’t the one she might have chosen: There was something campy about her, the way she embodied A-list and tabloid culture, and the gap between what she hoped her year would look like and what it turned out to be. But she was also a figure of fun: In all those paparazzi shots, she was bright and smiling, full of life. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine she was in on the joke.

*This article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Quarantined Stardom of Ana de Armas