“A howl of pain” is how writer-director Andrew Dominik describes Blonde, his relentless Netflix drama starring Ana de Armas as a fictionalized Marilyn Monroe, swept from the pages of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional biography. Filled with screams of anguish that echo the real-life pain the movie star and sex symbol suffered during her short lifetime, Blonde is not at all what you’d call a feel-good movie. But that’s exactly how Dominik wants it.
“The correct response to the movie is to shake like an orphaned rhesus monkey in the snow,” Andrew Dominik tells MovieMaker.
His goal? For the audience to feel compassion and empathy towards Monroe — a.k.a. Norma Jeane Baker — that few people in her life ever did.
“I want people to feel a desire to step in,” Dominik says. “I wanted people to feel on her side, and I wanted people to understand why she’s moving from jackpot to jackpot, from bad situation to worse situation — and not be able to do a f—ing thing about it. And then have to watch her destroy herself, but be helpless to do anything.”
Ana de Armas let herself feel it all.
“It was a lot. I felt it. I was going through it, you know? I felt heavy those days. I felt tired. But that only made me feel even more empathy for her, and understanding, because I went through it for nine weeks,” she says. “I can tell you, it was exhausting to be her. So I could only imagine what it was like to be her for 36 years, at that level of intensity and that lack of support.”
Blonde is Andrew Dominik’s white whale finally captured. He first began adapting the script from Oates’ novel back in 2008, and since then, many actresses have cycled through the casting process as the film struggled to secure funding.
“Blonde’s really got its hooks in me. It was always the film that I wanted to make,” Dominik says. “Everything else I did just because I couldn’t do Blonde.”
The Australian writer-director’s first feature film was 2000’s Chopper, which, like Blonde, was also based on a book about a real person — From The Inside, collected from the prison letters of convicted criminal Mark “Chopper” Read. In 2007, Dominik wrote and directed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the titular outlaws. Then, in 2012, Dominik made the mob drama Killing Them Softly, again starring Pitt, this time alongside Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini. Earlier this year, Dominik released the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis documentary I Know This Much to Be True.
After 14 years of trying to make Blonde, he describes the moment he cast de Armas as “a little bit like falling in love.”
“When you see that right person, you just know,” he says. He knew while watching the 2015 Eli Roth horror film Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves as a dad seduced and then tortured by two sadistic and diabolical young women – one of them a creepily innocent-acting de Armas.
“I just thought, That girl, if you could get her in a different rhythm, she seemed right,” Andrew Dominik says. “Because the thing with Marilyn — she has to understand what all the fuss is about. It’s got to be somebody who has a sort of inner luminance, which Ana had.”
By the time he’d finally settled on Ana de Armas, the film had found its footing — just as society at large became more conscious of exactly the kind of abuse, exploitation, and manipulation Monroe endured.
“It just happens to be coming out at this time. It’s not a reaction to anything that’s happened in the last three or four years or anything — it just seems that the world’s concerns have kind of lined up a little bit with the concerns of the movie,” he says.
“The Me Too movement helped in the sense that one of the biggest obstacles to getting financed was the way that it portrayed various men that were sacred cows. When the Me Too thing happened, you just couldn’t defend men. Nobody who was running a studio was prepared to get offended on John F. Kennedy’s behalf, because that would get them in hot water at that moment, you know? So it helped in that regard. Obviously, we’re going through a sort of period of adjustment where there’s a lot of rage.”
Blonde delivers on rage — and slays the myth of more than one American hero. It includes versions of both Kennedy and Joe DiMaggio among Marilyn’s abusers. Bobby Cannavale’s version of Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s second husband, is known in the film as “The Ex-Athlete,” and Caspar Phillipson’s take on John F. Kennedy is called “The President.” Perhaps the only man in the movie who is mostly good to Monroe is her third husband, Arthur Miller, referred to as “The Playwright” and played by Adrien Brody. But even he fails to fully see her for who she is.
Only Monroe herself could verify which parts of Blonde are real and which are fictional. But there’s no doubt that the actress experienced quite a bit of pain during her lifetime — and Blonde doesn’t let the audience forget that for a second.
“Having the director I had and the partners that I had with me, incredible actors next to me, I couldn’t have been in a better environment to just go to these dark places and allow myself to feel those things,” says de Armas.
“It’s a very emotional experience. The movie moves along with her, the way she’s feeling. … You watch the movie and you have this feeling of actually understanding this woman. It’s about connecting with her, more than just an imitation.”
The Voice of Blonde
Dominik points out the obvious meta nature of an actress, de Armas, playing another actress, Marilyn Monroe. But Blonde makes a compelling case that Norma Jeane Baker was also playing Marilyn Monroe, a studio-infused cocktail of sex, sophistication, goofiness, charm, and vulnerability. Nothing embodied that creation more than the ever-fluid Marilyn voice: crisp one moment, then whispery, then cartoonishly breathy.
Imitation was the last thing de Armas and Dominik wanted.
The director knows that some people online were displeased to hear traces of Ana de Armas’ Cuban accent when the Blonde trailer arrived over the summer. He didn’t mind.
“I think the whole accent thing is a little bit of a storm to teacup. You know what I mean?” Dominik says. “I think if you want to hear an accent, you can. It’s kind of up to the beholder.”
In fact, he says, the Twitter gripes were actually “a good way to rip the Band-aid off,” ensuring that “by the time people see the movie, they’re sort of prepared for that and they’ll forget about it.”
For the record, Dominik found de Armas’ Monroe voice just right for the film.
“I could have made it 100% perfect — and in fact, I did — and I didn’t care as much when I watched the film. It’s sort of a balance. I want to get to the point where I’m not thinking about it without destroying her performance, because her performance is amazing,” he says.
He notes that Marilyn Monroe’s public image doesn’t jibe with who she really was, especially in her final interview, recorded just days before her death on August 4, 1962.
“That baby, breathy voice is not what she walked around speaking. And if you hear the tape of her interview with Richard Meryman, it’s shrill as f—, you know? Like, she had a completely different self, and that’s the self we’re dealing with most of the time.”
De Armas concurs.
“She didn’t have one accent. Marilyn’s voices, affectations, were changing throughout her life. Part of her insecurities took her to have multiple voice coaches. She wanted to sound more sophisticated, she wanted to sound smarter, she wanted to sound all of that, because she had no education. She felt less-than,” she says.
“You see different films from all throughout her career, the beginning, middle, end, and she speaks in completely different ways. You see one movie, and the one after that one, she just happened to have a different dialect coach and her voice is completely different. So it wasn’t about finding the accent. I was also not playing, for the most part, Marilyn — I was playing Norma, and it’s hard to find that.”
Ana de Armas also uncannily nails Marilyn Monroe’s expressions.
“Her eyebrows, her chin, her showing her lower teeth, the position of her mouth and lips that made her so sensual, and all that rounding of the mouth — all of that, everything — there is a reason why she spoke like that,” de Armas says. “It’s not just one thing. So that, to me, was more important, to capture her essence and why she would talk like that.”
An Unloved Child
Viewers of the film who haven’t read Oates’ 2000 novel might sit down to watch the movie expecting to see a biopic of Monroe. What they get instead is a stylized and dramatic interpretation of what it was like to experience the deepest traumas of her life.
“I’m not really interested in being fair to anyone,” Andrew Dominik says. “It’s about — how does it all feel to her? I think Joyce probably did a very similar thing, in that she read it all, and then she wanted to tell us a story that was about the meaning of Marilyn Monroe.”
“It goes through Joyce’s filter, and then Joyce goes through my filter. But it’s really just a story of an unwanted child, an unloved child. It’s about the experience of being unloved, unwanted, abandoned — and then when you become wanted, what does that mean? Once you’ve suddenly got all this desire projected at you, how do you cope with that if you don’t feel lovable?” he adds.
De Armas channels Norma Jeane Baker’s emotions with startling grace. At 34, she has been an actor for half her life, since debuting in the Cuban-Spanish film Una rosa de Francia. After years in Spanish productions, she made her English-language debut in Knock Knock, delivering her lines phonetically. Her ascent since then has been steady and fast, as she clocked memorable roles in War Dogs, Blade Runner 2049, Knives Out, No Time to Die, and The Gray Man. Endlessly charismatic, she frequently steals scenes, and sometimes entire movies. She radiates from magazine covers and rules red carpets, sometimes taking a victory lap by subverting designer-dress expectations with feminized versions of men’s suits.
But with Blonde, she didn’t always feel confident.
“It was not Monday-to-Friday type of work. It was all the time, full-on. At the moment that we started working on this, it was non-stop,” she says.
“But then at the same time, I was always insecure, as well. I was always very self-conscious about what I was doing and my performance with the other actors — American actors that grew up watching her more than me. So I was also experiencing a lot of those insecurities that probably she was also going through. And Andrew was always very encouraging — ‘Stay there. Stay there. That is exactly what’s happening. Go for it, don’t fight it. It’s supposed to feel like that.’”
Just two months after Monroe’s death in 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union found themselves locked in the nuclear standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a civilizational threat that set the stage for six decades of tension between the communist island of de Armas’ birth and the capitalist country where Marilyn Monroe is as marketable as Elvis and Coca- Cola. The cultural and economic embargoes between the two countries are the reason Cuba’s roads are packed with candy-colored classic cars: Cubans keep 1950s artifacts running, sometimes with boat engines, for lack of newer models. The barriers are also the reason that even someone like de Armas, who seems born for Hollywood, only found her way there via Spain, which maintains friendly ties with both Cuba and the U.S.
“It was getting my hands into something that wasn’t supposed to happen in the lifetime of any actress, or someone like my- self,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to have the opportunity to play a role like this. So that alone was like — it’s bigger than a dream come true.”
A Teardrop on the Monitor
Andrew Dominik realized how good Ana de Armas was on the second day of filming.
“She had to do a scene where she hadn’t seen her mother for 10 years,” he recalls. “And she walks in and just explodes into tears, and she came out and she did the first take, and it was amazing. But the operator blew it — he missed the cue. And so we had to do it again. I’m like, ‘Sorry, Ana, we gotta go again.’ She came out, she did a second take, which was also good, but it wasn’t as good as the first one. And before I could even get those words out of my mouth, she said, ‘I want another one.’ The pressure was really on now.
“We roll cameras, she goes back to her mark, and we can’t see it — she’s in the corridor, her first mark is off camera — and like a minute goes by, which is a long time when you’re rolling. And she comes out and she stands in the doorway, and she kind of stared the whole room down.
“It was sort of like a high diver coming up to the edge of a board and looking at how far the pool is below her. And then she went back to her mark and another minute went by. And by this stage, the tension in the room was f—ing unbearable. Then she came out, she does the take that’s in the film, and it was incredible. I actually remember a teardrop of mine actually hit the monitor when she did it. She was amazing.”
It takes an especially dedicated actor to subject themselves to the type of emotional suffering that, judging from Blonde, Monroe went through. What de Armas remembers of that day are the emotions.
“Obviously, as you can see, it’s a very visceral moment. For the first time, she sees her mother after what we’ve seen in childhood. It was very emotional,” she says. “I remember his reaction.”
It came down to trusting Andrew Dominik’s directing.
“I have learned that most of the time, the takes where I feel good don’t look that good on camera, and the takes that I feel like, ‘Okay, that was fine,’ there’s something else that happens. What you feel and what the camera sees are not the same,” she says. “That took me a few years to learn. And that also takes a great director that can teach you that, and that you can trust. Because usually, the only thing you have to trust is your instincts, or how you felt about it. But Andrew, I had full trust in him.”
Andrew Dominik thinks Monroe herself would be proud if she could watch Blonde.
“I don’t think she’d think the film was accurate in a factual sense,” he says. “I think she’d appreciate the attempt at some- one trying to see her experience.”
“Maybe relieved, as well,” de Armas adds.
“I feel like it is a side of the story that hasn’t been told,” she says. “Just flipping the coin for once and just showing her perspective or her point of view or her struggles instead of just continuing with this idea of glamor and fame and success and happiness, and these beautiful images and pictures, and all of that, and being an idol. I could not imagine something harder than that. The expectations and the pressure that puts on someone, it’s beyond anything. It’s not natural. We’re not supposed to carry that pressure.”
De Armas knows a little something about the pressure of fame.
“I just imagine whatever my experience is, I multiply that by a thousand,” she says.
“I could never even imagine what it was like, but I have an idea. I’m a woman, I’m in the industry. I’m a young actress. It’s a different world — we deal now with a different kind of pressure. So in many ways, I can definitely relate to that.”
More than anything, Ana de Armas just wanted the movie to help people see Monroe “more as a human being.”
Though the culture has solidified Monroe’s place in history as not only a legend of the silver screen but also the gold standard of American beauty, Andrew Dominik wants to make one thing clear: “Marilyn Monroe was not respected in her lifetime,” he says.
“She was regarded as kind of a joke. And, you know, when you hear all the stories about her behavior, it’s all pretty appalling… Just not coming to work, and when you say, ‘Hey, how come you’re six hours late?’ she’d say, ‘I forgot where the studio was.’ The place that she’d been coming to for [years] — she’s a f—ing nightmare, you know? She would have been. You hear Billy Wilder’s stories about it, they’re just unbelievable. But those are all the stories about her that exist.”
Don’t let Dominik’s repeating of the old stories fool you — he’s completely enamored with the late actress. And he wanted to tell a story that honored the pain and suffering she went through.
“Nobody really is paying much attention to the fact that she’s had a miscarriage,” he says. “Which is what Joyce is basically pointing out — that there’s a sort of basic horror of the self and a desire to rescue the self which is projected outward.”
Considering the artistic nature of the film, de Armas and Dominik were surprised when it received an NC-17 rating. It’s the first time any Netflix movie has received a rating above an R.
“I personally was a little shocked when we got the rating,” de Armas says. “With all the content that we have nowadays, and everything on TV, all the access that we have to streaming and all of that, I can assure you, if you compare Blonde to other shows or films, it is not even close to the amount of nudity or sexual content or abuse.”
Andrew Dominik wasn’t exactly thrilled about the rating, either. But he feels that “a bit of drama is a good thing.”
“It wasn’t like I set out to get an NC-17 rating, and I don’t even think the rating is deserved. I think we color within the lines,” he says. “I was kind of surprised that they would consider that to be worthy of an NC-17.
“We live in a world where ‘Wet A– P—-’ is, like, the number one song. This sort of Eisenhower morality doesn’t really seem to bear much resemblance to what’s going on in the world. But I feel like anything that’s showing a woman in sexual situations is sort of something that — nobody wants to look under that hood.”
Andrew Dominik wasn’t willing to tone down the film — which contains quite a bit of nudity, multiple sex scenes, rape, and physical abuse — in order to scale it back to an R. He completely disagrees with the “less is more” approach.
“I kind of feel like more is more,” he says. “It was also just the way that it was written. Very much what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to translate Joyce’s picture of the world, and it was pretty feverish and intense. It all just came from my feelings reading the book. I mean, I don’t really want to put stuff off-screen unless there’s a reason to do so.”
“Why sort of tone it down?” he adds. “It’s cowardly in some way.”
For de Armas, filming the nude scenes was more about showing Monroe’s vulnerability than anything else.
“This movie is, I think, a very feminist movie in the sense of, we just show the story of a woman the way it is. The moments of nudity and sex and all of that, it shows her vulnerability, and the times that she really enjoyed that sexual encounter and the times that she didn’t — and her alone at home stripped down to nothing,” she says. “I wasn’t going to shy away from that just because I had to be naked in the film. I thought we were doing this for a bigger thing. Like, it’s bigger than that. What we’re saying with this film is more than just being naked in the scene.”
Andrew Dominik agrees.
“I think that most of the time, the nudity in the film is not what I would describe as exploitative because exploitative nudity is when you use it to titillate. I don’t feel like there’s much in this movie that’s titillating or inviting a kind of sexualization,” he says. “She’s usually naked in a way that’s expressing vulnerability. I mean, to be hit by your husband with your clothes off is very different from being hit by him with your clothes on.”
Playing Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys, Julianne Nicholson also bares all. But for a very different reason.
“In Gladys’ case, she gets naked as an expression of rage. There’s also a sort of terror of the feminine,” Andrew Dominik says. “There’s a kind of a horror of the feminine form that I think runs through the book.”
For all of its depictions of suffering, Blonde “was made with love,” says Andrew Dominik — and is very much a love letter to a woman who never received enough love in her lifetime.
“I mean, it really is. It’s completely on her side,” he says.
“Marilyn Monroe has everything that society says is desirable. She’s famous, she’s beautiful, she’s rich, she’s got a cool job. All of her boyfriends were these really cool dudes. And all you’ve got to do is look at the media to understand that this is what everybody thinks is the pinnacle. And then to show that as a kind of nightmare, a hellish nightmare — it challenges people’s values.”
Blonde arrives Sept. 28 on Netflix and is currently playing in select theaters.
Main Image: Director Andrew Dominik and Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe behind the scenes of Blonde. Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy / Netflix.