June 7, 2024

adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, greg williams
adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, cover, greg williams

Photographs, interview and video by GREG WILLIAMS

When I arrive at Adria Arjona’s Hollywood Hills home, she’s prepping for her goddaughter’s birthday party in her pyjamas. She landed in Los Angeles the night before, and decided to undertake some DIY on her first owned home. ‘Get ready for my outfits, Greg,’ she laughs as she offers me some birthday party chocolate-covered strawberries. ‘There’s no Versace, no Armani, no Saint Laurent. It’s Carhartt and dirty T-shirts!’

The Spanish-style house isn’t just a place to rest her head, it’s a physical representation of the actor’s success – an ambition fulfilled. ‘I think that you get to define what the Hollywood dream is for yourself, and I believe in mine. I am very much living my dream – just being able to do what I love, to tell stories for a living, to be an artist, and to get paid for it.’

Arjona has lived at her house for six years and revamped the property from a place she describes as initially looking ‘like a weird porn video was filmed in the 80s here’. Her roof recently leaked and rather than get contractors out, she climbed up to her eaves herself to fix it. Today, she needs to patch up another rogue spot and has invited me along to help with the home improvements. It’s a change from our usual set-up; ‘I love that every time that you’ve shot me, it’s always been really glamorous and elegant… I’m always in a really nice dress and a full face of makeup when I see you. But there is a different side of me that I don’t think a lot of people know, which is: I’m a little more of a tomboy, and I am a fixer. It’s really empowering to know that I can fix something, and I don’t need anybody else to come and do it. I find beauty in things that are kind of broken. I think that kind of relates to my job as well. I find broken characters really beautiful, but I don’t try to fix them.’

adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, greg williams

Had I not been an actor, maybe I would have been a contractor. I just like the idea of having an empty canvas – an idea in your head – and then gathering a group of people and bringing a vision to life

In her latest role as Madison, an abused wife who hires Glen Powell’s contract killer to off her hubby in Richard Linklater’s comedy, Hit Man, Arjona certainly plays a character struggling to repair herself. It doesn’t help that Powell’s character is a police informant and not a murderer – or that sparks fly between the duo. ‘The movie is really sexy, and Madison is really comfortable with her own sexuality, and kind of uses it to her own advantage,’ Arjona nods. ‘Had I not been an actor, maybe I would have been a contractor. I just like the idea of having an empty canvas – an idea in your head – and then gathering a group of people and bringing a vision to life. It’s very similar to filmmaking, in a way.’

Rocking chunky boots that her character wears in Star Wars series Andor and a look she terms ‘contractor chic’, Arjona climbs on a cooler box, onto her barbeque, along a precarious wall and jumps onto the roof, inviting me to follow. We make our way across the sloping expanse to the leaking tiles – it reminds me of the rooftop scene in Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood. Arjona is already checking tiles to see if they’re watertight, the city sprawling below us and the hills rising behind. 

adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, greg williams
adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, greg williams

Having trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York, Arjona started her acting career on the East Coast, juggling waitressing and working kids’ birthday parties (‘I got fired when they realised that I wasn’t really that good at face painting!’) in between auditions. The discipline of the Strasberg school is something she feels helped build resilience. ‘It almost felt like therapy, in a way. I went there to discover a lot about myself, and heal a lot about myself, and learn about the craft.’

Her big break came with a role on season two of True Detective, which meant a move to LA in 2015. ‘I first moved here to an apartment in West Hollywood, and I always saw the hills as this big dream of mine. I was like, “One day I will live there.” The fact that I’m already living here and I’m 31, it’s kind of epic for me. I don’t take it lightly, and I don’t take it for granted. That’s why I take care of it.’

Self-taught via YouTube tutorials, Arjona has tiled her own bathroom and incorporated friends’ work in the detail (a friend’s ceramicist boyfriend contributed features), plastered her living room walls and fixed her air-conditioning unit. ‘I’m getting my hands a little bit dirtier than in filmmaking. It’s making things – when I was little, I loved arts and crafting. I think as I’ve gotten older, and as I own my own house, I come home from four months of being away and I see it completely different. I’m like, “Ooh, now I want to do this with it.”’

The daughter of musician Ricardo Arjona and Leslie, a beauty queen, Adria was born in Puerto Rico and brought up in Mexico City until she was 12 – a place she considers a big part of her heritage (‘You can hear it when I speak Spanish, right? There’s a twang. I have a little bit of a Mexican accent’). They moved to Miami when the family felt unsafe due to her father’s growing fame, but Arjona ‘ran away from that city quick’, north to New York. ‘I was 17 when I moved to New York. I got a modelling job, I think it was a cleaning commercial, that never came out. But it paid me so good, and it really allowed me to move to New York, and kind of run away, and not really ask for permission.’

She has just completed work on Andor season two, returning as intergalactic mechanic Bix Caleen, and on Los Frikis, the true story of Cuban teens infecting themselves with HIV to live in a government treatment facility. ‘It’s probably one of the most special films I’ve ever, and probably will ever, be a part of,’ she says as she kneels over the leaking roof and begins sealing the tiles with a sticky, black sealant. Working with six young non-professional Cuban actors in the Dominican Republic, the actor saw the world differently having viewed it through their eyes. ‘You know, they had never seen a full chicken before. They had never chewed gum before. We went to a supermarket, and one of them walked out and just started crying. I asked him what was wrong. And he said, “Now I can’t unsee it.” He had never seen a full supermarket. We were in the chocolate aisle, and he goes, “Why are there so many chocolates?” It was really humbling to see life, and live, through them.’

adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, greg williams

With the roof sorted, we climb back down to the ground to head off to Home Depot for supplies in the actor’s no-nonsense Toyota pickup. Rather than a sports car or vintage runaround, this is Arjona’s ‘dream car’ and she also has the truck bed camper so she can camp out in the back. ‘I got it this year, and it gives you so much power on the road. A pickup is so cool. I learned how to drive in Mexico City. I feel like if you can drive in Mexico City, you can drive just about anywhere in the world.’

As she pilots the pickup down the ribboning canyon road to the city grid where the Hollywood sign comes into view, she recalls how she landed the role of Madison in Hit Man – a potentially game-changing gig given the rave reviews for the film out of the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered last year. Writer-director Richard Linklaker was sold on her as his femme fatale with a twist, but skipped a traditional chemistry read with his star and co-writer, Glen Powell. Instead he simply sent his potential co-stars out for a drink.

‘We went to a restaurant, and it was supposed to just be an hour meeting. We talked about the character and the story for maybe 10 minutes out of the five hours we were there,’ she laughs. ‘We weren’t the most responsible. We just got to know each other. We were both doing Dry January, and that also lasted 10 minutes! We both looked at each other, and I was like, “I kind of like you.” He was like, “I kind of like you, too. Do you want a shot?” We just started drinking mezcal… I just felt so comfortable and so safe. We talked about our lives. We talked about relationships… We sent a picture to Rick of us together after five hours, quite tipsy, and we were like, “We just left the meeting.” I think after that, we just knew that he was going to be in my life forever, and that I was going to be in his forever. Whether he wants it or not, I think Glen’s kind of stuck with me now!’

We stop off for construction supplies, Arjona zooming down the aisles of Home Depot, filling her trolley and squealing with excitement as we pass the power drills. We head to a friend’s nearby art gallery where the walls are in need of some love. ‘It’s this beautiful technique – to put it on the walls,’ Arjona enthuses about plastering, unloading her equipment from her truck’s cargo bed. ‘It’s kind of alive, it gives a zen vibe, and it’s minimalist and beautiful. But it’s pretty hard to do… The reason I go there is because I can fuck up her walls, and not mine!’

As the daughter of a beauty queen, this sort of downtime activity wasn’t necessarily Arjona’s family’s dream for her. ‘I think my whole family, grandmother included, really wanted me to be Miss Puerto Rico one day, and they had this big dream of me going to Miss Universe. I’m quite shy in front of the camera, I have to hide behind something – whether it’s an outfit; whether it’s a hair and makeup look; whether it’s a character. I need to feel like I’m hiding behind something. It’s a little too vulnerable to just be pretty, or just to be myself, I think. I get too self-conscious. I enjoy the fact that I’m saying words that aren’t mine, and wearing an outfit that doesn’t belong to me, and walking in someone else’s shoes. Red carpets, for me, are probably the scariest thing in the world.’

She gets stuck into mixing the plaster in a bucket, her hands covered, her boots splattered. ‘As a kid, my parents thought I was deaf. They took me to all of these doctors to find out if I had an actual hearing problem. And what they found out was that I was just so in my head, and I would create all these worlds in my head. I just really lived in my imagination. I wasn’t deaf; I was just ignoring the shit out of everybody!’

adria arjona, hit man, andor, true detective, hollywood authentic, greg williams

But that rich interior life led to an aptitude for acting. ‘There weren’t that many opportunities for Latin American actresses, even when I started. I see this younger generation, and I see more new faces, more Latin talent. I think we have a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting that this new generation won’t have it as hard as my generation did. I didn’t have many people to look up to, to say, “I want that career.” It was definitely a hard start, because I saw myself as something, and no one else seemed to have the same vision that I did. They just saw me as this tough, Latin woman who was destined to be a cop, or the tough roles, in movies. And I wasn’t really interested in that. I wanted to play complex women, and there kind of was no space for that when I first started. I had to veer off to other things, and play in different genres in order for me to get those roles like in Good Omens. Or The Belko Experiment. Or Irma Vep. I think genre kind of saved my career, and saved me as an actress. It allowed me to have fun, and be weird, and to play different characters.’

Now she dreams of playing real-life character Lolita Lebrón, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was jailed in 1954 for attacking the US Capitol, and Arjona is in the process of developing her story for the screen. ‘She did a lot for our island, and fought for our people. She’s someone who I admire a lot, and I would love to play her.’

With the wall plastered, we head back home to the birthday party and a house full of relatives. Arjona’s mother is delighted to see her daughter after she’s spent time away working, describing her as ‘the most selfless, loving, kind, hard-working, tenacious, smart, bright, amazing human being I know.’ She kisses her and adds, ‘made in Puerto Rico!’

‘And this is what we call the Puerto Rican flag!’ laughs Arjona, slapping her backside. Both women repeat the movement in sync and giggle. ‘The Puerto Rican flag!’

Photographs, interview and video by GREG WILLIAMS
Adria Arjona stars in the Netflix movie Hit Man, out 7 June

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October 13, 2022

aimee lou wood, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Aimee Lou Wood has just stepped inside her house having touched down in the UK from Toronto (and before that, Colorado and Venice), but she’s energetic and lively, just as you would expect from seeing her on screen. She’s currently in film-festival mode, promoting new project Living, and this evening she will head off for a BAFTA event. ‘I thought I would just decide that time zones aren’t real… but it didn’t quite work out that way!’ she laughs.

It’s an exciting time for the 28-year-old. Living is her first lead film role, starring alongside Bill Nighy in an adaptation of the much-loved Japanese 1952 film Ikiru, which was co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. The story is kept largely the same, but with the setting seamlessly transposed to post-war London. Nighy is a pen-pushing civil servant working in the town planning department of London’s County Hall, whose rather humdrum existence is upended when he is dealt a terminal cancer diagnosis and given less than a year to live. Keeping this news largely under his (bowler) hat, he searches for meaning and is ultimately inspired to do something worthwhile in his final days via an unexpected friendship with his vibrant young co-worker, Margaret Harris (Wood).

Wood shines as Harris, balancing humour and naivety with quiet ambition, and joy for the small things in life (such as her character’s first ice-cream sundae at Fortnum & Mason). Her wide-eyed pathos is genuinely affecting, and she has natural chemistry with Nighy, for whom she has nothing but praise.

‘Bill is just amazing,’ she enthuses. ‘I’ve loved him forever, so it was a bit of a moment when we went for lunch – me, him and Oliver Hermanus, the director – and I was like, “be cool, be cool!” I did have a bit of a freak out, internally, but he would never have known, thank God!’ The admiration, it seems, is rooted in her respect for his skill: she admits that pivotal scenes with Nighy didn’t require her to act ‘whatsoever’. ‘There’s a scene we have in the pub together and when I left that day I could not stop crying because I’d just witnessed something so special,’ she says. ‘It’s the best acting I’ve ever seen up close.’

Living is Wood’s first major film role, and her next big-screen outing is in the upcoming Seize Them!, starring British comedy heavyweights Nick Frost, Paul Kaye and Jessica Hynes.

aimee lou wood, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Before being catapulted to fame in her BAFTA-winning role as the guileless Aimee Gibbs on Netflix megahit Sex Education, Wood dabbled in theatre while studying at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London). She returned to the stage in 2020 in a critically acclaimed version of Uncle Vanya in the West End. The Stockport native says that she was captivated by movies and shows as a youngster and recalls a theatre production of Beauty and the Beast that utterly entranced her. ‘I think I saw it about four times,’ she says, ‘but what was great was that I grew up watching everything. My mum would show me all the John Hughes movies and all the ’80s stuff. I always wanted to be Ferris Bueller! My dad showed me all the Oscar winners like Doctor Zhivago. So I had this quite nice breadth [of movies], and then obviously I started exploring my own stuff.’

Drama school was an eye-opener. ‘RADA was quite classical training and most of my peers got into acting through loving the theatre… but actually, looking back on it, it really was film for me, because I didn’t go to the theatre like other people. Some people at drama school grew up in London and would go to the Royal Court regularly from like the age of 11. When I went it was normally to see a pantomime.’

To begin with, she says, she wanted to be a writer. ‘I always had a really vivid imagination and I wrote plays and stories all the time,’ she says. But acting took over: ‘Drama helped me so much because it was where I could really express myself. It was also such a protective shield for me. Like it made school so much easier. Because I had, you know… I could be funny… it was like a comfort blanket for me.’ And it is liberating, she says: ‘Sometimes I feel more like myself when I’m acting, like there’s things I can’t express, usually, that I can through characters and from different people’s stories.’

‘I love Aimee,’ Wood says of her namesake, Aimee Gibbs in Sex Education, who has been a fan-favourite from when the series aired in 2019,due largely to the actor’s impeccable comic timing and the character’s eccentric sincerity. ‘I love how she’s so her own person and so in her own world and says things that are ridiculous with such conviction.’ Aimee’s ‘total space cadet’ character entered more complex and darker territory in season two when she became the victim of a sexual assault. The fallout has been sensitively portrayed over the course of two series.

‘I’m glad they took so much time with it and that it spanned over two seasons,’ Wood says of that plot narrative. ‘It is something that will always be with Aimee. It changed her. It’s not the kind of thing that just “goes away” and they depicted that honestly and delicately. With Sex Education, you can always guarantee that they’re gonna go deeper and deeper into a character, and Aimee was perfect for this storyline because she’s such an everywoman. She is someone who has such faith in people. It’s that sad thing where someone who is so optimistic begins to question the world. It was tectonic for her.’

Aimee Wood seems plenty optimistic herself, though, if a little tired. Warm, witty and chipper – despite the lack of sleep – she heads off for an evening at BAFTA, all smiles.

Living is released in the UK on 4 November; Gemma Billington is a writer for Brummell magazine

April 9, 2022

simone ashley, bridgerton, sex education, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

‘I like making breakfast; whether it’s a smoothie or just scrambled eggs, it’s the first thing I think about, to be honest, in the morning,’ announces Simone Ashley. But her signature dish is curry. ‘I’m South Indian, so I’m Tamil, and the food… I mean my mum, she cooks the most amazing food.’ Today, in honour of Mum, Simone is making us a vegan curry. It’s vegan ‘because it’s just easier to do’, though she was vegan for a while, but started to eat meat again on the set of Sex Education, the Netflix series that turbo-charged her career. 

Today’s recipe is, says Ashley, nothing special, just a go-to from a book. First up is the rice: ‘The trick is getting your ratios right. Ratio of rice to water and just low heat. You don’t want it to burn at the bottom, you don’t want it to overcook. Just take your time with it.’

Then she takes command of the kitchen, asking for a vegetable peeler – ‘This is a weak peeler!’ – and adds coconut oil, garam masala and black mustard seeds to butternut squash, not to mention the ready-peeled garlic she’s brought with her, as if she always travels with ingredients to hand. ‘I love cooking,’ she says. ‘I don’t really get to do it much with traveling around all the time and being on set, so it’s nice and a bit therapeutic to use my brain in a different way.’

simone ashley, bridgerton, sex education, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

Simone Ashley, now 27, says she grew up on Disney classics. ‘We always had The Jungle Book playing or Snow White… We went to Disneyland all the time.’ She knew the words to the whole of the remake of The Parent Trap – ‘Me and my brother used to recite that film in the car whenever we had long journeys’ – but admits that she thought the Lindsay Lohan character was played by real twins. 

Then in adolescence it’s fair to say she developed very non-Disney tastes: one favourite film was Boogie Nights, and another, Kill Bill. ‘I loved Uma Thurman in Kill Bill… Everything about that film, the colours, the cinematography, the music, everything, and just how driven this character was.’ Tarantino’s world was, however, a far cry from her own, growing up in Surrey with her parents, both academics, who were first-generation immigrants from India. She did the normal teenage things like waitressing and getting fired from a hairdressers – ‘I messed someone’s highlights up and I washed them off in the wrong way’ – and claims that unlike her Sex Education character, she was not ever part of the cool gang at school.

‘I failed at everything in school. It was just my attention that was bad,’ she says. And she also failed to learn Tamil or Hindi, which her mother encouraged her to do. In the end, Mum got her playing French video games to try and get her to pick up the language, reasoning that as she’d been named Simone, French might be the answer. It wasn’t. ‘I was awful – at maths, all of that stuff. Just had no interest. And my brother would force me and sit me down, bless him, and get me to revise, get me to study. He tried so hard and I just had zero interest in it. I was very stubborn in that sense. If I didn’t like it, then I just wouldn’t do it.’

That stubborn streak paid off, though, when she found acting. She says now that she was just determined to make it work. Shortly after her first job as ‘a background artist’ in Straight Outta Compton, she did more TV work in the UK and then landed the role of the bubble-gum-bubble-blowing Olivia in Sex Education.

During lockdown she moved to LA to try and jump-start things stateside. ‘I do love LA,’ she says. ‘I have more fun here, when I’m out here, and I eat better; I think it’s the sun. It just makes me feel a bit more energised and proactive.’ She spent her days walking a secret hiking trail through Griffith Park to admire the view of Los Angeles spread out below while eating sandwiches. And then occasionally she’d hit the road. ‘I used to drive a little Mustang when I was living out here, and I loved it. I’d always have Fleetwood Mac blasting and I’d just take off.’ The music was inherited from her dad, she says: ‘I grew up listening to that kind of music. The Doors, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood.’

Ironically, the next job required Ashley  to relocate back to the UK for Bridgerton, the hit period drama, famous for being colour-consciously cast. Ashley is front and centre of Season 2, so front and centre that when she looks out of her hotel window on Sunset today, what stares back at her is an enormous billboard: ‘When I wake up and I’m getting hair and makeup done or I’m having breakfast or a coffee, I’m literally looking outside at mine and Johnny [Bailey]’s and Charithra [Chandran]’s faces!’

simone ashley, bridgerton, sex education, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

She’s been overwhelmed by the response to the series: ‘We’ve seen such really positive feedback from people seeing people that look like me and Charithra on this show,’ she says. And she admits that the role has changed her. ‘I used to think, “Oh, I want to just be seen as an actress”, but I now realise that in this line of work you are representing and you do have a voice. I think a part of me was quite scared of owning the fact that, yeah, I am representing a minority. And I think it would be quite naive of me to think I’m just an actress, because, to think that is to think that the problem’s been solved and that we are in an industry and in a world where it’s completely normalised, and we’re far from it. Hopefully, in 20 years’ time it won’t be an issue, but we’re not there yet.’

She confesses she hasn’t talked about this before because ‘there is something quite scary about owning that position’. But then she smiles. ‘But I can have so much fun with this and I don’t need to be afraid. And it’s not about just me. It’s about sharing space with so many other amazing South Indian, South Asian actors.’

It sounds like she’s had a revelation. ‘Whatever industry you’re in, whatever you do, we all have a voice, we all have the power to speak,’ she says. ‘And I think that’s something I’ve never addressed in my life until now, when I’m dipping my toes a bit further in, I guess. Yeah it’s a bit scary, but it feels limitless when it’s positive, like you can just keep going downhill, like on a bike, speeding forward. It’s like when you’re on a swing, that stomach feeling. There’s nothing to stop you.’ And we’ll eat to that.  

Peter Howarth is the former editor-in-chief of Arena, British Esquire and Man About Town