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The Lioness’ den

Canadian star Laysla De Oliveira talks soldiering up and work    ing with her acting idols in Special Ops: Lioness, one of this summer’s most buzzed new dramas

While it may be hard to place yourself in the shoes of a CIA operative, Canadian actress Laysla De Oliveira (Locke & Key) got a veritable boot camp in keeping information classified once hired as the lead of Taylor Sheridan’s newest spy thriller. Cast a few years before Special Ops: Lioness started production, the actress could tell no one that she was about to headline a project alongside Zoe Saldaña, Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman as Cruz Manuelos, a Force Recon Marine who is recruited for a secret mission to befriend the daughter of a suspected terrorist. “I signed an NDA and it was a really big secret. I was so focused on doing the best that I could that it didn’t really hit me until I saw the poster and my name was up there,” she says. “I just burst into tears. I really did.”

Ebullience aside, De Oliveira’s range of emotions come in handy in a character who as a former victim of domestic violence finds her purpose and strength as a U.S. Marine, yet is constantly forced to tap into her more vulnerable side as an undercover operative. “Taylor wrote Cruz so beautifully. He says this himself: He writes simple plots with complex characters, and he lets those characters drive the story,” she says. “What I love about Cruz is that she has this really tough exterior, but she’s incredibly vulnerable and super-emotional, and to be able to explore that on screen, and to be able to do it with my idols, was a dream come true.” 

To delve into the psychology of a master manipulator, the 31-year-old’s research included some fascinating real-life experiences. “There’s an excellent book by Amaryllis Fox called Life Undercover, that was a really great resource for me. I also watched as many documentaries and docuseries as I could, just to try to study their mannerisms and to familiarize myself with all these terms,” she says. “But I was really lucky because the person who was training me, Jared Shaw, he’d been a Navy SEAL for nine years, so I could really pick his brain about anything that I wanted, while he was physically changing my appearance and strength.” 

As De Oliveira’s character goes back and forth between her undercover assignment, infiltrating the world of Saudi Arabian super-wealth, and her colleagues at the CIA, the actress also got a real lesson in switching gears. “I really felt it in my body was how disorienting it is [to be undercover],” she says. “One day I would be shooting my marine scenes with the team, all geared up with the guys, super rough and strong, and the next day I would be shooting my undercover scenes with the ladies, with the heels and dresses and the shopping and clubbing. I felt like I was on two different shows. It was so disorienting, and I use that as much as possible because I would assume that’s how it feels.” 

While the show is thematically distant from the Yellowstone franchise that turned Taylor Sheridan into a bona fide hitmaker, De Oliveira believes their show — that perhaps hearkens back more to Sheridan’s 2015 action thriller Sicario — still offers that familiar touch. “It comes down to simple plots, complex characters and exploring worlds that not everybody knows a lot about,” she says. “When I’m watching Yellowstone, I don’t know a lot about this world, and I want to know everything about it. I think it’s the same with our show and the military world. He puts these very dynamic characters in there and, and you go on this incredible ride. He’s also great at authenticity. He writes these really authentic worlds with fictionalized characters. It makes for a very engaging watch.” 

If much of the onscreen drama hinges on the friction between Cruz and her CIA team leader Joe (Saldaña), an icy operative who as a result of past experiences tests Cruz beyond reasonable limits, De Oliveira swears there was nothing but love behind the scenes. “Zoe is the most wonderful, nurturing, lovely human ever,” assures the actress. “We have these Type A, alpha females [on the show] and it creates such a dynamic world. Offscreen, we are just hugging and loving on each other as much as possible. Zoe’s my biggest cheerleader. I feel so lucky to know her, and I feel like I got paid to take a masterclass working with her and Nicole. I feel so lucky.”

Special Ops: Lioness streams on Paramount+

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