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Adria Arjona on acting in the dark romantic comedy 'Hit Man'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A hit man and a maybe client walk into a diner, but it's no joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIT MAN")

ADRIA ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) Did you always know what you wanted to be?

GLEN POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) Not exactly a childhood dream.

ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) Do you ever think about it?

POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) I don't ever think things. I'm not very sentimental.

ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) Yeah. Well, we all have regrets.

POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) Well, on my line of work, I can't afford to think that way.

SIMON: College professor Gary Johnson moonlights as an undercover police operative to get the goods on people who would like to book real hit men, which don't really exist, according to the film. "Hit Man" is a dark rom-com from Richard Linklater, who says it's mostly based on a true story. Glen Powell plays the college prof turned undercover cop. And Adria Arjona plays his potential client. She joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARJONA: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: This is quite a film. You play a woman named Madison, and she's in trouble, isn't she?

ARJONA: (Laughter) Something like that. When we first meet Madison, she's coming out of a really troublesome relationship that she feels like she - there's no way out of it. And she hires a hit man. She meets Gary - to her, it's Ron - and Ron kind of lets her off and tells her that she has other options. And for the first time, someone has listened to Madison. And then their story just kind of kicks off from there.

SIMON: Yeah. What's it like to work in a Richard Linklater film? This is a director who famously shuns Hollywood and is widely admired.

ARJONA: I don't want to sound cliche, but it really is like a dream come true. I've always sort of aspired to be an actress like the ones in Richard Linklater movies. I always feel like performances are always so fresh and feel improvised, and it's quite the opposite. We rehearsed for 2 1/2 weeks. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We would write and try things, and he really gives actors ownership over their characters and allows them and invites them into the writing room. He's just such an egoless man and really truly believes that filmmaking is an art of collaboration.

SIMON: Yeah. There's so many levels of acting and being going on - people pretending to be people who are pretending to be themselves. How do you avoid getting lost in the layers, or is that the point?

ARJONA: I think that's a little bit the point. You know, I love this about these characters, that they're in constant reinvention of themselves. And, you know, Madison, now she's trying to figure out sort of who she is and who she wants to become. And the fact that he is doing it exactly the same, you know - he's playing this character, Ron. So role-play is definitely this couple's love language.

SIMON: Where's the chemistry come from? How do you develop that on screen?

ARJONA: You know, Rick always says either chemistry exists, or it doesn't. And I'm starting to kind of believe that a little bit. I know that it's part of my job to create it, but in this specific instant, it kind of just was there. And, you know, the first time we met, we spent five hours together talking. And we couldn't shut up - Glen and I. I think, you know, if I have to answer that question, I think it would be just trust. And I think since the minute I met Glen - I just knew I could trust him. I had his back. He had my back. And we kind of worked in a symbiotic form.

SIMON: When you say have each other's back, you mean you share the goal of making each other look good?

ARJONA: More than look good. I think...

SIMON: Be good?

ARJONA: ...Feel comfortable, because, you know, at the end of the day, those scenes are always uncomfortable. So having his back and making sure that they - he can feel comfortable and that I make him feel safe, and he does the same thing for me, I think was the most important thing for the both of us.

SIMON: What kind of scenes are you talking about?

ARJONA: Just their most intimate scenes, if you (laughter) - if I could say that.

SIMON: Oh, oh...

ARJONA: There are some steamy and...

SIMON: Yeah.

ARJONA: ...Intimate scenes. Do you remember those?

SIMON: I do, indeed...

ARJONA: There's a lot...

SIMON: ...Yes, I do.

ARJONA: ...Of those (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIT MAN")

POWELL: (As Gary Johnson)This is a bad idea.

ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) I suppose it is.

POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) For instance, we can never go to my place.

ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) Good. I don't want to.

POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) I can never give you any info about my whereabouts at any time.

ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) I will see you when I see you.

POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) And we can only get so personal.

ARJONA: (As Madison Figueroa Masters) OK. What's your next line? Don't fall in love with me? I know what this is. We're just going to meet here whenever we want, and nothing outside of here matters.

SIMON: What do you think moves Madison and Gary to become partners? And I won't specify if it's crime or life or whatever.

ARJONA: I think the fact that they're both in this mode of reinvention. They're both trying to be the best version of themselves for the other person. They're not necessarily doing it for themselves, you know? She's - it's constantly rewarding when Ron likes something that she does and vice versa. You know, they're playing people that they can only dream of becoming. So it makes it into this really fun and exciting game for themselves. And, you know, people do this all the time when they go on dates. You know...

SIMON: Yeah.

ARJONA: ...The first three dates, they're the best version of themselves. Fourth date, all the truth comes out (laughter).

SIMON: Well, I mean, without giving anything away, the best version of themselves, but they do some dreadful things, don't they?

ARJONA: They do. Yes. They do for the sake of commitment.

SIMON: Oh, all right.

(LAUGHTER)

ARJONA: Well, you got to watch the movie to know what I'm talking about. It's hard...

SIMON: I do. No, I know - I did, but you know...

ARJONA: They do some crazy stuff. They do. These two are partners in crime, for sure.

SIMON: Yeah. You were born in San Juan, moved to Mexico City and Miami, then left to go to New York City when you were 18. What are some of the jobs you had on your way to becoming a star?

ARJONA: I was actually born in Caguas, Puerto Rico - half Puerto Rican, half Guatemalan. Yeah, I mean, I was a clown for little kids' birthday parties, and I would paint little kids' faces to kind of make money and go to New York. Then in New York, I was a hostess, a waitress, a bartender. I worked at events, passing hor d'oeuvres to people that I can only dream of working with one day, and now I'm in the same world.

SIMON: What's ahead for you as an actor? Anything in particular you'd like to do?

ARJONA: Well, there's a lot of stuff that I want to do. I feel like this is just the beginning for me. I'm at a place right now where the realization of how many movies I can do in my lifetime kind of kicked in. So who I spend the time with, both as an actor - meaning who I spend the time with in character - and who I create with has become really important to me.

I want to spend three months with this character, with this group of people and have a collaborative experience and come out of it learning. And hopefully it works. And hopefully we do what we all seek to do, which is to move an audience. That's what's really my main priority now. And to continue challenging myself and playing in different genres and not just staying in one lane, I think it's really important for me. And it's important for me as a Latin American woman to keep switching lanes.

SIMON: Adria Arjona stars in the new Richard Linklater film, "Hit Man." Thank you so much for being with us.

ARJONA: Thank you so much. This was lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.