Inspired by an actual U.S. Military program and executive-produced by Yellowstone‘s Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote all episodes), Paramount+’s Special Ops: Lioness this past summer followed CIA station chief Joe McNamara (played by Zoë Saldaña) as she tried to balance her personal and professional life as the “tip of the spear” in the war on terror.
The Lioness Program, overseen by Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) and Donald Westfield (Michael Kelly), enlisted a Marine Raider named Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) to operate undercover and weave herself into the orbit of a terrorist financier’s daughter (Stephanie Nur).
More from TVLine
With Special Ops: Lioness now out on Blu-ray and DVD (shop Amazon), TVLine spoke with Laysla De Oliveira about the physical and emotional challenges of playing Cruz, her thoughts on the climactic kitchen showdown, and the outlook for Season 2.
TVLINE | What was the biggest challenge in playing Cruz: the physical demands, or the psychological duress she went through?
They were both really, really challenging. In the beginning, I felt that the physical was the scariest, most challenging part, because it was not something that I was used to doing — but then you realize that you have so many tools at your disposal and they’re going to make you look good, no matter what.
It’s after shooting and taking a step away from it that you realize that the emotional can sometimes be more challenging. It takes a while to shed that, and it wasn’t something that I was used to. Cruz stuck with me for a while.
TVLINE | I was just reflecting on the women you worked with, and what a Murderers’ Row it is. Zoë Saldaña, Nicole Kidman, Jill Wagner (as Bobby), Stephanie Nur (Aaliyah)…. What was the energy like on-set, and what did you learn from them?
Oh, I felt so lucky, I can’t even believe that I got to spend several months with these incredibly talented women. I just wanted to go in there and be a sponge. It was nice to be able to watch their every move and see how they approached their work, but it was also really incredible to watch how they carried themselves as an artist and a human being, and I was so inspired by that. Specifically Zoë, who paved the way for Latin women like me. I feel like I get to go and do this job because of her, so to be able to do it with her was really special.
[Joe and Cruz] were really intense with each other, but it wasn’t like that behind the scenes at all. We both have very similar personalities, where we both lead with humor whenever we can. Obviously you have to stay as focused as possible, but at the end of the day we got some great laughs in.
TVLINE | And I imagine there had to have been a special trust between you and Stephanie Nur, for the scenes between Cruz and Aaliyah.
Absolutely. We actually didn’t have a chemistry read, and I think that’s a testament to Taylor Sheridan and how he picks his actors. He has this intuition that works so wonderfully. Stephanie and I had really incredible chemistry, and it was really beautiful to explore.
TVLINE | Do you have a favorite scene from Season 1?
I would say my favorite scene was one of my audition scenes, where Joe asks Cruz to strip down to see if she has any tattoos. I think that scene is so powerful because Cruz is at the top of her game and yet still she is being made to feel so vulnerable. And that’s really the theme of the whole show.
I also loved the scene with Stephanie and I, where we’re watching [The Notebook] in bed, because I didn’t really get to do any of that on the show, so it was really nice to have a day where I could just go in and watch a movie and react the way Laysla would, because Laysla and Cruz are so different. It was really nice to just have a girly day.
TVLINE | I’ll be putting a BIG SPOILER WARNING on this next question, since it’s about the end of the finale, but I need to know: What do you think was going through Cruz’s mind the minute that Aaliyah’s father came down to the kitchen?
That is a conversation I had with Taylor [Sheridan], that I don’t think she would’ve necessarily killed him if [Aaliyah’s fiancé] Eshsan hadn’t come in — and then at that point, she doesn’t really have a choice, so she just went into warrior mode. She is really great at her job, and you see that “switch flip.” Her eyes glaze over and she goes into what I like to call “beast mode.”
That’s why I feel like her last scene, with Joe [aboard the exfil yacht], is so important, because it really just hits her. I love that line that she says, “My heart isn’t a weapon, and my body isn’t a tool.” She’s realizing, in that moment, everything that Joe put her through.
TVLINE | I’m now thinking back to Cruz’s first scene with Ehsan the fiancé, where you had such great lines taunting each other….
He basically signs his death wish in that office. [Laughs] I think there was a moment where the director potentially wanted him to slap Cruz twice, and we thought about it and decided that two slaps for Cruz might be too much. She already has to hold so much back in that moment because she is so powerful, and she knows she can end him in two seconds, but it’s really about the mission there, about Aaliyah. But he did sign his death wish.
TVLINE | Here’s a burning question, and it’s a bit of a nit to pick: Why do you think Cruz wasn’t better about covering up her bruises with make-up? Especially during the high-end shopping excursion with Aaliyah?
That’s a great question. I think [the bruises] were maybe really dark…? Or I think it’s a symbol, as well, for what she’s going through and what she’s been through — of the pain that’s always there.
TVLINE | But when she meets Aaliyah’s gal pals poolside, maybe they would have given her a bit less side-eye….
Well, she was pretty hung over that morning, if I recall. She had this incredible night out with her team, who is her family, she’s just thrown up and Joe rushed her out [into undercover mode]. Also, I don’t think she even wears makeup at that point in her life. Maybe she did in the past, but I think she’s lost a bit of her makeup skills. But I also just think she was in a rush, and focused on meeting the mark.
Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 (Blu-ray or DVD)
TVLINE | So, what are you hearing about a possible Season 2?
Can we call Taylor and Paramount together? I know just as much as you know.
TVLINE | Do you at least know if Cruz would still be a part of Season 2? Would it be a new Lioness? She did say to Joe at the end, “I quit.”
You know what? I don’t know. I’m honestly on the same journey as you. I just show up! But I think whatever Taylor has planned, if he has something planned, it is going to be great.
Best of TVLine