“When I got the part, I started bawling”: Laysla de Oliveira on starring in Special Ops: Lioness, Taylor Sheridan’s new spy drama

The Rosedale Heights alum talks about visiting the set of Yellowstone, playing it cool around her A-list cast mates and befriending Nicole Kidman

“When I got the part, I started bawling”: Laysla de Oliveira on starring in Special Ops: Lioness, Taylor Sheridan’s new spy drama
Laysla De Oliveria as Cruz Manuelos in Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario/Paramount+ Courtesy of Paramount+ Canada.

Three years ago, Toronto actor Laysla de Oliveira got a life-changing call from Taylor Sheridan. The creator of Yellowstone (a.k.a. one of the most-watched television series in the world) wanted her to audition for his new series, a CIA spy drama called Special Ops: Lioness. She landed the part, spent months learning how to kick butt and handle weapons and now she’s on a first-name basis with her co-star, Nicole Kidman. “It’s not like there was a meet and greet,” de Oliveira says of being on set with a cast of Oscar winners like Kidman and Morgan Freeman and billion-dollar franchise-fronters like Zoe Saldaña. Here, she tells Toronto Life about how she managed to keep her cool and her first encounter with a paparazzi flashbulb.

A new show from Taylor Sheridan is a huge deal. How did a relatively unknown actor from Toronto score the lead?
My agent got the script, and they were asking actors to send tapes, so we did that. I chose three scenes from the pilot, we sent them in and Taylor responded. Normally they go through all of the possible candidates and select the top ones to come in for a screen test, but this experience was different. It was 2021. I was in Toronto quarantining while I was shooting Locke & Key when I got a call from Taylor asking me to come out to Montana to work on some scenes. My heart dropped into my stomach, and soon after I was hopping on a plane, meeting him on the set of Yellowstone. He was actually directing the episode that was shooting so I was performing scenes from Lioness between their set-ups.

So he’s yelling “Cut!” to Kevin Costner, and you’re doing scenes on the sidelines?
Pretty much. I didn’t actually see Kevin. We were outside because of Covid, and I think they were filming the episode where Kevin’s character was in the hospital. It was great. In the show, my character Cruz’s journey is so raw and emotional, so the high stakes of the meeting really worked in my favour. After we were done, I didn’t know I’d gotten the part, but I knew I gave it everything I had. I did pretty much every scene from the first episode. I was back in Toronto when I got the good news. A couple of weeks later, I got an email saying: “Congratulations on being a Lioness.” I had been told I might have to wait up to a year to find out, so I was totally stunned and bawling my eyes out. 

Many of Taylor Sheridan’s series are set in the wild west. Any idea what appealed to him about an all-women CIA special ops unit operating in the Middle East?
Taylor is really good at writing relatively simple plots so that the stories are extremely character driven. He wrote Sicario, which was also a spy thriller. Emily Blunt’s character in the movie is incredible—an example of how good he is at writing women. I love that our show follows three generations of powerhouse women who are the best at what they do. And also, two of us are Latinas, which is very powerful. 

Were you intimidated by the prospect of acting opposite legends like Zoe Saldaña and Nicole Kidman?
At first, I didn’t know about the co-stars. I remember Taylor mentioning “Nicole” a bunch of times and I was like, “Nicole…Kidman?" And then Zoe Saldaña is someone whose career I’ve always admired so much. That part of the job was definitely exciting and nerve-wracking, but mostly I was anxious about the extreme physical demands of the role. I was a hot yoga girl before this. I’d never held a gun. 

Not that surprising for an arts student from Toronto. Is there a secret to making it look natural?
The secret is understanding that, in the world of our show, it’s a tool being used for safety. It also helps being trained by a professional. I was lucky to work with a former Navy Seal named Jared Shaw who was basically responsible for turning me into a badass. Every day, we did an hour of strength training, an hour of weapons training and an hour of stunt training. Before that even started, I did hand-to-hand combat at this gym the studio sent me to in L.A. A lot of rappers go to the same gym, so I ended up training with Wiz Khalifa. 

Three years ago, Toronto actor Laysla de Oliviera got a life-changing call from Taylor Sheridan, the creator of Yellowstone. Now, she’s in his new drama, Special Ops: Lioness, acting alongside Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman and Zoe Saldaña.
Photo by George Pimentel.

So you arrived on set one day, the only lead who doesn’t have an Oscar or billion-dollar franchise to her name. Did you try to play it cool?
Well, it’s not like there was an official meet and greet. I met Zoe for the first time during a camera test. I turned around and she gave me a big hug right away and said how excited she was to work with me. I couldn’t let go of the hug for an abnormal amount of time. We still laugh about that today. With Nicole, I went to work early the day before we shot our first scene together to do what I like to call “exposure therapy.” My plan was to watch her from afar to see what she was like on set and then we ended up crossing paths. I introduced myself and she was like, I know who you are, I’ve been watching the dailies. Then she complimented my work, at which point my soul left my body. Now I call her Nicole, which is just unbelievable.

You’re probably aware that Yellowstone was the second most-watched show of the year last season behind Monday night football. Have you been preparing to get very famous very fast?
I was just focused on the work—doing it justice and making sure I’m worthy of sharing the screen with these co-stars whom I’ve admired for so long. I hope a lot of people watch our show, but I haven’t thought too much about the anonymity factor. I will say that it was very interesting being around actors who get that level of attention. 

Did they have any good advice?
It was more like: go to the grocery store while you can. 

Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
I always loved acting, but I didn’t know it could be a job until my high school drama teacher pulled me aside and asked if I’d ever considered it. After that, I transferred to Rosedale Heights where I majored in theatre and dance and I absolutely loved it. I was the kid who stayed at school until 7 p.m. most days. Then I got into Ryerson Theatre School, which was such a big win, but I ended up leaving before graduation for a part. It was a tough decision, but at the time there were no streaming services and not a lot of opportunities to work in Toronto, so when I got the chance to go to L.A., I took it.

What was the part?
You know what’s funny is that I actually don’t remember. And then it ended up getting cut. I do know that the next role I got, my first speaking part, was on a show called Covert Affairs, and I was an undercover operative, so getting the job on Lioness was a bit of a full circle moment. 


Would you make a good spy in real life?
No. I’m a terrible liar. I guess people might think acting is a lie, but I think it’s more about telling the truth—or your truth. 

Have you had any run-ins with the paparazzi thus far?
A lot of the projects I worked on before this filmed in Toronto or Hamilton, so that wasn’t a problem. The first time I saw a photo of myself taken by a paparazzo was during the filming of Lioness in Mallorca. My fiancé and I were out walking around, and then the next day there were photos. The first time it was fun and a bit funny. I’m sure that changes really quickly, but you’ve got to celebrate the wins. And it was really more paparazzi by proxy because I was shooting with Zoe and Nicole.

Are you full-time in L.A. now?
I am. For a long time, almost eight years, I was back and forth, and I kept a place in Toronto, but now with the show I’m mostly in the U.S. 

When you do get back to Toronto, what’s on your must-do list?
I go back to my parents’ place so that my mom can cook for me. I love going to 416 Snack Bar, or getting a coffee at French Maid and taking my dog to the dog park, or just chilling out in Trinity Bellwoods.

Enjoy the park while it lasts.
Ha! I think I’ll be okay. 


Note: This interview was conducted before the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike and has been edited for length and clarity.


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