[Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Triangle of Sadness”]
Dolly de Leon doesn’t get very far in Cannes without being stopped in the street by enthusiastic fans. The scene-stealing Filipina actor stars in Ruben Östlund’s festival sensation “Triangle of Sadness,” where her every line has so far prompted cheers in press and public screenings alike.
De Leon plays Abigail, a toilet manager on a chaotic cruise ship who gets her own back on her bosses and guests when, well, shit hits the fan. Her story is just one part of Östlund’s searing commentary on privilege, greed and power — but Abigail’s power play, exquisitely brought to life by de Leon’s deadpan delivery, is what audiences will remember.
The overnight success at the world’s foremost film festival, where Neon acquired the movie, is all very new to de Leon, who is still a gigging actor back home in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The actor — a mother to four kids between 9 and 26 who’ve been excitedly sending her news from Cannes — is best known in the theater world, but recently had a meaty role in an episode of HBO Asia series “Folklore,” directed by acclaimed Filipino “On the Job” helmer Erik Matti. She also won a 2020 best supporting actress prize at the FAMAS (Philippines’ film academy) for her turn in the film “Verdict.”
“To be honest, I have not broken out in the Philippines. I have not,” says de Leon. “I play bit roles — lawyers, doctors, the mother of the lead, the principal of a school, or the psychiatrist.”
De Leon, who doesn’t have an agent, represents herself and found out about the casting call for “Triangle of Sadness” through Manila’s close-knit acting community. She based the role on friends and family who have worked as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). (In 2020, there were 1.7 million OFWs around the world.)
“I thought it was so amazing to play someone who has nothing, basically, and then to turn it around and be the one who is relied upon — someone who is followed, listened to, and treated as a leader,” says de Leon.
The actor also has a steamy scene with the film’s lead, up-and-coming British actor Harris Dickinson (“Where the Crawdads Sing”), who plays model Carl. In a wide-ranging interview, Variety caught up with de Leon to discuss navigating Carl and Abigail’s on-screen chemistry, doing 60-plus takes for Östlund, and why there aren’t enough roles for Filipino actors in Hollywood.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I started in theater because that’s what I studied [at the University of the Philippines]. I was a theater arts major; I was trained by the best theater experts and practioners in the country. From there, I started doing soaps, and then I moved to film, but would still do theater and soaps. The theater is my first love. I love it so much and I miss it.
What are your favorite theater roles?
I loved playing Anna in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times.” I also loved doing a little bit of Shakespeare. I played Portia in “The Merchant of Venice.” I also love Filipino plays. We have a lot of really good original plays in the Philippines. We have “Noli,” which is based on a book by José Rizal, a national hero.
What do you consider your breakout role?
My work with Erik Matti, who is a renowned director in the Philippines. I was lucky enough to work with him on “Folklore” for HBO; it was an anthology series and I did the fourth episode of Season 2.
How did that change your career?
That was after we shot “Triangle of Sadness.” I got [the role of Abigail] in 2018 and we shot it in 2020. When we got home from that shoot, [“Folklore”] is one of the first things I did when I got back. We shot it in 2021. To be honest, I have not broken out in the Philippines. I have not. I play bit roles — lawyers, doctors, the mother of the lead, the principal of a school, or the psychiatrist. The reason why I considered this work with Erik Matti very important is because the character I played really leads the story. It’s about her and how she deals with different struggles, and I haven’t done that before in film or TV.
How did you come to audition for “Triangle of Sadness”?
They were specifically looking for actors in the Philippines. The casting director came to the Philippines and was there for a long time, looking for actresses to play Abigail. She would film us and then send the footage to Ruben, and he would choose. Then he asked to meet all of us and we met on Skype, and talked individually to see if we can understand each other. I auditioned the three scenes in the film: giving the octopus out, the scene with Carl and Abigail in the boat, and the scene where they left the fire to die.
Why did they look specifically in the Philippines?
Because there are a lot of overseas Filipino workers all over the world. We’re the biggest domestic helpers in other countries and Ruben is well aware of that. In yachts, ships and cruises, there are a lot of Filipino workers there. There are people working in the kitchen, toilets, dining halls. There are a lot of us who are out there, working.
My sense is he wanted to bring an authenticity to the film.
Yes, but he also didn’t want to emphasize our nationality. It’s never mentioned in the film where we’re from. He went with the particular nationality that’s really associated with domestic help.
How did you shape the character of Abigail? It could have been played in so many different ways. How did you approach it?
When Ruben auditioned us, we were all different types of women. Some women were older than me; others were a bit younger. Some were not too Filipina-looking, others were more Filipina-looking. We were all built differently. He wanted to leave it up to whomever played Abigail to decide how she’d be portrayed. And he said specifically, “Whichever actress I choose, the role will be shaped by that actor.” So I simply put myself in her shoes, because there are so many OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] in my country. I have relatives and friends who are OFWs and I know how they live, and I know them. So I know the struggle and hardship they go through, having to live in a foreign country and speak a different language they’re not used to, and having to be away from their families and do things to earn money. I just based it on that. I asked myself, “What if I, Dolly, was an OFW?” That’s how I played her. A huge part of me is in Abigail.
When you first read the script what did you make of it?
I got the script when I got the part. I was blown away, because there are so many things happening that leads to where it ends up. Everything was curated so well by Ruben, and I love the turn that Abigail made in the script, the way she changed the hierarchy and holding of the power; the way it shifted. I thought it was so amazing to play someone who has nothing, basically, or has less than most people she’s around. And then to turn it around and be the one who is relied upon — someone who is followed, listened to, and treated as a leader who is reliable and worthy of being among them. I thought it was amazing. And that a Filipina would play her!
What do you think the film conveys?
I think the film is about exploiting power. It’s about people who misuse the power they have; they use it for their own benefit and exploit it rather than use it for the betterment of humanity. Rather than making the world a better place, they use it to enrich themselves more or make themselves even more powerful. The statement of the film is really that power tends to poison people’s decisions in life. Because there’s this philosophy that the oppressed, rather than wanting to leave the oppressor, they’re shaped by the oppression and they imbibe it and live it, and end up becoming the oppressor. It’s an endless cycle. That’s the statement of the whole film: We as humans are cursed with this never-ending play for power and wanting to be better or higher than others, when in fact we’d all be well off if we were all just equal.
And Abigail herself is also overcome by power in the movie.
Exactly. Because she knows that’s how it works. In the real world, people who have the power and resources abuse it and take more. So she says, “I’ll do the same thing.”
How did you and Harris navigate your relationship, which becomes sexual, in the movie?
Harris is a pro. He’s young. He’s very young. But he’s a pro. And when you’re working with a pro, everything else is easy. I met him for the first time in March 2020 and we got along right away, because he’s accessible, friendly and chill. He’s a really nice guy. So it was easy for us. And because we were in Greece shooting, we got to spend a lot of time together as a group, we would hang out, and got to know each other better. We knew we’d do a scene like that, so we were both aware of that. We took the time to be friends and talk about how to approach the scene and do it.
Were there any funny behind-the-scenes moments during the shoot that stand out for you?
The funniest thing was probably a scene where I’m spraying my mouth with Evian. That’s not in the script. I was doing that because — and I haven’t actually spoken to Harris about this yet — I was so nervous that day that my mouth was so dry. It was a love scene. And when I’m nervous my mouth is dry. So in the middle of the take, I took the bottle and sprayed my mouth because I needed water so badly. And then I thought, “Why not play with it?” and I sprayed it in Harris’s mouth, too. And he choked, literally. Ruben didn’t cut, but that wasn’t actually used in the actual film.
[A passerby interrupts the interview and tells de Leon, “You gave a fantastic performance.”]
Does this happen to you constantly here?
Yes, it does. It’s wild. It’s wild.
Does this not happen to you in Manila?
No! No, no. They look at me like this. [De Leon squints her eyes and looks at me, and then quickly looks away.] And then they keep walking. They’re like, “I think I’ve seen her before. Did we go to school together? Ah, anyway!”
So, do you feel Carl’s feelings for Abigail are authentic?
It’s up to the audience to decide.
But what do you think?
Of course it’s authentic. Of course. Of course! I think Abigail, despite her insecurities, has a sexuality that she’s very confident about.
I mean, she is on fire. I was wondering, though, if it was a survival tactic on his part.
I think that’s the beauty of the film. A lot of parts are explained, but there are a lot of critical areas that Ruben doesn’t explain and leaves it to the audience to decide. If they think Carl is faking it, or if they think he’s really into Abigail – it’s up to them. At the ending, if Abigail does or doesn’t [kill Yaya], it’s up to them.
What do you think happened in the ending?
The audience should decide. And then maybe when the whole world watches it, I will tell you my answer.
When we see Carl running, I read that as him running to see what’s happening, because these two women have been gone for a long time.
Or maybe he’s thinking that Yaya is going to [kill Abigail]. Maybe! There are so many aspects to the film. I personally believe Carl really loves Yaya and she loves him. I don’t think the relationship is superficial even if they fight about superficial things. Even though I don’t think fighting about the bill is superficial. It’s justified; Yaya’s concern is justified in that she needs to know if he can take care of her because her career isn’t going to last forever. So that’s another aspect: he might be concerned that she may do something that compromises her integrity as a human being because he cares about her and doesn’t want her to get into trouble. And also because there’s this love triangle going on, so you may think Yaya is [going to kill Abigail].
God, the penny just dropped for me on the “triangle” in “Triangle of Sadness.”
That’s why it’s “Triangle of Sadness!” Because it’s a love triangle between the three. The first day I got to Sweden to shoot, [Charlbi Dean, who plays Yaya] and Harris had been shooting for a month already. And when all three of us were on set, we went to say ‘hi’ and tell Ruben we’re all there, and the first thing he said to us was, “My triangle of sadness is complete.” I just remembered that story now.
We often see domestic workers in film and TV being underpaid and exploited, so to see someone in that situation rise up, you feel good. I think that’s why people were cheering. Did that play across your mind?
Not at all. In our premiere, it was the same. They were cheering when Abigail would say something like, “I’m the captain. Where’s the boat?” I didn’t expect that at all. But I’m glad they caught it, because for me it’s great that Abigail rises up. But you never know how the audience will react. Maybe they’ll see it as, “This woman is taking advantage of the situation. She’s being a bad person.” But no. They saw it as, “You’re doing the right thing, Abigail. Control these people!”
Seeing it here was your first time seeing the film, right? What did you think of the toilet scenes?
You know, it’s funny. I really hate toilet humor. I hate it so much. But I was laughing and laughing when I watched it. Because I watched the script and was wondering how Ruben would execute it. I didn’t think it was disgusting at all; I thought it was funny — all these rich, privileged people are getting their day.
What was it like working on the production?
Ruben does a lot of takes. The most he’s done is 100-plus takes in one day. We did around 60-plus takes. He works us like horses [laughs]. He uses the fatigue to reach that angst more. And because we’re on an island and you’re marooned there and don’t know if you’ll go home, it adds that stress and tension to you as a person and character. He used that and it worked very well for us. Normally he does that because he feels you’ll get to the emotion more organically if you do it over and over and over again and you’re not thinking of the lines anymore, because it becomes muscle memory. He also uses a gong after he says, “Action!” It’s an actual gong. They brought it from Sweden.
They brought a gong to a Greek island?
To the Greek island. And he would call, “Action!” and then bam! And we would wait for the sound of the gong to fade away. We wait, and then do the scene. I loved that gong because it was like a gunshot in a race, and it triggers you to really run fast and that had an effect on me. While we’re waiting for it to fade away, it gives you time to prepare for the scene. I loved working with him because he was always so encouraging, and he would applaud. He’s really good at motivating his actors.
What was it like after a few takes?
After 25 takes, he’d say, “One more take,” and we’d be like, “Are you serious?” We’re good, man, we’re good. I asked him, “What if we did it in one take and it was so good. Would you be happy with that and say it’s a wrap?” and he said, “No, I’d still make you do it over and over again,” because he really believes you can always improve.
What do you think audiences will take away from this film?
I’ve seen all of his films. I think that this one is a departure from his usual. I know people say he always does satire and makes statements about the current situation of society and politics. He does that here, too, but he does that in a different way. I think “Triangle of Sadness” is more accessible and more people can relate to it. It was written differently: the plot is fairly simple and there’s a chronological order for where it all leads to.
What’s next for you? Any more international projects?
No international things. I’m going back to Manila and shooting independent films again. I have one I’m doing there and I’m shooting it locally.
Do you have an agent?
No. I don’t. I had one before but it didn’t work out and I let them go. I thought I’m better off taking care of myself unless I really meet a good agent who can really do their job.
How did you find out about the casting?
Through the community. We’re a very small community in the Philippines and everyone knows everyone. So if a certain type of role comes up, they know to call.
I know you’ll get more opportunities after this role, I can feel it.
The problem with actors like me…
What do you mean by “actors like me”?
Brown actors. In the entertainment industry, Black people started getting representation first and eventually landing lead roles. And eventually, Chinese and East Asian actors would get comedic, silly roles and now they’re playing lead [non-stereotyped] roles as well. It’s only recently that brown people are coming out. Spider-Man’s best friend [played by Jacob Batalon] is Filipino. Now we’re getting more representation, like in [Philippines-born director Isabel Sandoval’s] “Lingua Franca,” she’s a Filipina transgender woman. But we’re still playing these parts.
I’m just lucky I’m playing Abigail, who’s a badass. But what are they going to cast me in? If you think about it, none of the stories are really written with a brown Asian woman as the lead in a really good role – it doesn’t even need to be a lead, it can be a good supporting role. It’s really hard to come by. So I can’t blame them if they can’t cast me in anything, because most stories written nowadays are about white people.
It feels like there’s a little bit of change, just looking at the success of something like “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” But as you look forward to your next roles, it sounds like the paucity of roles is coming into sharp relief?
We have a rich history; we have a lot of stories to tell. It would be great if [Filipinos] were represented more in mainstream media. I’m just lucky I got to work with Ruben and he did this film and put us out there. Having people like Jaclyn Jose who won best actress in Cannes in 2016 helps. But it’s still a challenge.