By Damon Wise
Film Editor, Awards
After 30 years in TV film and theater, where she has performed in plays by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Shakespeare, Filipina actress Dolly De Leon made news stories all around the world during Cannes 2022 for playing a cleaner. But not just any cleaner; as the savvy Abigail, who turns the tables when a luxury cruise ship capsizes in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning social satire Triangle of Sadness, De Leon gives a masterclass in skewering lazy clichés and assumptions about her home country. Proving the power of De Leon’s performance is the response from countries all around the world, notably the U.K., where she made the Bafta longlist, and the U.S., where she is in the running for a Golden Globe.
How did she feel about the nomination? “My initial reaction? I cried,” she recalls. “I was with friends, and we were out having dinner and the moment we found out they ordered champagne and we celebrated. And the reason I got so emotional, I think, is that when you do your job, you’re doing it because you love it, but when people recognize you or they say, “You did a good job, I love your work,” it gives you a strong sense of affirmation, a sense that, yes, you are doing the right thing, you are on the right track, and you are in the right profession.”
Here, she talks about the film and its impact on her career.
DEADLINE: When did this journey start for you?
DOLLY DE LEON: It started in 2018. The casting director flew to the Philippines and they held auditions here. I auditioned with three scenes from the film, and then I met with Ruben via Skype, where we just chatted a bit, talked about the film and talked about the character. I think he just wanted to find out what my thoughts were, about the part of Abigail and the script. After that, about a month later, I got an email saying that I’d got the part, but we couldn’t film yet. So I had to wait another two years before we started filming. It actually reached the point where I thought it was never going to happen. And then, in 2020, we finally started filming, in March. And then I waited another two years before the film came out. So it was a long process. It was four years in the making for me, but for them it was five.
DEADLINE: What appealed to you about playing Abigail?
DE LEON: First of all, I wanted to make her as human as possible. I wanted her to be relatable. Because there are a lot of Filipina women who are like her all around the world, and I was very well aware of that. I wanted to represent them properly, and I wanted to make sure that I was being loyal to Abigail as a human being. I’m well aware that Abigail’s presence in the film is to prove a certain point — that when people are placed in a different environment, the power dynamic changes. I knew that that’s why she was there, but I wanted to add more to that. I really wanted her to be a woman with her own struggles, her own challenges with dealing with people in power on a daily basis. I wanted to create a background for her, a clear history about why she makes certain choices that she makes in the film. I talked to Ruben about that when we made that call, and he received it very well.
DEADLINE: What were your experiences on set?
DE LEON: The scenes in the boat were kind of tricky because it was my first day with them. So I was really intimidated. I was terrified. I would go in nervous all the time, scared that I would disappoint them. But after the first day, I was able to bounce right back and get into the groove of things. And when we were on the island, that’s when we already had established some rapport. We created a bond; me and the cast and Ruben and the crew were all friends. So that became so much easier. But I was still always very nervous going to set because I knew that we were doing something very important, something that’s a very delicate topic. And even if it’s a comedy, we’re dealing with a very serious subject matter. So I was very, very cautious about that, and I wanted to make sure that we were doing everything right.
DEADLINE: It’s funny you should say you were nervous because Abigail is a very confident character and you play her very well. Where did that confidence come from?
DE LEON: I think part of acting is making yourself look like you’re so calm and relaxed and you have it all together. I can’t speak for other actors, but I think that’s part of the job. What’s important is that I remain true to the character and be loyal to her and forget about my own needs or my own hang-ups and nervousness. And it comes into play naturally if you put yourself in that kind of mindset.
DEADLINE: Did you know Ruben’s films beforehand?
DE LEON: Yes, I did. I’d seen The Square, and when I auditioned for the part, of course, I Googled him, and I found out he had done also Force Majeure. I watched that after I auditioned, but I knew about him. I knew that, when I was getting into that audition, I was working with a very talented director.
DEADLINE: All of his films, as you’ve been saying, raise very interesting and complicated points. Is that a difficulty when you’re simply trying to play a character?
DE LEON: I think that’s one of the things that really excite me and drive me as an actor — when I’m working with delicate subject matters and when I’m working with a very talented director. I think that when I’m in a place of “danger”, when I’m not in a very comfortable position, that’s when I’m really in my element, and that’s when I really enjoy myself. I find that when I’m too relaxed, or when I’m too comfortable, it doesn’t really make for a more exciting acting experience. At least me that’s my personal experience.
DEADLINE: So, after this four-year wait, you end up in Cannes and became a kind of overnight star. What was that experience like for you?
DE LEON: Oh, that was so weird. That was wild. It felt so surreal. I think I was running around like a headless chicken, because there were so many things happening that were so new to me. Like doing interviews, meeting filmmakers and actors. I felt like I was in a new world that was so exciting to me. I loved it so much, but at the same time I was so rattled, and I was thrown off balance by that whole experience. It was really very disorienting.
DEADLINE: How long have you been acting now, and how did you get into it in the first place?
DE LEON: I’ve been acting for more than 30 years. I started acting professionally when I was in university, but I was already acting for fun in school, joining the drama club, the dance club, the Glee club… I was part of all the arts clubs, and it really became serious when I went to university and I did a Bachelor of Arts in Theater Arts. And that’s when I started doing it professionally and that’s when I really started learning more about the craft.
DEADLINE: And what kind of parts were you playing in those early days?
DE LEON: In those days I was playing neighbors. Neighbors, or someone sitting by a stoop somewhere, or someone who would just walk by and say a few lines. Later on it became more lines, but I was still playing characters who are really just there to help the story move forward. Maybe a doctor or a teacher, or the dean of a school, or a principal, or the sister of the best friend’s neighbor. [Laughs] So my career was progressing very slowly, but at least it was progressing, starting from being a background actor — or, as they call them here, extras — until I started having lines. And then I started playing more significant characters. I started playing the best friend of the lead, or the mother of the lead.
DEADLINE: Was this on stage or on TV?
DE LEON: That was mostly on TV and film. For stage, I would usually play characters that go through a very serious character arc. Characters who have a real journey, who are, most of the time, the center of the story. It’s really in theater where I’ve had a very lucrative career as an actor. That’s where I immersed myself and learned everything, all the ropes.
DEADLINE: Are you talking about Manila?
DE LEON: Yeah. I was born here, I live here. I work here in TV. It’s very lucrative. The entertainment industry here is very, very active even during the pandemic. Work didn’t stop, we were still filming. There were still shoots and tapings going on.
DEADLINE: And what’s the movie industry like?
DE LEON: Yeah, we have everything from big studios who produce films to independent filmmakers, and we also have grants for festivals. Yeah, filming really is constant here in the Philippines. It’s a big part of our culture.
DEADLINE: Theater-wise, what kinds of playwrights interest you and what kind of parts have you enjoyed playing?
DE LEON: Early in university, I was really very much drawn to Harold Pinter. I loved his silent type of theater with so many pauses and silences. If you read a Harold Pinter script, it’s mostly silences, and that’s usually the time when the character is thinking about what to say next or what to do next. I love that about him. I’ve also done some Samuel Beckett – I did Waiting for Godot — and Shakespeare. I’ve done Portia in The Merchant of Venice. I’ve also done some Greek tragedies, like Medea, where I played the nurse and the messenger. And a lot of original Filipino work. We also have a lot of very talented playwrights here.
DEADLINE: It’s ironic that you should mention so many serious playwrights when your performance is so funny! You obviously have very good comic timing. Where does that come from?
DE LEON: [Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t know. I think comic timing comes with the truth of the scene or the natural progression of events in a scene. I think that if I just remain loyal to the material, and to the objective of the character I’m playing, then the comic timing comes naturally. I don’t know how other actors do it, but to me, it’s just really all about being in the moment. I’m creating a scenario that is as real as possible, and if that requires some comic timing, it will just come naturally in the play between the characters in the scene.
DEADLINE: How quickly did you notice the impact of Triangle of Sadness on your career?
DE LEON: It was really night and day. It was quick. Like I said, it was very disorienting because the change was just so sudden. It was really strange, because all of a sudden people are praising you, all of a sudden, you’re getting compliments, all of a sudden, the offers are different, all of a sudden, you’re getting better job opportunities. And that all happened in a span of four months. So I’m just trying to be as grounded as possible. I like to think that everyone else has changed except for me.
DEADLINE: Have you had any interesting discussions about the representation of women, and especially Filipina women, as a result of this movie?
DE LEON: Yes, actually. A lot of conversations have opened about this, and there have been some questions asking, ‘Shouldn’t we be resisting this trend that seems to be happening, that the Filipino is always being represented as a helper, or a caregiver, or someone who’s a worker in the service industry?’ To me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, because that’s the reality. A lot of us are working all over the world in the service industry, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. It’s an honorable job.
So, yeah, [th conversation has] mostly about that. It’s mostly about creating stereotypes and keeping us in a box. If people assume that we can only portray a certain type of character, then that, to me, should be talked about, and it should really be put in check. Because there are also so many Filipinos who come from different walks of life. Not all of us are from the service industry, a lot of us are professionals in other ways. There are doctors, lawyers, judges, senators, and there are also those who are destitute. We’re just like any other ethnicity. There’s a lot of diversity. So yes, [the film is] really opening a lot of discussion about that.
DEADLINE: And what has it done for your career? What opportunities have come your way?
DE LEON: You know, before this, whenever I would get a call for a job, the question would just be, “Are you free?” I’d say, “Yeah, I’m free!” [Laughs] It was never a question about what role to play or what project to say yes or no to. It was just, “Yeah, I’m free. Let’s go. Let’s do it.” Now, that’s changed. Now I can choose. And I feel so fortunate that, finally, I’m at that point in my life where I can choose what to do, that I have a voice about my artistic expression. That’s the biggest change and the most important change of all.
DEADLINE: Triangle of Sadness was a huge deal in Cannes. What was the reaction at home?
DE LEON: Oh, everyone has been so supportive. I just feel like I have an entire nation behind me. Everyone is rooting for me. Everyone is supportive. Everyone wants to help. Everyone wants to contribute in some way. And I really feel touched by so many lives, by people who are there to share their love. I feel so much love right now. And that’s a big change too.
DEADLINE: You’ve traveled around the world with the film, and now you’re off to the Golden Globes. When did you realize this film was taking off internationally?
DE LEON: It really all started in Cannes, and after that it just snowballed. But Cannes was when we all realized that all our hard work was being recognized and rewarded.
DEADLINE: Is there a moment that stands out from Cannes for you?
DE LEON: Probably seeing all those famous people, I guess. Yeah, I mean seeing Javier Bardem, seeing Park Chan-wook, the Korean director, and being surrounded by so many talented people, that was it for me. That’s when I realized, “Wow, oh my gosh, look at where I am.” Because here in the Philippines no one recognizes me. No one knows who I am. I can walk around and I’m fine. But in Cannes, the moviegoers started recognizing us, and it kind of felt good!
DEADLINE: Who were your role models when you decided to become an actor?
DE LEON: A really big influence, I believe, on my career was Isabelle Huppert because I love her acting style. She just acts with her eyes, and you can really feel everything that she’s going through inside just by [looking at] what her eyes say. The Piano Teacher really had an impact on me. And, of course, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer. Then later on, when she explored comedy and she did so well, The Devil Wears Prada. Those are the films that really made an impact on me.
Growing up, it was really more the male actors who I admired a lot, because my dad loved to watch old films, black and white films. I really fell in love with Bette Davis, so Bette Davis is also one of the actresses that I really admire, especially in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Unfortunately, she’s not with us anymore, but it would have been really a dream to work with her. So I was growing up with films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. That’s an era that really left a mark on me. And, today, the young ones are also very talented, so I’m also drawing a lot of inspiration from them.
DEADLINE: So what are you doing next after Triangle of Sadness. Are you booked up or are you taking some time off?
DE LEON: Taking time off??? What does that even mean? [Laughs] I’m going to be in the States for a month, then I come back home and work here. I’m doing one film and one teleserye or TV series, and then I’m going back to the States in March to film a comedy, an independent film. After that, I’m coming back here to film something else in April. But I love that. I love working. I love acting. I like being on a film set. So I’m looking forward to it.
DEADLINE: Any plans to work with Ruben again? Do you think that’s a possibility?
DE LEON: That’s entirely up to him. If it were up to me, I would love to work with him again, because he really looks out for his actors. He will never, ever lose sight of truth in relation to the story, and that’s really what I love so much about him. I feel like I’m in very good hands when I’m with him because he won’t let you get away with anything if you’re on his set. If he sees anything that does not ring true, he will call you on it. You can’t get away with anything. So I loved working with him, and I would love to work with him again.
DEADLINE: Are you the sort of person that has a bucket list?
DE LEON: I do have a bucket list. I would love to work on a script that is collaborative, that I can work on with the writer and the director together and really flesh out the character. I would love to explore other schools of learning, other styles of filmmaking. I would love to write, that’s one of my dreams. I would love to write a screenplay or a series. I have so many ideas in my head, I just have to sit down and put them all on paper.
DEADLINE: Will you ever leave Manila?
DE LEON: People have asked me if I want to live in the United States, but I’m still a very happy living in the Philippines. I’m happy being here, but maybe someday I wouldn’t mind living in a small town that’s quiet and just plant vegetables and things like that. And then maybe, if there’s a job, I’ll fly to the city to film. That’s the life I want.
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