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Dolly de Leon (front) in a scene from Triangle of Sadness. The 53-year-old Filipino actress found acting in her first big international movie challenging at times, but says she “never goes down without a fight”.

Update | Filipino actress Dolly De Leon on her role in Triangle of Sadness, 2022 Cannes Film Festival winner, and why she’s ‘up for any challenge’

  • Overseas Filipino workers and her mum inspired Dolly De Leon in her role as Abigail, a toilet cleaner on a luxury yacht who takes the reins when disaster hits
  • The Manila native reveals how her theatre background and can-do spirit helped her land her breakout role, her on-set struggles and favourite line in the movie

Challenges can reveal who people really are. That’s true of both Abigail – the breakout character of Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s first English-language film, Triangle of Sadness – and Dolly De Leon, the 53-year-old Filipino actress who plays her.

In the movie, Abigail is what Filipinos call an “OFW”: an overseas Filipino worker – someone who takes work abroad, usually menial, often to send money home. In the story she works as a “toilet manager” on an opulent cruise ship, which isn’t portrayed to be the most delightful job.

Like many Filipinos, De Leon, who was raised in the Philippines’ capital, Manila, knows OFWs personally.

“I only put their nurturing side, taking care of other people” into the role, she says. “They’re compliant and obedient and hard-working. If you ask them to do something, even if they think that it’s not part of their job description, they’ll go beyond.

“As far as the way she [Abigail] took over everything on the island, I think I took that from my mom. My mom was an OFW. She’s very forceful and in control,” De Leon says of her mother, who died recently.

“I think I got a bit of that from her subconsciously. But there was never a conscious effort to copy anyone that I knew.”

Dolly De Leon with director Ruben Östlund at the Cannes Film Festival, after Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or. Photo: Getty Images

In the film, the ship sinks and the characters find themselves marooned on an island. It is here that Abigail proves herself to be much more resourceful and competent than some of the wealthy survivors, and the social order that existed on the ship is upended.

On December 10 Triangle of Sadness won four prizes at the European Film Awards – best film, best director and screenwriter and best actor (Zlatko Buric).

“I don’t really see Abigail [on the ship and on the island] as two different people. I think she’s had that pent-up resentment for these people on that yacht from the start. She sees how they can’t even take care of themselves. Everyone’s been watching over them; they had no motivation to make their own cup of coffee,” De Leon says.

“So … it’s not like a huge change happens in Abigail. I think a huge change happened around her, so she adjusted.”

Wealthy cruise passengers, and crew, marooned on an island, in a still from Triangle of Sadness.

The actor may as well be talking about herself.

Growing up, her father was a mechanical and electrical engineer and her mother mostly a housewife – “but she was also a champion bowler. Rosie De Leon. If people know bowling, they’ll know her name,” De Leon says.

Her love for performing started when she was a child, after which she went to college for a degree in theatre arts. For decades, she acted on stage, largely in classics such as The Merchant of Venice, Waiting for Godot and Three Sisters.

When [Abigail] says, ‘On the yacht, toilet manager. Here, captain,’ that, for me, is very powerful. That is my favourite event in the whole film.
Dolly De Leon

Most of her screen work has been what she calls “little roles that you won’t even remember”. She’s being modest; she won a 2020 supporting actress prize at the Famas (the Filipino Oscars) for her role in the 2019 crime drama Verdict – but hers is a familiar story of the struggling actor doing it for love.

“You can’t make a living out of acting, especially theatre, in the Philippines. You have to do other stuff.”

The single mother of four worked as a facilitator: “I would facilitate in building corporate programmes, organisational development, teach[ing] them presentation skills.”

When a casting director told her about the audition for Triangle of Sadness, De Leon wasn’t excited.

De Leon (back, left) didn’t expect to get the part in Triangle of Sadness, but went to the audition anyway.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna get [the part]’ because I never get auditions. I really don’t. Once, I got [a part after] an audition, but only because the actors they chose backed out,” she says.

“I went anyway – I mean, I never go down without a fight; I’m up for any challenge. I went there thinking I wasn’t gonna get it, so I was very loose, very comfortable and just having fun with it. I think that’s what caught Ruben’s eye.”

Triangle of Sadness marked De Leon’s first time being part of a major international production. Playing one of the key roles for an internationally renowned cinematic auteur, and shooting on a cold beach in Greece, took some adjusting for the actress. Also, Östlund’s habit of shooting multiple – sometimes dozens of – takes for each scene required some getting used to.

Dolly De Leon poses on the red carpet prior to the Critics Choice Association’s Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema & Television in Los Angeles in November 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE

“In the beginning, I felt horrible. I felt like they made a mistake in choosing me because he made us do it over and over again. But after a while, I think it really got a lot from me in a good way. Doing takes over and over and over, you tend to forget you’re acting; you’re just completely in the scene.

“And I think because of my theatre background – we rehearse over and over again – it is freeing creatively, but physically exhausting.”

While she effusively praises the cast and crew (“Everyone was looking out for everyone; it was a set with love”), it was the instant friendship offered by 32-year-old co-star Charlbi Dean, she says, that helped her get comfortable during shooting. The South African actress died suddenly of a viral infection shortly before the film’s release.

The Triangle of Sadness cast in Cannes, France, including De Leon (2nd from left) and Dean (4th from right). Photo: Getty Images

“Charlbi made me feel right at home, like we had known each other for a long time. I would [have] considered her a lifelong friend,” says De Leon. “It wasn’t just the first day; she was consistently kind and thoughtful and sweet, always asking me how I am, always putting others ahead of herself.”

Since the film’s rapturous reception at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, De Leon has signed with a major agency and is in talks regarding a significant role in an American production. But it’s not her who’s changed; it’s her circumstances.

“When [Abigail] says, ‘On the yacht, toilet manager. Here, captain,’ that, for me, is very powerful. That is my favourite event in the whole film.

“Everyone tells me [audiences] are cheering for those lines, for Abigail.”