“I’m kind of tired of crying on screen. I want to do comedy. I want people to laugh.”
Filipina actress Dolly de Leon has made a close to 30-year career playing numerous supporting parts in the Philippines that have pushed audiences to deep emotional boundaries. From soap operas, theater productions, and films, she has been a staple, veteran actor of her home country, destined to make a big slash with her latest project. In doing so, with her new role in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, she’s introduced herself around the world as someone who can demonstrate a commanding presence.
In the film, she plays Abigail, a toilet maintenance worker on a superyacht filled with dozens of elitists from across the globe. We barely see her in the first half of the film, mostly cleaning and taking care of the guests, but once the madness on the boat begins, shocking events surface to allow Abigail to take center stage and become the most fascinating character in the film in a stupendous performance. In this scene stealing turn, Dolly de Leon has delivered one of the breakout roles of the year.
In our conversation before the film’s premiere as the closing night film of the 2022 Fantastic Film Fest, we discussed her process in creating Abigail, as well as what it was like working with Östlund and her fellow cast members. We also discussed the types of roles she wants to do and projects she wants to select now that she has an agent after not having one prior to making the film.
Ryan McQuade: I got a couple of fun questions for you upfront. I’m curious if you’ve ever had an experience where you’ve had, maybe not to the extent of the film, a crazy experience on a vacation or on a cruise or something like this in your life?
Dolly De Leon: I’ve never been on a cruise. Yeah, I have never been on a cruise because I’m a starving artist. (laughs)
RM: It’s all right. I’m a journalist and I’ve never been on a cruise either (both laugh), so always curious about going on one myself.
DDL: Yeah. The closest I’ve ever been on a yacht was when I was filming a film and that was the set, the yacht, not Triangle of Sadness, another film in the Philippines and I was on it. That was the first time I ever stepped on a yacht, which happened just four years ago. Then my next experience was with Triangle of Sadness where I wasn’t even on the actual yacht, on the Christina. I was in the studio, in the interior of the boat. So yeah, no, I’ve never experienced anything like that. I’ve never been on a cruise.
RM: I think we got to make that happen now.
DDL: Yeah. (laughs)
RM: I think that’s what’s going to have to happen when all this settles down. I think you’re going to have a much need vacation and everything.
DDL: Yeah, I think so.
RM: The characters in this film get stranded in the second half of the film and that’s where your role primarily comes into effect. Chips and pretzels become the hot commodity for food there. If you were stranded and you had one snack you could have with you to survive, what do you think it would be?
DDL: Oh my gosh. Definitely Doritos. Oh, Doritos. I love Doritos especially the taco flavored ones. Oh yeah, I can eat that every day, the whole day. I’ll never get tired of it. It’s so versatile. You can do so many things with it. You can cook it. It’s amazing. You can make it bread crumbs to cook the chicken. Yeah, I love Doritos.
RM: Yeah, you got to have the versatility in there.
RM: Doritos on octopus, that would be an interesting.
DDL: Oh my gosh. The octopus in the film, it tasted really good. It was deliciously prepared by our art department. They really made it very good. But I don’t think I ever want to eat octopus again. (laughs) Because we did so many takes of eating that stuff and I can’t anymore.
RM: How you were approached for the film, how this role came to you and what was your first reaction when you read the script? Because I would assume when you’re reading it, you’re like the audience sitting there going, “Oh my God, all these crazy things are happening.”
DDL: Well, firstly, when I was told that they were holding auditions for the part, they didn’t send me the script. They just sent me sides. They sent me sides. So the three scenes, the distribution of the food, the scene with Carl and where they steal the pretzel sticks and forget to watch the fire. So those were the three sides, and a little gist of the story, the synopsis. So that’s all I had on me when I went to the audition.
But just by reading the synopsis alone and reading those three sides, I already knew that this was a really important role, a really fun and exciting character to play. So right then I already knew. Then when I actually read the script, the entirety of the script, I’m going to be honest with you, Ryan, I was kind of hoping that Abigail had more scenes. That’s really what I felt when I was reading it.
But I mean, doing the whole journey of filming when we were in Greece and everything, it made perfect sense that that was her air time in the film. Ruben plotted it perfectly and especially watching the film in its entirety justified her air time. However short her air time is in the film, it’s really quite incredible her presence in the film. So I’m really happy by that.
RM: Was there anything that you brought personally to the character once you got into the portrayal, or once you got the part, that wasn’t necessarily on the page when you first read it?
DDL: Well, whenever I play a part, in general, not just for Abigail, there’s always like 75% of me in it and just 25% of the character I’m playing. That’s just something that it’s a personal choice. It’s not a particular school of acting that I picked up anywhere. It’s just I suppose many years of doing it and I find that that’s the most effective method that I’ve been using all these years. Because I’ve been acting for more than 30 years and playing all these doctors and lawyers and all these parts.
Any offer that comes my way, I take it, I say yes. So the only way I cannot get bored with playing the same characters is keeping myself in the character and adding 25% of someone else, because that way, I’m really 100% in the journey of truth, because the truth of… Well, this is my personal belief, okay? I don’t think other actors think like this, but for me, the truth of a character comes from the person who’s playing them.
So if I were to assume a totally different character, I mean, the things that people, actors like Tom Hanks do that they’d really… It’s a totally different person. I can’t do that. I really can’t. There’s a lot of Dolly in Abigail actually. Well, I’m also very controlling. I also love power. I also love being in control. But I think that the big difference between Abigail and I is that I’m not as strong as her.
She’s really very strong that she took the position of power very seriously and handled it in the same way that they were treating her in the yacht. So that’s the big difference. She kind of exploited that power. I don’t think I can do that. Well, who knows? Maybe if I’m in a position like that, I’m stranded on an island and I’m hungry, maybe I would. But being right now where I am, I’m comfortable, I would like to think that I won’t make that choice.
RM: No, for sure. Abigail represents thousands of workers around the world that wish they could even get the tiny ounce of power that she gets by the second half of this film and the frustrations of working with higher class people and their problems. How important was it for you would portraying her with such agency, honesty throughout the entirety of the film?
DDL: Well, I think that the responsibility of an actor is really huge in that we need to really serve the character and really serve the story. There should not be any other agenda. For example, seeking the audience’s affirmation or fame or recognition or money or any of that. I think it really all boils down to being faithful to the character and portraying them as human as possible. Even if they have awful choices and even if they are “evil”, I think that we have a responsibility as actors to love them and to…
It’s not even about empathy, it’s about really loving them like they are us. So that when we’re done working, I mean, while we’re filming, we’re sure that we’re keeping that human side present and visible because at the end of the day, I think that’s what acting is. It’s just telling a story about a real person and honoring that person. Even if these are fictional characters that we play, I always like to think that somewhere out there, there is a person like Abigail who I have to honor and respect.
RM: As you mentioned earlier, the movie is a commentary on not just class but power dynamics. For Abigail, this is a very rise and fall story of power that she gains and then her struggle to keep control of it even up until the very end. From your perspective, as you were diving into the character and created that, how are those themes playing on you when you’re playing the part?
DDL: I didn’t want it to be easy on her to decide to be a controlling bitch. I wanted her to really have a dilemma about it, to really think about it and to have a struggle inside of her to see if this is the right way to go. It wasn’t really clear in her mind, especially towards the end in that final scene with Yaya, it wasn’t really clear in her mind what she was going to do. I think she was really more driven by emotion at that point and she didn’t know how to handle what would happen after they crossed that line, if you know what I mean, without saying any spoilers.
So it was very important to add that element of confusion and self-doubt and questioning herself what should she do, is this the right thing to do, or maybe she do something else, is that the right thing to do, what is the right thing to do. I think us as humans, in general, we have that challenge every day. Even if we know, right?
Even if we know what the right thing to do is, we still think, “Yeah, but sometimes maybe the right thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do. Maybe doing something wrong is better.” Yeah, I wanted to make that clear that she has that human element about her where she is questioning herself and really thinking seriously about a really tough decision that she has to make.
RM: Obviously, you are working and collaborating with director Ruben Östlund with this film. What the process of working with him is like in making this film?
DDL: With Ruben, because he gave me free rein on how I would approach Abigail, that initially it already made it easy for me. Because as an actor, when the beliefs of the filmmaker are imposed on you, it’s more difficult to become creative. So from the start here, they told me that, he gave me free rein on how I would approach her. Then after that we did a workshop with him. I sat down with him and had an afternoon with him where we ran the scenes together. Based on my own approach, he tweaked some stuff a little, well, not some, a lot. He tweaked a lot of it, but it all worked for the best.
All his choices were also aligned with mine because he was able to justify them very clearly with me and that’s what I like about his process. He explains things very clearly. He doesn’t just say, “Okay, do this. this is what I want.” That’s it. He asks questions, he asks things like, “Do you think Abigail would do this? Do you think this can happen?” So he opens everything to discussion and that makes for a very rich collaboration because then you’re also asking yourself questions and it opens the door to other possibilities. He’s a dream to work with.
RM: This is the first English language work for him but also for you, and you are working with this international cast to go alongside with you. You have great chemistry in the film with Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean and the rest of the cast as well. What was the experience like working with the ensemble on this piece as well?
DDL: I think that the reason why all of us have really good chemistry is because we were good friends. We still are good friends. We developed a friendship and we were like a family because we were literally stuck on that island for six weeks. So yeah, we kind of held onto each other for support. All of us wore our hearts on our sleeves. We were very transparent with each other. There was no pretense. We weren’t wearing any masks. We were just being ourselves.
I know that some actors use method, for example, if you’re not having a good relationship with another character, they avoid any interaction with that character to help their performance better. I think that’s great if that works for them. But I think with us, what worked was the relationship that we had behind the camera because we trusted each other so much and we depended on each other so much and that made for really great chemistry with everyone. I think that when you’re working with friends, the end product is so much richer than it would be if you were strangers or if you would avoid each other on set.
After every take, we would always ask each other, “Are you okay? Are you fine? Are we good?” We’d hug each other and things like that. I mean, at the end of the day, creating a film is teamwork and the chemistry will not come out at all if you don’t have a certain affection for your scene partner. They’re all great people and fun to work with. So I mean, if chemistry would not come out of that, then I don’t know how else chemistry could.
RM: The experience, but also the response to the film, everyone’s so positive on it. It’s considered by many to be one of the best films of the year, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. What has that meant to you, the cast, Östlund along this journey so far?
DDL: Okay. It’s so many things. It’s a mixture of so many different things. Okay, on a good day, it’s amazing. It’s mind blowing how it’s being received right now. I just feel like I am just so… All the years of hard work, all the years of sacrifices and suffering as an actor paid off, that finally we’re all here where we’re being recognized, all of us are being recognized and it’s really, on a good day… On a bad day, I feel like an imposter. Maybe there’s some kind of mistake, maybe someone will realize that, “Oh, no, no. She’s bad. Or it’s a bad film.”
So when sometimes when some people give some negative comments, I’m like, “Okay, good.” Then that’s good because you can’t have it good all the time. That’s not realistic. But mostly it’s been really great. Like you said, it’s a very talented cast, it’s a very talented ensemble and they’re all great. I’m so happy for everyone because I think that the lives of my co-actors after are also changing.
For Vicki Berlin, who plays Paula. She’s getting recognition in Denmark. Charlbi, God bless her soul, she’s not here anymore, but this is her breakout role and she did such a fantastic job. She’s really doing great. Harris of course, he’s brilliant and this is his lead role. I believe this is his second lead role, so that’s also good for him. Zlatko Burić is also brilliant. He’s already a big star in Denmark, but this is going to catapult him even higher.
Of course, Woody’s already a big star, but I also heard from Woody that working with Ruben was a different experience because he’s such a big star. But Ruben was putting him in his place in terms of how he would approach the captain and telling him like, “Don’t use your usual tricks. You have to be the captain and things.” He appreciated that. So it’s really life changing for all of us, not just in terms of the trajectory of our career, but also as our growth as actors because it’s a totally different filming experience that is so humbling. It’s life changing.
RM: On that note, it was recently announced that you signed with your first agency. What are the things that are going to call to you when opportunities arise? What do you want to see with the future of your career?
DDL: Well, like I said earlier, Ryan, in the past, I never chose the roles. The roles chose me. If I’m available, I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter to me what the character is, who the director is and all that. But that changed now, right? So rather than the type of characters to play, I’m really more interested in seeing who I will work with, who’s the filmmaker, who’s the writer, who’s the director, who are the actors I’ll be in scenes with. I’m really very excited about that.
But in terms of character, because in the Philippines I always play these mothers who are always being slapped around or kicked or punched or always crying over her sick child or something, and I’m kind of tired of crying on screen. It’s a good release at some point. But now I want to do comedy. I just want to have fun and play a character who thinks, who’s not really very self-aware, who thinks they’re smart, but they’re actually quite gullible or stupid or something like that, something like Michael in The Office, things like that. I want to play that, a boss who kind of exploits power and thinks they’re great but they’re not, and everyone in the office hates them. Something like that.
I want to do comedy. I want people to laugh. I want to have fun on the set because the setup of The Office was like that. They film. The camera would just be there, present the whole time and all the characters are there. So they ended up being this one big happy family. That’s really what I want because to me, the filmmaking process is also about relationships. It’s about building friendships and having a family and being in a really nice environment where you’re all creative and you’re having fun. That’s what I want.
RM: We got to get on that Office reboot for you now, for sure. Well, I thank you so much for your time. You’re fantastic in this film. Much success to you down the road and I hope we get to talk again soon.
DDL: Hope to talk again soon. Thank you so much, Ryan. Thank you.
Triangle of Sadness will be in select theaters from NEON on October 7 and then wider through the fall.