Triangle Of Sadness finds a new star in Dolly De Leon – a Filipina actress who’s been carving her own path for decades at home, finally in the spotlight. She opens up about labour, love, and power with Iana Murray.
At the London Film Festival screening of Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Östlund’s riotous satire set on a luxury cruise, the audience burst into raucous applause three times. Once at the end, naturally, and twice when Abigail, the yacht’s toilet manager, assumes leadership over the incompetent, uber-wealthy passengers she’s shipwrecked with. Initially unassuming, she emerges as a dominating force, single-handedly turning the class hierarchy on its head.
Even as Abigail threatens to be corrupted by her newfound power, it’s impossible not to root for her thanks to an unpredictable turn by Dolly de Leon. Though she has worked with the likes of Lav Diaz, the Filipina actress has predominantly spent the past three decades playing nameless bit parts on screen: Businesswoman #1, Receptionist, Psychologist. Triangle of Sadness, then, is something of a breakout role, and De Leon is more than happy to soak in the thrill of a victory lap. Sitting coolly while taking draws from her vape, De Leon radiates warmth as she expresses gratitude for the role she’s been waiting for.
In the Philippines, you’re known as a character actor. Were you looking for something more substantial by the time Triangle of Sadness came along?
I wasn't looking anymore. I had resigned to the idea that I was stuck playing these characters. That this was my life forever and I was just going to find joy in theatre, because that's really my first love. In theatre, I get a lot of really exciting roles, but in film and television, I [felt] resigned. So when I got Abigail, it was a huge blessing.
What did you like about Abigail the first time you read her on the page?
She takes command of the situation on the island by her own volition. She thinks about it for a short while in the lifeboat when they knock on the door. But then after that, she decides, ‘I’m taking control of this. I don't need to ask permission. I'm just going to do it on my own.’ I admire that, because I don't think I can do that. I would still be asking for permission at that point.
For Filipinas, I think we’re so used to seeing ourselves portrayed, in international media at least, as docile and helpless. It was so refreshing to see a woman who didn’t fit that characterisation.
It's also how we present ourselves. Especially those of us who grew up in the Philippines, when we leave the country, we're known as friendly and hospitable. They don't know how bitchy we can become when we’re up against the wall. We're not always the nice guy, so this is a chance for them to see that we have fire in us.
Did you add anything to the character during your conversations with Ruben?
That's the great thing about Ruben – he's not a dictator. He's very cooperative, he asks a lot of questions. He likes to investigate every facet of filmmaking, especially how an actor works. We talked a lot about it, and I gave him my own insight on how I thought Abigail should be played and he respected that. That's what we worked with: my concept of Abigail.
What was your concept of Abigail?
First of all, she had to be single. She could not be married, she could not have children because, you know, Filipinas, we’re like these mother hens. In the film, she reaches a point where she has to make a decision whether she's going to do something to protect herself or keep her integrity as a human being. And I felt it was very important that she was single because if she had a family, she would not even think of that dilemma. If you have a family, of course you want to go back home, right?
For me, Abigail had to be in that space where she was only beholden to herself. It gave her that sense of independence. I also wanted to give Abigail some sex appeal. I just did it instinctively as an actor because this woman with such strength and such a sense of leadership and power… how could she not have sex appeal?
It’s mentioned in the film that she has no children to go back home to. Many OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) are in their position because they want to send money back to their families. Did Abigail leave the Philippines as a self-sustaining necessity?
It was definitely self-sustaining. She wasn't sending any money, she wasn't supporting anyone. That's the big difference between her and most Filipinos who do it for their family. She’s just doing it for herself. I think that also gives her an added amount of power because when you're looking out for a family, that adds a sense of vulnerability to your status, but if you're just fending for yourself, that gives you a certain amount of confidence and a devil-may-care attitude. I'm not answerable to anyone. I have nothing to lose. That was a very important element for me to add to Abigail.
You’ve been asked before about whether you spoke with OFWs for research. I thought that was a funny line of questioning because the reality of being Filipino is you can’t not know an OFW. It seems futile because the knowledge is innate.
I've always known ever since I was a teenager what it's like because my mum was an OFW. She passed away yesterday, she was 91. She was an OFW for 30 years. She left the Philippines in 1989. She was living like that for a long time with one family, and never left them. Luckily, she was loved by that family and she loved them. I was able to visit her, I stayed with her for one week and I saw her life. Another one is my ex-mother-in-law who's also an OFW and she takes care of the elderly. I also visited her and she has seven siblings and they're all OFWs. I've been exposed to that kind of life for a long time, so the research was really not necessary because I’ve witnessed how hard the struggle is for them.
The film is mainly concerned with themes of wealth and class, but I was thinking about it a lot from the Filipino perspective. I thought the cruise setting was so fascinating in that respect. We’re a country of so many OFWs, and that displacement and lack of belonging is so heightened on a boat, which is the pinnacle of placelessness.
I had a really severe case of cabin fever when we were filming. Not because it was a very uncomfortable place. We were in a nice resort, we were very well taken care of. The ensemble cast all come from different parts of the world, and we were speaking English the whole time we were there. That really does something to your head, psychologically. Your tongue and mouth are moving in a certain way that's very different. Of course, I can speak English, but there are a lot of thoughts that I express better when I'm speaking Tagalog. I really can't explain it but it throws you off balance. It really takes you out of your element, and I think that hardship helped.
I wanted to ask about Abigail’s relationship with Carl. Harris Dickinson has said he believes what they had was genuine. Do you feel the same way?
I really made it a point that even without saying it, Abigail did love Carl. I hate to generalise but I'd like to think that when [Filipinos] get into a relationship. they can't help but fall in love. It's not really very easy for us to get into a casual relationship or have a fuck buddy. Abigail definitely had some love for Carl, and she actually loved everyone on the island. That's why she also went through that dilemma in the end. She fished for them, she prepared their food. She was doing that out of care and love.
You say Abigail loved everyone on the island. Do you think she was corrupted by power?
I think she definitely exploited that power. I think it's because when you're living in an environment where people are treating you like you're nothing, that gets ingrained into your system. You begin to think, “Oh, this is how the world works,” because they have the power, they have the money, they have the beauty. But now the power is in my hands and this is how they run things in the world, so that's the way I'll do it. So to Abigail, it wasn't just vindictive. She puts it in her head that she has to be this controlling woman who dictates everything because that's the only way.
What responses have you been getting from Filipino audiences?
Filipinos have a very strong sense of pride with Abigail. It's really more of a Pinoy pride. They're all very proud that there's this woman who came from very humble beginnings in a country where we're perceived as a developing country. It really feels good because I feel like I'm not alone. I feel like I have the entire country behind me. I have everyone – you included – with me on this whole journey. This is for all of us.
You’ve said Triangle of Sadness is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. In what ways?
First of all, I was able to visit my mother, because my mum was living in the States for a long time. And the last time I saw her was in 2014, so I had a chance to see her because I was going around the United States. That's how it changed my life: I was able to have closure with my mum.
Secondly, I get to choose my roles now, which I never did before. Before,when I would get an offer, it wasn’t even an offer. [It was like], of course, no questions asked whatever the role was. Now I get to really read scripts in depth, and talk to the director and ask if maybe we can tweak this a little. So there's that other aspect. I hate to use the word artist because I feel like I don't deserve to use that word, but it feels so gratifying as a creative person to be able to really tap into my instinct and intuition and to use that in a collaborative setting.
You have more power as an actor.
And I will definitely not exploit it, I promise! To me, this is a gift. It's something I've worked really hard for. It's not something that just landed in my lap, so I'm definitely going to cherish it. Because when you work hard for something, it's more precious than when it gets handed to you.
Triangle Of Sadness is out in UK cinemas now.