A version of this story about Dolly De Leon first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Spoiler alert: This article discusses events late in the plot of “Triangle of Sadness”
It’s not until the 95-minute mark in Ruben Östlund’s comedy “Triangle of Sadness” that Dolly De Leon appears onscreen. De Leon plays Abigail, a middle-aged “toilet manager” on a luxury yacht, and we first see her inside a big orange lifeboat. Disoriented, she has washed up on a deserted beach, already inhabited by a few other yacht survivors, after the boat’s gone under.
Except, actually, the lifeboat scene is not the first time we see Abigail in the film, which is a key to Östlund’s stagecraft: She is present during the second act aboard the yacht. “But when you’re watching the film, you think, ‘Oh, she cleans bathrooms, she’s obviously just a background actor,’” De Leon explained to TheWrap, smiling while puffing a vape pen. “And then all of the sudden she’s on the island and she’s going to interact with these people who have never noticed her. It’s such a special element that Ruben put into the story.”
Abigail, it turns out, is the only castaway who knows how to fish or build a fire. And so the toilet cleaner on the yacht becomes the captain on the island, as Abigail sharply announces to the others. And a heretofore minor character develops into a major protagonist late in the story. It is a storytelling technique more common in literature, but one that here nicely mirrors De Leon’s own experience of discovery since “Triangle of Sadness” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May.
Born and raised in the Philippine capital Manila, she has been acting in local theater and on television for more than 30 years, with roles in classic plays, deconstructed and adapted to the Philippines, such as “The Merchant of Venice,” “Three Sisters,” and “Waiting for Godot.” As a working actor, she’s raised four children (the youngest is 10), “and I love to perform and tell stories, but I’ve been coasting along and have become accustomed to being maybe a bit unrewarded for my work.”
In 2019, De Leon heard chatter among the acting community in Manila that Östlund wanted to audition Fillipina actresses for a role in his next movie. She secured a Skype audition with the Swedish director, then the part. Before shooting the film in 2020, Östlund engaged De Leon in several improvisational workshops.
“I performed all my scenes with Ruben,” she said. “He’s a natural actor, actually. And he was always asking, ‘Would Abigail say it like this, would she raise this issue, would she behave like that?’ He wanted my feedback and to stick to the truth as much as possible.”
De Leon also faced the challenge of depicting an unconventional sexual relationship – Abigail takes a concubine in the form of young, handsome Carl (Harris Dickinson) – but not purely for laughs.
“Yeah, it’s an older woman and a younger man,” she said. “People could easily think that was some sort of joke, so it was important for the audience to believe that Carl is the type of man who’s attracted to power. And I wanted to add an element of sensuality in the power that Abigail wields, so it makes more sense in the story. Carl stays with her as a survival tactic, but he also actually finds her power sexy.”
The film’s ending builds to a tremendous moment of decision for Abigail, in which she teeters on the verge of killing someone or letting them live. Östlund cuts away before we know. “Oh, wow, I get so many messages on social media about that,” De Leon said with a laugh. “People asking me, ‘Did she do it?’ It’s great because that means that the film captivated them, so I always tell them, ‘Well, what do you think happened?’ Whatever they say, that’s what happened.”
After celebrating the holidays in Manila, De Leon is back in America. She had good reason to make the trip. Her performance netted her nominations at the Golden Globes and London Critics Circle Film Awards, and she won the supporting performance award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, alongside actor Ke Huy Quan (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”).
“I can’t wait to meet Ke Huy Quan,” she said. “I’ve watched him since ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Temple of Doom.’ And what’s funny is that when I watched ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ I didn’t even know it was him at first. He’s so incredible. And I have to say that it does feel special, as Asian actors, that our work is being recognized. It’s an amazing honor and I’m so grateful. We don’t feel invisible anymore.”