How Dolly de Leon rises to the challenge of 'Triangle of Sadness'

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA-NOVEMBER 2, 2022: Actress Dolly De Leon, who stars as a cruise ship maid who turns the tables on the passengers after the ship runs into trouble, is photographed at The London West Hotel in West Hollywood. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
"I don't really see Abigail in Part 2 and Part 3 as two different people, Dolly de Leon says of her "Triangle of Sadness" character. "I think she's had that pent-up resentment for these people on that yacht from the start." (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
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Challenges can reveal who people really are. That's as true of Abigail, the breakout character of Ruben Östlund's first English-language film, "Triangle of Sadness," as of the actress who plays her, 53-year-old Manila native Dolly de Leon.

Abigail is what Filipinos call an "OFW": an overseas Filipino worker, someone who takes work abroad, usually menial, often to send money home. She is a "toilet manager" on the opulent cruise ship in the story's middle chapter. Especially considering the film's now-infamous seasickness sequence, that's not the most delightful labor. Like many Filipinos, De Leon knows OFWs personally.

"I only put their nurturing side, taking care of other people" into the role, she says in this fancy — but cold — dining area in the back of a downtown L.A. hotel. "They're compliant and obedient and hardworking. 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 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," she 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."

In the third act, the ship sinks and the social order is upended as Abigail proves quite resourceful on an island with the other survivors.

"I don't really see Abigail in Part 2 and Part 3 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 when Part 3 happens, it's not like a huge change happens in Abigail. I think a huge change happened around her, so she adjusted."

The actor may as well be talking about herself.

She grew up in the capital of the Philippines, her father a mechanical and electrical engineer, her mother mostly a housewife — "but she was also a champion bowler. Rosie de Leon. If people know bowling, they'll know her name."

Dolly caught the acting bug as a child and went to college for a degree in theater arts. For decades, she acted onstage, largely in classics such as "The Merchant of Venice," "Waiting for Godot" and "Three Sisters." The majority of her screen work, however, 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 FAMAS (the Filipino Oscars) for "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 theater, in the Philippines. You have to do other stuff." The single mother of four worked as a facilitator: "I would facilitate in building corporate programs, organizational development, teach them presentation skills."

So when the casting director told her about the audition for "Triangle of Sadness," De Leon wasn't excited.

"I said, 'I don't think I'm gonna get it' because I never get auditions. I really don't. Once I got [cast from] 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" being her first major international production — on a cold beach in Greece, playing one of the key roles, with an internationally renowned auteur — De Leon had some adjusting to do. That includes dealing with Östlund's shooting of multiple — sometimes dozens of — takes.

"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 theater background — we rehearse over and over again — it is freeing creatively, but physically exhausting."

While she effusively praises cast and crew ("Everyone was looking out for everyone; it was a set with love"), she says one of the keys to her getting comfortable on set was the instant friendship offered by 32-year-old costar Charlbi Dean. Dean died suddenly of a viral infection shortly before the film's release.

"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 bow at Cannes (where it won the Palme D'Or), De Leon has signed with a major agency and is in talks for a significant role in an American production. But it's not Dolly de Leon who changed; it's her circumstance.

During the interview, a fan interrupts to offer her a stuffed bear. The actress graciously accepts and chats with her, then returns to the interview, smiling.

"When [Abigail] says, 'On the yacht, Toilet Manager. Here, Captain,' that, for me, is very powerful. That is my favorite event in the whole film.

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

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.