Challenges can reveal who folks actually are. That’s as true of Abigail, the breakout character of Ruben Östlund’s first English-language movie, “Triangle of Sadness,” as of the actress who performs her, 53-year-old Manila native Dolly de Leon.
Abigail is what Filipinos name an “OFW”: an abroad Filipino employee, somebody who takes work overseas, normally menial, usually to ship cash house. She is a “toilet manager” on the opulent cruise ship within the story’s center chapter. Particularly contemplating the movie’s now-infamous seasickness sequence, that’s not probably the most pleasant labor. Like many Filipinos, De Leon is aware of OFWs personally.
“I only put their nurturing side, taking care of other people” into the position, she says on this fancy — however chilly — eating space at the back of a downtown L.A. resort. “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 mom, who died lately. “I think I got a bit of that from her subconsciously. But there was never a conscious effort to copy anyone that I knew.”
Within the third act, the ship sinks and the social order is upended as Abigail proves fairly resourceful on an island with the opposite 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 might as properly be speaking about herself.
She grew up within the capital of the Philippines, her father a mechanical and electrical engineer, her mom largely a housewife — “but she was also a champion bowler. Rosie de Leon. If people know bowling, they’ll know her name.”
Dolly caught the appearing bug as a baby and went to varsity for a level in theater arts. For many years, she acted onstage, largely in classics resembling “The Merchant of Venice,” “Waiting for Godot” and “Three Sisters.” Nearly all of her display work, nonetheless, has been what she calls “little roles that you won’t even remember.”
She’s being modest — she gained a 2020 supporting actress prize at FAMAS (the Filipino Oscars) for “Verdict” — however hers is a well-known 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 only mom of 4 labored as a facilitator: “I would facilitate in building corporate programs, organizational development, teach them presentation skills.”
So when the casting director instructed her concerning 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.”
For the reason that movie’s rapturous bow at Cannes (the place it gained the Palme D’Or), De Leon has signed with a serious company and is in talks for a big position in an American manufacturing. However it’s not Dolly de Leon who modified; it’s her circumstance.
Throughout the interview, a fan interrupts to supply her a stuffed bear. The actress graciously accepts and chats together 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.”