Dolly de Leon had to be convinced to audition for triangle of sadness, the Palme d’Or-winning comedy directed by Ruben Östlund, which has earned it rave reviews. She had been toiling in auditions for commercials in her native Philippines, booking about 45 percent of her jobs and feeling hopeless about her career. “I just thought, ‘Nobody ever picks me, so I’m going to go and have fun,’” she says of her approach to each performance. Her attitude ended up serving him well.
As Abigail, a luxury yacht maid who begins to lead the very people who looked down on her when a pirate attack leaves them stranded on a remote beach, De Leon balances slick comedy, visceral anger and gritty potent sensuality, and the 53-year-old actress has become one of the rising stars of the fall film season.
First, though, he had to wait two years between auditioning for the role in 2018 and filming it in 2020. During that period, he was “always” thinking about Abigail. She worked out on a treadmill to keep up her stamina for what she knew would be an intense filming process. She also began working on Abigail’s backstory. “I only do that with characters who are very, very different from me, and especially with characters who make a very difficult decision,” she explains. He saved that story, Abigail’s childhood by the water and her painful experiences with men, in a loose-leaf journal, and continued to adapt it while filming in Greece.
Still, De Leon didn’t feel like he needed to do much research on Abigail’s position in society. She was a character that she fundamentally recognized. “I see Abigail in my aunts, my mother, our grandmother, our cousins,” she says. “She’s in a lot of Filipinos I’ve met over the years.”
In Greece, de León endured physical and mental tests. For one sequence, she had to swim a distance of 40 feet with rocks in her pocket so the cameras wouldn’t see her above the surface. She was incredibly nervous about playing the film’s final scene, which has been debated by audiences since its Cannes premiere. At the last minute, Östlund asked him to add more nuance to Abigail’s potentially murderous actions. “I found out so many things about myself working with him that really helped me grow a lot as an actress,” she says.
At the time of this interview, De Leon was preparing to leave Los Angeles for his hometown of Manila and was looking forward to seeing his children. (She is the mother of four children, three of them adults and the youngest just 9.)
She is eager to explore opportunities outside of her country. “In the Philippines, I have been living in a box,” she says. “It’s very formulaic, the way everything is done in the Philippines. I want to get out of it.” She wants to make independent films and work with filmmakers who challenge her. She teases that she is playing Jason Schwartzman’s stepmother in a sitcom.
Even with this potential in front of her, she wants to go back to the mindset she had when she auditioned for Abigail. “I try to put myself back in that place, where I focus on the character and the story instead of the need to be hired,” she says. “Because that’s really my job, to be a storyteller.”
This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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