When the Swedish film Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, one of its stars — our very own Dolly de Leon — was pictured giddily clinging to director Ruben Ostlund who, in turn, was happily holding the Best Picture award.
The image seemed like a “triangle of happiness” that made a fitting ending to Dolly’s Cannes debut for a film that earned her raves and even Oscar buzz.
When The STAR talked to Dolly two days after she came home to Manila early this week, she recalled, “Kumapit ako kay director Ruben ng ganun (kasi) na-appreciate ko siya. When he accepted the Palme d’Or, he acknowledged me and I was touched. And then hinatak niya ako papunta sa photocall. Ruben is really looking out for me and I felt valued by him.”
Ostlund's first all-English language film, which has been acquired by TBA Studios for theatrical distribution in the Philippines, is described as a satirical dark comedy about class conflict. Set in the world of fashion and the uber-rich, the story follows the fashion model-couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Deanand) as they go on a luxury cruise.
All appears Instagrammable at first but a storm is brewing and seasickness hits the passengers during the seven-course dinner with the captain (Woody Harrelson). The cruise ends catastrophically and they get stranded on a deserted island with a group of billionaires and a cleaning lady named Abigail (Dolly de Leon). Old hierarchies are upended since Abigail holds the ultimate survival skill in the sorry situation they find themselves in — she’s the only one who knows how to fish.
For Dolly, the part where she rises from toilet cleaner to leader is her favorite memory from the entire Triangle of Sadness filming experience back in March and September 2020 in Greece and Sweden.
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She had a blast doing the “power shift” because “I’m also a bit of a control freak in real life. Hahaha! Ruben even joked during our last few days (of shooting). Parang sinabi niya, so that’s why you do your commanding scene so well because you’re very demanding.”
“I knew what he meant. Parang sinabi niya ang galing ko daw umarte na in control kay sa inaapi. Hahaha! Masarap kaya gumawa ng characters na may pagka-aggressive than those introverted,” she explained.
Drawing inspiration from overseas Filipino workers, Dolly also loved how Ruben gave her all the freedom to interpret her character. “His style is to do several takes,” she revealed. “Since that was his process, I was able to put in some adlibs.”
Without giving away spoilers, she cited three times when her adlibs made it to the final cut — the reversal of positions, the ending and the steamy scene with the male lead.
Dolly’s performance received wide acclaim with some foreign critics even calling it Oscar-worthy. “Her committed turn not only makes her the defining supporting performance of the year thus far, but also, if enough Academy members make a note to focus on quality (and not simply name recognition as they can often do), she could be the frontrunner walking into awards season,” said Variety’s Clayton Davis.
The attention has followed her all the way to the Philippines. When we spoke to her, she had just wrapped up four media interviews in one day, including the international press.
The first time she read a positive review was after the premiere screening where the film received an eight-minute standing ovation. She got a text message that directed her to a tweet by UK film critic Guy Lodge who rooted for her to win Best Actress. She recalled feeling dazed, saying, “Hindi ako nakalakad pauwi. Umupo muna ako at nakatulala lang ako. I was in shock! I was like, what was happening? And then I started looking and then ayun na, people were liking it.”
Dolly shared that she was especially touched when, at the end of the film's premiere, the audience rose to their feet and gave her a long applause while her face was being flashed on the big screen. “I won’t forget that moment forever. Yung ma-appreciate yung pinaghirapan mo ng ganun,” she said.
Her four children, whom she called as her “biggest supporters,” would find more positive feedback and send them to their mother during her more than a week’s stay at Cannes. As the raves poured in, Dolly felt like she saw her entire career flashing before her eyes.
“Worth it lahat ng paghihirap ko at ng mga tiniis ko. Parang malaki rin siyang lesson for me na kung ano man yung pinagdadaanan natin or ako, mahirap or masakit, may dahilan yan,” she said.
“God was preparing me for something I really want. Perhaps that’s also the reason why He gave this to me at this time — this late in life — because He saw that when I was younger, I wasn’t ready. Siguro, sabi niya, mukhang ready na si Dolly. Bigay ko na sa kanya. Hahaha! So yes, thank you God!”
And maybe she’s a late-bloomer in her career, but she doesn’t mind. “I am a late-bloomer in everything in life. Late ako nagka-regla, late ako nagka-boyfriend, late nag-mature, late lahat. Maaga lang ako nabuntis hahaha! But everything came late in life – including the development of my body as a child to a teenager. So, I am proud to be a late-bloomer. Better late than never!”
Dolly was first drawn to acting in elementary school. She remembered doing a classroom skit that required them to cry over their mother’s supposed death. Growing up being constantly told “stop crying” or “don’t cry,” she said acting became an outlet for emotional release. When she reached high school, she would be inspired by a schoolmate, fellow veteran actress Mailes Kanapi, who would push her to pursue theater arts at UP Diliman under the tutelage of the late Tony Mabesa.
While best-known for her stage work, meaty TV and film roles weren’t easily available to her.
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She was named 2020 Best Supporting Actress at the FAMAS for her work in the Brillante Mendoza-produced Verdict and she played the lead in Erik Matti’s Folklore: 7 Days of Hell episode for HBO Asia, but she wouldn’t consider these as “breakout” projects. In a Variety interview, she described herself as a “bit player” who has not “broken out” in the Philippines.
There was no bitterness at all when she said that. “Dati, sobrang bitter ako, ngayon wala na,” she told The STAR.
A turning point happened some five years ago while doing a show that hardly showed her on screen and gave her lines, leaving her feeling “so useless.”
But Mario O’Hara’s words of wisdom came to mind. “Nakasama ko si Tito Mario in one play and meron kasi akong resting b*tch face, na ‘pag hindi mo ako kilala, iisipin mong mataray ako,” said Dolly, recounting that when she arrived at the rehearsal, the late director called out her expression and reminded her to be grateful for being able to still act.
“I could never forget that because he was right. I’m lucky because I’m doing what I love,” she said. “So (Triangle of Sadness) is also like a message sa akin ni God that the only way you’re gonna get what you want is if you approach life with love and joy.”
If she hinted at any regret during the interview, it was that her father and mentor were no longer around to witness this.
“My mom is still alive, she’s very old, she’s 92 and living in the States. She congratulated me but I don’t think she was really able to grasp it,” she said.
Turning emotional, she added, “My father passed away in 2008 so he was always coming into my mind when I was in Cannes. Him and Tony Mabesa, my mentor in college. Kung nandito lang sila at nakikita lang nila ito, they would be so happy for me because my dreams are coming true.”
Takeaways from film
With the film set for local screening, Dolly hopes Filipinos can learn a thing or two from the film about leadership.
“I hope Filipino audiences in general will accept the fact that we have the inner power to be effective leaders and to effect change in other people’s lives. We don’t have to be a leader in a corporation or a household to effect change. You can be a leader in many other ways by being a good example or living a virtuous life and in integrity. For as long as we live by that, we become effective and strong people,” she said.
For fellow actors, she hopes they will realize that they’re very capable of taking on the global platform. “We don’t have to be limited by where we come from, where we live, that we can spread our talent all over the world and our talent is worthy of that stage,” she said.
“We have a lot of great actors in the Philippines who are underrated. I hope through this film, more doors will open for us.”
Asked how her life has changed since Cannes, she shared she might finally get herself a manager. “Nahihiya akong sabihin… pero never may lumapit sa akin na gusto akong i-manage. Never ever. Ngayon lang nangyari. Ako yung lumalapit sa kanila (before).”
As for the Oscar buzz, she’s very flattered by it but she’s not expecting anything. “I don’t really want to think about it because that puts too much pressure on me as an actor. Because when I go to a job, I don’t think, ‘I have to perform well so I can win an award.’ I just want to have fun,” she said.
Things are definitely getting exciting though. Dolly is in talks with an American filmmaker who saw her in Triangle of Sadness for a possible series. “Kinikilig talaga ako ng sobra… I’m having meetings with her already. We’re on that level but nothing final,” she said.
“So, whenever I’m asked about how I feel that this is happening to me, the truth is that I don't really feel it yet. Maniniwala lang ako ‘pag nagtatrabaho na ako. Kasi kunwari pinupuri-puri ako, tapos? (For example, they’re all praises, and then what?) What is important to me is work.”