Ruben Östlund's Palme D'Or winning Triangle of Sadness arrives in the UK. The film sees a cruise for the super-rich sink thus leaving survivors, including a fashion model celebrity couple, trapped on an island. We spoke to breakout star Dolly De Leon about her start in acting, auditioning for her first international feature and the emotional investment of an audience.
How did you get into acting? What was that journey like for you?
It started when I was a kid. I was in fourth grade and our teacher made us do a scene in school. We had to be siblings and our Mom had died, and the kid who was playing the mother was my classmate. It was really sad actually; we were all crying. And before I knew it, I felt that anguish, that loss. It just felt really good, and I told myself “I really like this”. It was liberating because we weren't allowed to cry at home. My mother wouldn't let us show much emotion.
So from there, I joined a drama club and a dance club, and my first real acting job came when I was in high school. It was two commercials in The Philippines, and from there I did Theatre Arts at university – it was around that time I got serious about acting. My first love was theatre, but I would work on getting roles as an extra on TV, then onto characters with lines, and eventually onto characters with more emotionally and narratively demanding roles.
And this was all in The Philippines?
Yes, Triangle of Sadness was my first international role. The influence of the West is really strong in my country though. Most of the films we watch are British, American or French. As a kid I was a huge fan of Al Pacino… I still am! I adore him, and he's been a huge influence on me. Meryl Streep you know, in Kramer vs Kramer. Audrey Hepburn was so graceful, so charming. So while I was only working in my home country, I was very aware of cinema outside of The Philippines.
So with Triangle of Sadness, what was the audition process for the film?
Well the film industry in my country is very small, and the casting director got in touch with a Filipino actor who also happened to know a lot of actresses. He got in touch with me, but I told him “I don't think I'll do well with that” – I really suck at auditions. I was even told that by a local director. In the end I did go an audition for Triangle of Sadness, but I went in with no thought of getting it. And I think because I was so relaxed going in that it really worked, because I got a meeting with Ruben [Östlund] where we talked about the character of Abigail, and yeah… It obviously worked!
Originally I was going to ask why they chose The Philippines to audition in, but I read that as a country it has one of the most exported international workforces. Was it a case of being authentic for Ruben?
It's funny because Ruben didn't actually know that. He was exposed to Filipino workers in Sweden, and he'd heard a lot of stories. As a director and a writer, he takes a lot of inspiration from real-life experiences. I think that's why he settled on wanting a Filipina to play Abigail, but I do believe he was auditioning people from Latin America too.
We are all over the world, leaving our families behind just to make better money than you could ever get in The Philippines. For example, here in London, if you're an actor you can also wait on tables and you'll probably survive. But in The Philippines, no way would that be enough. So eventually, leaving becomes one of the only options.
How much fun was the shoot? Particularly when you get to the island, it feels to the audience like you're having a blast.
It really was a lot of fun. You're working with really talented actors, and at the end of the day, that's what makes the job so much fun. And as a group, we were so diverse – German, Swedish, British, South African, Eastern Europe, Filipino. We had all these different backgrounds, sharing different stories about acting in our home countries, how theatre works, how film breaks down across our cultures. I felt like I was with likeminded people sharing that same passion for acting, all of whom were there to deliver the very best we could for Ruben.
It felt like there was a very natural chemistry between the cast.
Yes, the relationships behind the scenes really translated into filming. You can't lie, you can't fake those. The audience will know. They'll see through you.
At Cannes, Triangle won the Palme d'Or. How did you react as a performer when that happens?
This is the most traditional answer that anyone would ever give, but it's also very true. It just felt really surreal. I just couldn't believe what was happening. But it's such a push and pull. On the one hand, you can't believe it. But on the other, it's an affirmation of all the hard work we all put into the film, and that just made it feel so good to be recognised. And especially for me, I've been working for more than 30 years in The Philippines as a freelance actor with no manager, no agent. So to be recognised at Cannes just felt like that reward I'd been working towards for 30 years.
Particularly because of how integral you are to the film.
Yes, but so much of that is down to Ruben's writing, you know? He crafted this amazing script, so I count myself lucky.
Is working with Ruben Östlund is something you'd like to pursue again in the future?
He tends not to repeat his actors, so sadly, I don't know if I will work with him again. But I would love to if I could. I love his style and his process. He's so collaborative. He really listens to his actors, and that's so important to me and to others. I hate working with creators who just dictate to you. It closes me up and it's just inhibitive to a process that is meant to be creative. Ruben welcomes suggestions and edits. If I say, “I don't think Abigail would say this”, he takes it all onboard and really cares about how we feels as actors. On top of that, he's as funny in real life as you can imagine. There's so much laughter on set.
At the end of the day, I'd also go and ask him if he was happy, and he'd give you that affirmation you need as actors. I'm very insecure and I need the directors to give me that boost, which Ruben was always there to do.
And what about Woody Harrelson? Working with someone of that calibre during your first international feature must've been special.
Sadly, I didn't actually get to work with him. I only got to meet him at Cannes for the first time. COVID was going on while we were filming, so it was a bit broken up in that way. He had to cancel his travel and film his stuff at a later date, but I'd heard so many great things about him from cast and crew who knew him. But when I eventually met him at Cannes, you'd think he'd be this big superstar…but he was just a really down to earth guy.
When you first read the script, how much did the element of class play into your decision to take the role?
Hugely, the class issue is very real. It's something that has affected me and affects everyone every day. Personally, I feel like I'm being judged every day. But that's very human, right? To immediately judge for better or worse. So in this role, it was kind of therapeutic. Playing someone like Abigail who finds herself in control, it was really gratifying because I try to live vicariously through the characters.
You say you like to live vicariously through the characters you play. How much of yourself do you see in Abigail?
Me and Abigail have very little in common to be honest with you. The only trait we really do share is that you can't mess with us. I'm maybe not as tough as Abigail, but if someone pushes my buttons too much, I can really bite back hard. Other than that, Abigail is a real go-getter. She assumes this leadership so quickly, with such authority. I don't think I can do that. She finds herself on this island and immediately she's thinking about food and fire. Survival. She's now the captain of this island, and of these people. That person isn't me.
Finally, what's next for Dolly De Leon?
I have two projects lined up in The Philippines, both films. But I also may be doing some work in the States, which is really exciting. We're still talking about it, so it's all just in the pipeline right now. Nothing final yet, but there's definitely light at the end of the tunnel because I'm really excited to work internationally again. I've been working in The Philippines for 30 years, and I think growth in any profession is reaching new places, working in new conditions, new cultures, learning new ways of working – and for acting, we never stop learning. Our craft is never perfected, and the only way to add to my craft is to work with different filmmakers and push myself.
Triangle of Sadness releases in UK cinemas on October 28th