Rumor has it, Dolly de Leon is in the running for an Oscar.
That is, of course, for her electrifying performance in the Palme d’Or-winning film “Triangle of Sadness,” which tackles inequality, privilege, and injustice to a tee despite its satirical execution. Showcasing an exemplary multinational cast, Dolly stars alongside the likes of Woody Harrelson, Harris Dickinson, Zlatko Burić, and the late, great Charlbi Dean, under the directorship of Swedish writer and filmmaker Ruben Östlund.
In the film, Dolly portrays Abigail, an overseas Filipino worker of humble beginnings working as a toilet manager for a luxury cruise carrying aboard oligarchs, arms dealers, and fashion models, all oozing entitlement. Though her character’s beginnings start off powerless, things take a sudden turn after a twist in the third act, leaving everyone to fend for themselves and with Abigail, later on, delivering a satisfying comeuppance.
Needless to say, Dolly has been a very busy woman. Now managing her time between the United States and the Philippines, I managed to catch up with the actress in a moment of stillness as she settled back into Manila while prepping for the Philippine premiere of “Triangle of Sadness.” Acquired by local distributor TBA Studios, the film is set to hit theaters this coming November 30.
Following several weeks’ worth of email exchanges with her manager, I finally had the opportunity to speak to the woman whom I had only read about and watched onscreen leading up to the interview. Unsure of what to expect, I open up our Zoom call and enthusiastically greet Dolly hello. Dolly is gracious. She smiles throughout our conversation and makes it a point to mention my name in between her answers, adding a more personal element to our interview.
A seasoned theater, television, and film actress with over 30 years of experience under her belt, Dolly has an undeniable confidence that translates itself into a gentle yet indelible sense of control. It’s a feeling I have yet to associate with anyone else I have interviewed. As our conversation begins to flow, I slip into a state of ease.
A graduate of the University of The Philippines, Dolly took up theater arts for her bachelor’s degree and was mentored by the late Tony Mabesa, a National Artist for Theater. For decades, she took on roles of all sorts, once calling them “devices” in a Vanity Fair interview. “In the Philippines, my characters are usually devices: A device to get the story moving or a sounding board for the lead. I play nameless characters—the doctor, the judge, the lawyer,” she says. As her career grew, Dolly’s filmography diversified, leading her to work with some of the Philippines’ most notable directors such as Lav Diaz, Erik Matti, and Antoinette Jadaone.
Prior to her work in “Triangle of Sadness,” Dolly had previously received recognition for her performance in “Verdict,” a film by Raymund Ribay Gutierrez for which she took home a FAMAS Award, which many consider the Philippine equivalent of an Oscar. She has also been nominated for a Gawad Urian Award for her work in “History of Ha.”
When asked how she feels about all the talk of her getting an Oscar nod, Dolly explained, “You know, all this buzz, it’s great. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that something like this would happen to me, and that, for me, is a reward in itself,”.
“Kung ma-nominate tayo, ang sarap talaga nun. Kasi nga, ang sinasabi ng lahat ng tao is it would be the first Filipino actor to ever be nominated, and of course, that wouldn’t just be my victory eh. It would be everyone’s victory. Even yours, Sophia. It would be the whole nation’s award.”
(If we get nominated, that would be so incredible because of what everybody’s saying about this being the first nomination for the Philippines.)
Should all this buzz be seen through, Dolly will make history as the very first Filipino actor to ever be up for an Academy Award. “But if it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen. It’s just great na nakakatanggaptayong buzz. But if we don’t get it, then that means someone else deserves it, and I’m fine with that. Kasi the fact na napapansin tayo, ’yung bansa natin, ’yung talents natin mga Pilipino, masaya na ako.” she explains.
(It’s just great that we’re getting all this buzz. Because the fact that people are noticing us, our country, our talents, that already makes me happy.)
It actually wasn’t until recently that the actress decided to take on acting full-time. She shares that she used to facilitate team-building programs and teach presentation skills and social networking etiquette as a side hustle because acting wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
“I think that the film industry here, the entertainment industry, actually, has a really skewed way of looking at artists. They tend to look at people based on popularity, if they have a huge fanbase, or how they look. It’s very unfortunate, but that’s the reality here in this industry. They tend to judge based on looks and popularity. What I’m hoping will change is that they recognize talent more than any of those other things. Because you know, that’s why it’s called acting because you can portray any character regardless of how you look, and it’s the production team’s job to fix you up according to the character you’re playing. Your job as an actor is to portray that character.”
Ang dami nating mga Pinoy na napakahusay na artista sa pero hindi sila recognized. Hindi sila pinapansin. Bakit? Because they’re not tall enough. Because they’re not pretty enough. Because they’re not popular enough. That has to change.
“That’s the big difference between here and abroad. They value talent, and that’s what you’re seeing now with Soliman Cruz, Chai Fonacier, Ruby Ruiz, etc. These actors are starting to work abroad because they’re getting recognized there for their talents. Sana magbago ’yun dito.”
(There are so many of us Filipinos that are so gifted in acting but aren’t recognized. Nobody pays attention to them. Why?)
For a brief moment, Dolly even considered quitting acting, but it was her daughter who told her to keep going. “If the calls keep coming, just keep doing it,” she advised. And it wasn’t long until the call that she had gotten the role of Abigail would arrive. “I remember that day. The day I found out I had gotten the role for Abigail. It was nighttime. I remember it all, and the first people I told were my kids.” She even recalls keeping the very shirt she wore the day of her audition.
The weekend before our interview, I watched Erik Matti’s directorial debut for the HBO Asia series, “Folklore.” An anthology of stories that revolved around the different superstitious beliefs of Southeast Asian countries, Dolly portrays the honest-to-goodness cop Lourdes Magpayo. A widowed mother seeking answers to her son’s strange and sudden illness, she stops at nothing to find answers. “The character I play has to navigate this world where men are more recognized as powerful people rather than women. That’s really what attracted me to the part. And what a woman, or what a mother would do to defend her children. Kasi para sa akin, ang mga nanay, matatapang. Pinaglalaban nila ’yung katayuan nila sa mundo, pinapaglaban nila ’yung anak nila, those are very important stories to tell because sometimes we put too much emphasis on the male heroes of this world. Women heroes need more attention,” Dolly says.
(For me, mothers are very brave. They fight for their place in this world, they fight for their children)
Similar to her role in Folklore, Dolly’s role in “Triangle of Sadness” aims to shine a light on the power and authority women inherently possess. When asked about how she prepared for the character, she notes that it was vital for her to exude a sense of sensuality as a woman. Something often overlooked in women or characters her age, a sense of sexuality was integral in the formation of Abigail’s persona. “I wanted her to be a 100 percent woman in that sense. That despite her status in life, despite her age, despite the fact that she wasn’t in a relationship, sensual siyang tao.”
(she was a sensual person.)
Further explaining Abigail’s character, Dolly shares: “She’s an inspiration. She is a reflection of what we all have in us.”
I think people will resonate with seeing a reflection of themselves on screen. And she’s not just any ordinary person. She’s a force to be reckoned with.
She’s a woman who’s meant to be admired for who she is. That’s what I think people will be inspired by. When they see that side of themselves that they perceive as dormant or inactive. Hopefully, this activates something in them and inspires them to just go and fight, you know?”
Admittedly, this was also the actress’s most physically taxing role. Having to portray someone who was—quite literally—fighting to survive, meant she needed to train in order to achieve the physical stamina of someone who was stuck on a deserted island. “I prepared by doing cardio every day for 45 minutes, nag-te-treadmill ako every day kasi alam ko na marami siya [Ruben] mag-take, so kailangan ko ng stamina, and siyempre, marooned kami on an island.”
(I used the treadmill every day because I knew that [Ruben] was going to be filming a lot of takes, so I needed the stamina, and of course, we were marooned on an island.)
Breathing into a tiny vape, Dolly’s relaxed demeanor is maintained throughout the entire interview. I identify this as an indication that things are going well, and ease into my next question. How did she think the Filipino audience would receive a film with subjects that hit so close to home?
“I think that the Filipinos will really receive this film with a sense of pride and a sense of, yeah, we are that powerful, we are that great. So it really means a lot to me because especially now where we’re feeling quite vulnerable.”
Tayo kasing mga Pinoy, may tendency tayo na ang perception natin sa sarili natin, inferior sa ibang mga ethnicities eh, sa ibang nations. Which is really sad because there’s nothing inferior about how we navigate this world.
(We Filipinos have a tendency to perceive ourselves as inferior to other ethnicities, and to other nations.)
“We are so brave that 1.7 million of us choose to leave our homes so we can be better providers for our families, and that takes a certain amount of courage and strength. Ang kalungkutan dun, ang perception sa mga ganung klaseng tao, in-a-abandon nila ’yung families nila, pero actually hindi. Kaya sila nag-ta-trabaho para mabigyan ng mas mabuting buhay mga pamilya nila, ’yung mga anak nila. So I think that is one thing that Filipinos can be proud of, you know?”
(What’s sad about it is that, the perception of these individuals is that they are abandoning their families, which is really not the case. They are working to provide a better life for the families and their children.)
“To witness this and to take pride in the choices that they make in their lives, regardless of how social injustice rules over our whole planet. That should not get in the way of tapping into our potential and continuing to edify ourselves and regard ourselves as really great people who deserve respect and recognition.”
As to what a lasting legacy would look like for her, Dolly’s answer reinforces the unfaltering humility she has displayed throughout her entire career (and our interview). “I think a lasting legacy would be to continue inspiring other people. Inspire people to be better at being human, inspire people to always give their best at everything that they do. Inspire people to be kind to each other, to treat every single person, regardless of their status in life, their race, religion, or gender, with an equal kindness that everyone deserves.”
Wrapping up our conversation, I quickly ask Dolly what lies ahead. Maybe more Hollywood films? A return to her first love of theater? She laughs.
“I would definitely love to go back to theater. Ay nako. Sophia, I haven’t done a play in over five years! So I’m really dying to do one. But because the theater industry in this country is not enough to sustain an actor, I’m afraid I can’t do that because I need to work!” I sense the disappointment in her voice and hope she isn’t finished. “But the good thing is, I am definitely filming next year in America. I’m doing a comedy where I’ll be playing Jason Schwartzman’s meanstepmom. So I’m excited for that.”
My sigh of relief disguises itself as an exhale. I see Dolly’s face light up in enthusiasm for sharing the news and infectiously, I realize I find myself just as excited. “I’m really looking forward to working in a set with different cultures. I’ve been acting here [the Philippines] for more than 30 years, and I love working here. I love the industry here, but I’m also hungry to learn more about other ways of working—best practices and improving the craft as much as I can—and I believe the only way to improve the craft is by learning from other environments.”
Several years ago, I encountered a quote saying “We are always one choice away from a completely different life.” This quote rings ever so true as I spoke to Dolly who, in spite of all the challenges she has faced as an actor in the Philippines, is living and breathing proof of how far one’s passion can take them. From braving the new horizons of a completely different industry landscape to physically preparing her body to take on the role of an underdog-turned-leader of the pack, Dolly’s dedication to her craft has taken her to great heights, far beyond even her own imagination.
Undeniably irreverent, smart, sometimes kinda gross, and belly-laugh funny, Dolly is the heart and soul of “Triangle of Sadness,” tying Ruben Östlund’s cinematic vision together magnificently. As for that Oscar nomination that potentially awaits Dolly’s future? No one can really tell for certain until nomination day arrives. However, one thing has been made quite clear: Dolly de Leon has already made history.
Triangle of Sadness premieres in Philippine theaters on November 30, 2022. For more information, visit TBA Studios.
*** Photography by Martin Diegor, shot on location at The London Hotel, West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.
Creative direction by Nimu Muallam
Produced by Sophia Ysabel Concordia
Cover layout by Julia Elaine Lim
Special thanks to Adam Kersh of Fusion Entertainment & TBA Studios Philippines