On this special 10th Annual Middleburg Film Festival Edition of EMExclusives, Dean sat down with the breakout star of the new movie, Triangle of Sadness, now playing in select theatres.
The film follows a fashion model celebrity couple who are invited to join a luxury cruise for the ultra-rich, when things begin to go wrong. After being in the Philippine Cinemas for over thirty years, actress Dolly De Leon found her defining role of Abigail, an overseas worker who is the only one with any survival skills and quickly takes command of the group, tired of her lowly status on board the luxury yacht. During the festivities at this year’s Middleburg Film Festival at the Salamander Resort, I sat down with Ms. De Leon to talk about her career, being in an award winning film on the world stage and the role that finally took her to the toDolly, you have been in the business for thirty plus years. And then you got this role. And suddenly, it’s worldwide! People know you, you are a superstar. How did you hear about the role of Abigail.
I first heard it through a friend, Jake Macapagal, who’s also an actor and he works internationally. And they got in touch with him because they needed help finding Philippine actors to play Abigail. So, he emailed me and told me that they were holding auditions. And then he sent me the sides, the three scenes from the film, and a little synopsis of the story. I went into that audition with just those things on me.
I just went there, you know, trying to look as close to Abigail as possible, like I went through us, dressed in simple clothes as much as possible, don’t wear any makeup. I did the three scenes with the casting director. And a few weeks later, I heard that Ruben wanted to meet me by Skype like a job interview. So, he didn’t make me act again. It was really more of a conversation about you know, how I see Abigail, or how we interpret her and then yeah, that’s what happened.
You prepared for role because, you know, some people that were similar to Abigail, specifically your mother, is that correct?
Yes, that’s right, but you know, what’s funny, when I, when I was doing at when I was preparing for Abigail, and while we were filming it, that did not cross my mind at all. I did not think at all of, you know, portraying my mom, it’s looking in retrospect. Now that she’s a lot like my mom, very strong willed, funny. A really tough woman, courageous woman and not afraid of anything that was my mom. While I was doing it, I didn’t have any really conscious decision to copy any person. So, Abigail is not really based on any person I’ve ever met. She’s really a character that I built based on the circumstances of the film, and based on all the decisions that she makes throughout her journey.
it’s very fascinating. Now, the script, as I saw has a very unique balance of being funny, and yet being dark at the same time. What was it like to work with a script like that?
You know, honestly, when I was reading the script, I didn’t see the humor in it. Isn’t that funny?
Yeah, I did not see the humor in it. I was taking it really seriously. To me, it was a very serious subject matter. And it was kind of painful for me to read that, that here’s this woman in on this yacht. And she’s treated, basically, like nothing. She’s surrounded by so much people who have so much privilege. And she is watching all of this from the sidelines with a lot of envy.
And I experienced that. Because before when I was younger, I would host children’s parties. And we would go to the families of these clients where we would hold children’s parties, and these were huge mansions, with really extravagant furniture and swimming pool and that that much wealth. And I remember going to those things and thinking, “Oh my God, I wish I had this life. This is so enviable. I wish I were more like them.” So, I’m imagining that Abigail must have felt that way. You know, seeing going into their cabins in the cleaning their rooms and seeing how much you know, they drink champagne and don’t finish their food because you know, when you don’t have much you need to finish what’s on your plate.
So yeah, that, that that’s that was a big part of how I also prepared for her and thinking about how much she felt that these people were living in excess and that they weren’t really giving her much respect.
Now, you mentioned moments ago that you were connected with the director Ruben. And this is his first English feature debut as a director. And he contacts you on Skype and said “You are Abigail.” What was it like working with him?
Working with Ruben is just, it’s so much fun. It’s so challenging, tiring, exhausting. He really pushes his actors really hard to get to places where he wants us to go but at the same time, also very rewarding. I believe that working on his set helped me really grow as an actor. I learned so much about myself. I learned what my limitations are. I also learned to go beyond my comfort zone. I’m always used to working in the Philippines, he pushed me to really go as far as I could.
And the really great thing about working with Ruben is he really respects the actors a lot. He respects our input. He respects our opinions. He respects how we see the character that we’re playing. He really makes us feel that we have that power to be able to decide and how we want to play a part. It’s not set in stone. It’s not written on the script, like, “Abigail is dressed this way, she looks like this.” He has none of that on his script. It’s really open to all the actors collaboration with him.
Now, there’s a follow up question for something you mentioned moments ago, what type of things you had to step out of your comfort zone in order to put more tools in your toolbox as far as acting?
Well, first of all, there many things because he would do a lot of takes, he would do like forty to fifty takes and it’s really not an easy task. I really get tired easily. I don’t have the stamina to do that but I found that, when we were filming that they can do it. I didn’t get sick. And that was the time of COVID. You know, it’s in 2020 but I never got sick. I didn’t have any real kind of exhaustion, that they had to put an IV in me or any of that.
I found out that I’m really strong physically. And I also found out that I can really swim quite far. And If I ever get if I’m ever in the yacht, and I get in the yacht sinks, I’ll survive because I found out also that I’m a really good swimmer. When I would be, you know, working in a film, I’m really more concerned about my next line, like thinking of the script and what to say next, and predicting what they’ll do next. I had this strong desire to be in control every time I’m working that, “okay, and this next take, I will do this certain action, and they plan things.” I learned because of him, that I don’t need to plan anything, I can just go with the flow, and be in the moment with the actor within the scene, depending on what they give me. And then I build on that. So, nothing has to be set in stone when you’re in a situation because in like in real life when things happen to us as humans, they just happen. We don’t plant them.
Now I want to talk a little bit about the cast that you’ve worked with. First of all, I want to touch on Charlbi Dean who just passed away back in August. What was it like working with her?
Charlbi was a very special person. She was very gentle, very sweet, very loving. Very concerned about everyone else more than herself, very selfless. She cared more about how she was as a person insight than about how she looked physically. And you would think that someone that beautiful would care so much about how they look but not shall be she. To her, it was just incidental that she was beautiful. She capitalized a lot on her heart. And she gave a lot of love on set. And she was always looking out for us. And she was really very supportive.
I felt that she was very supportive towards me because she was always checking in on me always asking me how I was doing. She would message me from time to time. Even when I got back home, when we were done filming, she would keep in constant touch just to check on me and asked me to send her videos of “hey, what are you doing at home now what’s happening” and I would record whatever I’m doing at home and send it to her and she was really something else. She was really special. I mean, I’ve never met anyone like that.
It’s a great segue because the film went on to international acclaim winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes Film Festival. What was that experience like to go on the world stage?
Oh my god, when you’re when you’re working professionally for as long as I have and you’re used to the conditions that you work in, being the nondescript actor and not recognized when you walk down the street, and you’re not really recognized that much for your work, and you’re not really getting any of the parts that you want to play. Being in that in that atmosphere felt so… It didn’t feel like it was happening. I would ask my go actors from time to time “Is this normal? Why are they clapping so long? Is this okay?” And they’re all of us felt the same way. So, it was a very surreal experience. It’s only really just today when I’m starting to really digest and acclimate myself to what’s happening. At the time when I was in Cannes, I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Can you discuss the importance of representation, especially in terms of how oversea workers from the Philippines are portrayed in the film, to what you’ve seen in real life?
You know, even if Abigail is not based, or she’s not one that I patterned after any real person or an OFW. I think that she possesses a lot of their strengths because they’re very brave and fearless to uproot themselves and leave their country and live in a foreign land and speak a foreign language. And that’s the one thing that Abigail has in common with all OFWs. And I think that’s the only similarity in terms of that the strength.
As you know, as Filipinos we’re known as being kind and you know, docile and submissive but if you push us against the wall, we can also be fierce if we have to be and Abigail has that and our OFWs definitely have that. I mean, to us Filipinos they are really heroes to us, because not everyone can do that just up and leave. So that to find a better life for your family who are struggling in your hometown.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Two things. One is I hope that they take away the fact that Filipinos have a lot to offer that we need to be represented more internationally because we have a lot of stories to tell and we have so much talent to share and it’s good that the doors are finally opening now for us because we live all over the world, we’re in every single country. And there are a lot of us, we there’s 1.7 million OFWs over the world. So, there are a lot of stories to share about that.
But then again, there’s that other aspect of, we’re not going to OFWs we are also people who are citizens of these countries. We actually grew up there, and we were born in these places. We’ve adapted to that lifestyle and those are other beautiful stories to tell. Another aspect is that I hope they pick up from this. We put a lot of stock in beauty, money and fame. Actually, there is also power in being a nurturing human being because Abigail is that she took care of those people on that island. And because of her skills and her nurturing nature, she was able to help a lot of those people. They survived because of her. I hope that we don’t put too much stock in physical beauty and material possessions, because at the end of the day, it’s gonna sound really cheesy, but it’s true. It’s what’s in our heart that’s that really gives us true power, not what we have.
You have been in business for thirty plus years, you finally got your breakout role. Is there a role out there whether it’s back in Philippines or anywhere else in the world that you would love to play someday?
It sounds like I’m an imposter because I really don’t have an answer for that. I don’t have a dream role. I’ve never had a dream. Well, when I was younger, I my dream role was to play Agnes in “Agnes of God” when I was in my 20s. I wanted to play her but now at my age, even if I were physically suited to play Agnes, I don’t want to do that role anymore. I don’t really think it’s about a particular character or role that I want to play, what I want to do is to work with a significant script that tells me a story that will make people think and will make people talk and maybe reflect about themselves as humans and work with a great crew, great filmmaker, writer and scene partners. That’s really just it. I just want to have fun.
I just got one more question in mind, how does it feel to be here at Middleburg Film Festival with this film on its 10th anniversary?
You know, each festival has their own strengths. And let me tell you about Middleburg, I love how intimate it is. I love how the community is tight enough for you to be able to connect with many people in a deep way. It’s not like this huge roster of so many films and you hardly have time to breathe. We had a luncheon today with women filmmakers that the Middleburg festival hosted. I thought that was valuable because, aside from the fact that Filipinos are not well represented, I think that women don’t have a fair advantage in this “man’s world” which should stop. We have as much if not more to offer than men. When are we going to start getting equal pay equal treatment? You know, equal rights, equal footing. Can we just go beyond the gender thing and just be people? And that’s what I love about Middleburg.
Triangle of Sadness is NOW PLAYING in select theatres from NEON. We will have exclusive content from the 10th Annual Middleburg Film Festival!