‘Triangle of Sadness’ Breakout Dolly De Leon Is Just Getting Started

Culture
With Oscar buzz around her performance in Ruben Östlund’s film, De Leon is already the first Filipina actress to be nominated for a Golden Globe.

'Triangle of Sadness' Breakout Dolly De Leon Is Just Getting Started

Courtesy of Sina Östlund

If this year’s Golden Globes will be remembered for anything, it’ll be the open-hearted speeches of the year’s winners.

There was Everything Everywhere All at Once star Michelle Yeoh, who talked about her 40-year climb and her struggles with racism and ageism. There was White Lotus standout Jennifer Coolidge, who cracked self-deprecating jokes about the 20 years she endured “with these little jobs” before thanking series creator Mike White for giving her a new beginning. And there was Wakanda Forever’s Angela Bassett, who talked about how her last big moment at the Globes was 29 years ago, when she won for 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It?

It seemed apt that an Oscar season dominated by stories about unheralded, overlooked and disregarded women—from the middle-aged immigrant Chinese woman at the center of Everything Everywhere to the female journalists and #MeToo survivors of She Said—would reach an early high-point with a night that put underrated, ferociously talented middle-aged actresses front and center. 

Lost in the noise around the speeches and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s comeback was Filipino actress Dolly De Leon, who had made history just by attending as a nominee. In December, De Leon became the first Filipino actress to be nominated for the Globe when she picked up a nod for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture, for her performance in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness. She didn’t end up winning—the award ended up going to Bassett—but De Leon is learning to enjoy the ride. 

“From time to time, I feel so much pressure [to take home a win for the Philippines], like there’s a weight on my shoulders in that I’m responsible for so many people’s happiness,” De Leon says, about the historic achievement. “But I realize I don’t control anything. There’s nothing I can do.”

Courtesy of Sina Östlund

On top of the Globes nod, De Leon also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Supporting Performance (which she shares with Everything Everywhere’s Ke Huy Quan) in December and is currently longlisted for the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ Best Supporting Actress category. As it stands, she’s a legitimate contender for an Oscar nomination.

A week after the Golden Globe nominations were announced, I saw De Leon in Manila, where the actress lives, at the birthday party of the Filipino filmmaker Erik Matti, whose Venice Film Festival-winning film On the Job: The Missing 8 was submitted by the Philippines for the Best International Feature Academy Award. That night, despite Matti’s birthday, De Leon was inadvertently the center of the party. It said something about how much her stature has changed even in her local industry— before Triangle of Sadness debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and made the veteran actress an international star, she was hardly known even in the Philippines, a titanic talent in bit roles.

“[Actors like Dolly] have a tough climb in our industry,” Matti says, in a mix of English and Filipino. “You want to cast them because they’re really great actors, but then the business side [of the production] comes and says, ‘Don’t you think we need a bigger name attached to a lead?’ And then later on you find that there’s nothing more you can do and you let go of the actor… It’s difficult because a lot of the streamers ask for number of [social media] followers, stuff like that.”

Reflecting on her place in the local industry, De Leon says, “You know, there are a lot of people who treat me the same [as they did before Triangle],” citing collaborators like Matti, who she says treated her with respect even when she played minor roles in his films. “But there are also others who treat me very, very differently now—and I think that just speaks volumes about the kind of people that they are… I can’t even say that I’m grateful that they’re being extra nice to me because it’s so unfair to other people who have nothing to offer, and are treated basically like garbage… I’m not afraid to say that because I was on the receiving end of that before, of being treated less than.”

In that way, De Leon is a lot like Abigail, her character in Triangle of Sadness, who starts the film as a cleaner on a luxury cruise ship and later, grabs an opportunity to turn the tables on the film’s grotesquely overindulgent elite. “I’ve always felt oppressed,” she says. “I’ve always felt discriminated upon because of my stature in life, in the same way that Abigail does in the film.”

After a face-to-face audition with the film’s casting director in Manila, De Leon booked the role that would change her life over a Skype call with Östlund. After years of playing bit roles in the Philippines (she has talked in interviews about waiting hours on set just to utter one line), continuously overlooked in favor of conventionally-attractive young actors with more Instagram followers than acting chops, De Leon was finally getting her due, a role she could sink her teeth into and that she was ready for. 

Courtesy of Sina Östlund

“Dolly initially struck me as mysterious and assured, or so it seemed, someone who could never really make the wrong choice as an actor in a scene,” actor Harris Dickinson, who plays male model Carl in Triangle of Sadness, wrote in an email. “She excited me and intrigued me so much, as soon as we got to work together more intensely on our scenes.”

In the film, De Leon and Dickinson share crucial scenes that illustrate how the power dynamic of the group has shifted, with the previously-powerless Abigail coaxing Carl to sleep with her, in exchange for his survival. 

De Leon relished those scenes, taking them as an opportunity to give the character—a middle-aged working class Asian woman—power and sexuality. “I loved [Abigail],” she says. “And when you love someone that much, you can’t help but think of what other elements are there within this person that make her beautiful. And I just could not imagine that Abigail was just this vanilla, Asian, middle-aged cleaning lady, you know? Cook and fish and build a fire…. She’s also sexy—why wouldn’t she be?”

On the press tour for Triangle, De Leon has encountered resistance to her character’s sexual side. “It goes to show how narrow some people’s minds are,” she says. “For them, automatically, if you’re a middle-aged cleaning lady and you’re Asian, you’re ugly and unattractive.”

When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it became clear that Triangle would become an international breakout moment for her—which Östlund highlighted when he made sure to include De Leon when posing for photographs with the Palme d’Or the film won. Thirty one years after making her film debut in the Philippines, De Leon was finally a star. 

Courtesy of Sina Östlund

One of the most acclaimed films of the year is Todd Field’s Tár, a psychological portrait of a fictional composer and conductor, who meets her downfall in the #MeToo era. At the end of the film, fallen on hard times and finally out of opportunities, Lydia Tár finds herself in a Southeast Asian country where, down on her luck, the only work she can get is as the conductor of a children’s orchestra at a Cosplay convention.

The film never clearly identifies the country but there are a few undisputable details: When she gets there, the locals who hired her clearly speak in Filipino, with a painting of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal hanging in the background. At another point, a local tells her about a Marlon Brando film that was shot there—a likely reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which was shot in the Philippines.

In the same Oscar year that an actress like Dolly De Leon breaks out in a film like Triangle of Sadness—which takes to task the savage obliviousness of the largely-white elite—it’s ironic that a film like Tár can portray the cultural industry of a nation like the Philippines as a signifier for creative failure. Going by Field’s film, the only things a cultural luminary like Tár might do in the Philippines is play a cosplay convention and accidentally solicit a prostitute. Throughout the film’s campaign, it’s telling that no discourse around that racially-loaded, problematic ending has taken off—not least from the press and industry who also laud Triangle and De Leon’s performance.

De Leon’s triumph though, just the fact of a legitimate Oscar campaign is a triumph for the Philippine film industry, tells Filipino actors and filmmakers that Philippine talent is good enough for the Oscars. But De Leon’s campaign was backed by Neon, the buzzy distributor behind world cinema breakouts like Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, ensuring that the right eyeballs were on her. 

“We’ve had so many great films that vied for the Oscars that were entries from our country, except that we have no way of letting other people see it and that’s the toughest part,” Matti says, referring to past Filipino films that have won awards at Cannes and Venice. “If the playing field were equal, we would’ve been nominated a long time ago. Except that the game is not played that way.”

Courtesy of Neon

2022 was a kind of banner year for Philippine cinema. On top of De Leon’s breakout performance in Triangle of Sadness, there was also Martika Ramirez Escobar’s debut film Leonor Will Never Die, which has received raves from critics and has been nominated for Best International Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s retrospective on the legendary Filipino filmmaker Mike De Leon (no relation to Dolly), which has created renewed international interest around him, and the buzzy career of Isabel Sandoval, the filmmaker behind the Venice Film Festival hit Lingua Franca who’s gone on to direct Hollywood stars like Andrew Garfield in Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven

It’s an uphill climb, but perhaps with the strides made by De Leon and her peers, Philippine cinema’s Oscars breakthrough isn’t as far off in the distance.

“You know what I wanna be a part of?” De Leon tells me. “[A Filipino film] that will really be etched in history as one of the best films. That’s what I wanna do. I mean to me, that’s more precious than any international film, to be a part of something like that… For me, our story is really important”

De Leon is having a moment now but whether that buzz translates into a long international career remains to be seen. There are encouraging signs though. The actress has already booked two international films—the first, a comedy in which she plays the stepmother of actor Jason Schwartzman and the other, a gay Filipino coming-of-age film where she plays the homophobic aunt. 

Courtesy of Neon

“Dolly is already an established actor in the Philippines and no doubt will continue to rise to a legendary status,” Dickinson says. “It’s so cool to see the world celebrating and appreciating her. She’s incredibly complex as a performer and human.”

Whatever way the wind blows, De Leon says breaking through in her 50s has allowed her to have more perspective on her career. “With age comes a lot of wisdom—I know it’s a cliché,” she says. “I would say that I’m at my peak, not in terms of my career but as a human being, as a woman. In my personal journey as a human being, for me, this is when I’m most intelligent, most wise, most self-aware. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m unapologetic.”

She cites the legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who wrote “Both Sides Now,” a song about life and earned wisdom, as an ingenue in the ‘60s but performed the definitive version only last year at the Newport Folk Festival, at the ripe age of 78, in her first live performance since a brain aneurysm in 2015. “It’s better because she understood so much more what she was singing about,” De Leon says. “Which is not to say she didn’t understand [the song] when she was young. But it’s deeper, there’s more weight, there’s more gravitas.”

“I think society puts too much stock in youth. I have nothing against the youth—I was young once, too,” she continues. “Being young is beautiful, but let’s not forget that aging is also a beautiful thing. It’s a glorious thing. Having these wrinkles, those are my battle scars.”

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