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‘Darling’ de Leon, the scene-stealing thespian

‘Darling’ de Leon, the scene-stealing thespian

“Who am I? Captain.”

Abigail declares as she tosses pieces of octopus in that infamous scene from Ruben Ostlund’s newest comedy-satire film Triangle of Sadness.

Stuck on an island, affluent passengers washed up ashore from a luxurious cruise try to survive in the wild after an explosion happened on the yacht. A film about flipping up social hierarchies, a trademark of the Swedish auteur, and the futility of beauty, riches, and social status in the face of survival.

‘Darling’ de Leon, the scene-stealing thespian

Triangle of Sadness won the 2022 Cannes’s Palme D’or, the highest award in the ceremony. And, Abigail, played by Filipina actress Dolly de Leon, came out with not just an Oscar buzz. She also emerged as a critics’ darling. Of course, proving is a force to be reckoned with both in the film and in real life. On December 3, she bagged a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in Triangle, the first Filipino to do so, raising the bar for us all and doing it flawlessly, as they say.

 Dolly de Leon at the premiere of Triangle of Sadness
Instagram | Dolly de Leon at the premiere of Triangle of Sadness

ACT 1: Dolly and her humble beginnings

Dolly de Leon is a Manila-born thespian with a penchant for theater. She took a Bachelor of Arts in Theater at the University of the Philippines Diliman and had her first role in Shake Rattle and Roll III back in 1991. Since then, she has worked with various Filipino directors which include the likes of Lav Diaz, Erik Matti, and Antoinette Jadaone.

Even before her breakthrough role in Ostlund’s film, Dolly de Leon already had recognitions from our very own film award-giving bodies. In 2020, she won the FAMAS (which is touted here as the Filipino equivalent of the Oscars) Best Supporting Actress for her role in Raymond Ribay Guttierez’s film Verdict. But, in her own terms, what she really considered to be her “breakout role” was not from the role in this film but in Erik Matti’s Folklore from HBO.

Dolly de Leon FAMAS trophy
Instagram | Dolly de Leon’s FAMAS trophy as Best Supporting Actress

In an interview with Variety, she says,

To be honest, I have not broken out in the Philippines. I have not. I play bit roles — lawyers, doctors, the mother of the lead, the principal of a school, or the psychiatrist. The reason why I considered this work with Erik Matti very important is because the character I played really leads the story. It’s about her and how she deals with different struggles, and I haven’t done that before in film or TV.

However, the scene-stealing thespian’s role as a toilet manager became the ship (pun intended) that will buoy her career into superstardom. A chance to become renowned in the global scene where there remains room to feel desired Filipino characters.

Dolly appears for the most part in the third act of the film. Her commanding presence was unabashed in its confidence. Here, she’s not just merely an extra. Her arsenal is rich with nuances brought by decades of acting in theater, soap, and films.

This is evident in the last few moments of Triangle. Her subdued expression employs hesitance and exhaustion on multiple levels. A contained mystery all the more propelled by the character’s backstory created by the scene-stealing thespian herself.

ACT 2: Triangle of Sadness breakthrough

Dolly presented the perennial problem of theater artists in the country, if not the whole world. You can’t make a living out of it. She sometimes had to work other jobs to sustain her lifestyle.

The casting call for Triangle of Sadness was announced, Dolly had quite a mild disinterest in the prospect.

I said, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna get it’ because I never get auditions. I really don’t. Once I got [cast from] an audition, but only because the actors they chose backed out,” she said in an interview with Los Angeles Times. I went there thinking I wasn’t gonna get it, so I was very loose, very comfortable and just having fun with it. I think that’s what caught Ruben’s eye.

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According to her, Abigail’s backstory is that she was a worker at a very rich family’s house when she was young. Developed a relationship with her boss’s son, got pregnant, and was ostracized by her family leading to her miscarriage “hating men, hating rich people, going abroad, changing her life.”

Dolly de Leon with the cast and director of Triangle of Sadness at the Cannes premiere
Instagram | Dolly de Leon with the cast and director of Triangle of Sadness at the Cannes premiere

An air of enigma surrounds her portrayal.

This backstory is spelled over Abigail. An air of enigma surrounds her portrayal. A quietude from a faceless character who is oftentimes a lot more interesting than the brashness of other carefully crafted characters. Every gesture compels the viewers to ask more of her.

Abigail is a service worker on a cruise, an embodiment of the Filipina OFW in search of greener pastures if not just a means to survival. These kinds of jobs, service crew, domestic helpers, and janitors among others, which are touted here as unskilled labor, in the film ended up being the building blocks of survival. Social status, irrelevant, material possession, useless, beauty be damned.

Our FAMAS-winning actress carries this consciousness of being foreign in another country. The patronizing treatment of service workers. The placelessness and the search for belonging. However, instead of treating these as impediments, she sees this as an opportunity. An occasion to strengthen her character, and to draw from these rich experiences. She’s not just Dolly but the theatre actors of the Philippines and the millions of OFWs in other countries.

ACT 4: Dolly and her legacy

It’s important to note that Dolly’s prominence in the international scene is not just an overnight success. She has gone to work on various films that share the same vein as Ostlund’s film. From her role in Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha to Dodo Dayao’s Midnight in a Perfect World among others. Her fondness for acting is akin to a writer’s need to write. It is an occupation but also a source of pleasure.

She recognizes the hard work inherent in crafting her talent. Decades of acting have ingrained in her a humble sense of self. A perspective that could only come from her being secured in her talents. In a true captain sense, she gives a piece of advice that is at once earnest and endearing.

Everything that we do is big. All of the things we do eventually lead up to an end goal we are all looking for.

We are indeed the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own souls.

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