She may be the shortest figure among her film’s cast members on the Cannes red carpet, but there’s no reason Dolly de Leon shouldn’t be standing tall in what she calls “one of the most exciting nights of my life.”
Her film, “Triangle of Sadness,” just debuted at the world’s most prestigious film festival to generous applause (the standing ovation clocked eight minutes), but it is her performance that’s the talk of critics. And if Variety is to be believed, she also “doesn’t get very far in Cannes without being stopped in the streets by enthusiastic fans.”
De Leon is the opposite of her totally glammed-up red carpet presence when she sits down with ANCX for a chat. She’s sporting glasses, uncombed hair, and a just-woke-up look on a Wednesday morning. She is on her 7th day in France and is sharing an Airbnb pad with director Joyce Bernal and another friend. “Nakikitira” is the word she uses.
We can only see de Leon from her shoulder up so we imagine she’s plopped herself down on the cold floor of this rented apartment wearing, ummm, cycling shorts?
This is the woman just recently described in reviews from the most reputable entertainment sites as “the true powerhouse” (Evening Standard), deliverer of a “bold and heartsick” (IndieWire) and “utterly lived in and commanding” performance (Variety). She is being called a prospective front runner at next year’s Oscars race, thanks to this film by Swedish writer and director Ruben Östlund, where de Leon’s Abigail, a cleaning lady in a luxury yacht, teaches two vapid influencers about survival when their journey leads them to a remote island.
“(De Leon) rises from the bowels of the superyacht, grabs this film by the throat, and chokes it so hard that you can’t help but feel a faint pulse throbbing to life from under all that irony,” wrote IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.
“Her small stature does not hold her back from becoming the acting giant of the [film’s] sprawling tale,” said Clayton Davis in his review. Wouldn’t it be such a treat, the critic further mused, to see de Leon alongside Michelle Yeoh, who is spectacular in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” represent the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community in Hollywood’s biggest night?
But wait—shall we ask the lady being accorded all these praise first how she’s feeling amidst all of these, how she’s managing the deluge of attention?
“Until now I’m still processing it. My head is all over the place,” she tells us. “You know it’s really my children who are grounding me, they’re the ones who are telling me, ‘Mom, this is happening.’ My friends in the Philippines are the ones keeping me in check and making sure that I’m processing everything okay. No I did not expect it. It’s wild. Because I’ve been in the business for 30 years and this is the first time something like this is happening to me.”
What’s in a name?
For theater fans in the Philippines, the 53-year-old de Leon is a familiar face (“Tatlong Maria,” “The Country Wife,” “Si Dolly Dalisay at Ang Mga Ladybugs,” “Oryang: Las Viajeras”). But for the larger public, the name, despite its inherently cheerful sound, won’t have a familiar ring. Although many would have likely caught a glimpse of her in a teleserye or indie movie, or the rare mainstream film. Much of the 30 years she mentioned was spent playing bit parts: the lawyer, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the teacher, the principal. “Mga characters na walang pangalan,” she says. “It’s only recently that I was really able to get into characters with names that have a very good contribution to the story.”
Hence, when asked what her most memorable roles are, she mentions stuff done only in the last three years. In Lav Diaz’s “Historya ni Ha,” she plays Dahlia, the sex worker who joins a group of misfits led by a bodabil puppeteer (John Lloyd Cruz). In Erik Matti’s episode for the HBO horror series “Folklore,” she is Lourdes Magpayo, the policewoman desperate to rescue her child from an unknown illness. Yes, her characters have names now.
De Leon has always wanted to be an actor. In a Grade 6 class skit where she played a kid whose mother just died, she got way deep into it that real tears came out of her eyes. “Wow ang sarap nito,” she thought to herself. “Para siyang outlet, nare-release mo yung angst mo sa buhay. From then on, wala na, I fell in love with acting na.” She joined every drama club after, even glee clubs and dance clubs. This Manileña likes to think she got her love and passion for performing from her grandfather, the opera singer Manuel Earnshaw, who used to sing at the Manila Metropolitan Theater.
De Leon’s roots are in the stage. She took up Theater Arts in UP and blossomed under the guidance of two of its great pillars: Tony Mabesa and Jose Estrella. Mabesa taught her the basics—“the very basics, kumbaga acting-for-dummies style of acting”—and then with Estrella she got deeper into the process of acting. “And she really honed me as an actor, and taught me and gave me the tools on how to hopefully, effectively portray a character,” says de Leon. “And I was able to use all of that by trimming it all down when I went into film and TV.”
Of course, later on she learned that she needed to develop other things than just her talent. She needed to be patient. She needed tenacity. She almost gave up at one point—a constant diet of nameless parts can do that to you. It was sometime in 2015. She told herself, “Ganito na lang, Dolly: if people stop calling, it means you have to stop this.”
But the calls came. And they kept coming. The chance to work with Matti and Diaz, and also with Antonette Jadaone in the series “The Kangks Show” and Raymund Gutierrez in “Verdict” renewed her vigor and told her to stay the course. And she did.
And then came “Triangle of Sadness.”
She auditioned for the role of the cleaning lady Abigail in late 2018 and found out she got the part after two months. They shot in Sweden (in a studio, for the boat’s interior) and Greece (for the remote island scenes). The first time she met her co-actors Harris Dickinson and Charbli Dean on set (they play the influencer couple), and her director Östlund, it was “nerve wracking.”
“I was super nervous because siyempre it was my first time—this is my first international film that I’m shooting abroad,” says de Leon. “Every time I would go on set I would be 100 percent nervous. But once I got into the scene, when the director would say ‘Action!,’ the nerves would just go away and I would just have fun with it.”
It helped that she was surrounded by good people. “The crew, the staff, the actors, they were so easy to work with. They make you feel relaxed, they provide everything you need to make it a comfortable set. They made it more calming for me, more relaxing for me.”
On de Leon’s seventh day in Cannes town, I ask her what she’s looking forward to. “I’m looking forward to watching films! I wanna watch films pero ang hirap-hirap magbook!” she laments.
So far, she’s only caught one, and only because she was lucky enough to have been given a ticket. Anyway, if she can’t get herself into any of the screenings, maybe she’ll just walk around by the beach, she says. “Maglalakad-lakad na lang ako.” Which might actually do her good.
The whole festival experience have been quite overwhelming for the Pinay actress, introducing her to new levels of joy and surprise—and drinking. “I love to drink but this is, wow, it’s too much drinking,” she says. “It’s fun, masaya. I eventually enjoyed it because in the beginning it was too intense for me so many things happening all at the same time.”
But it’s really not just the parties and the dinners and the cocktails and the champagne. Just watching her movie for the very first time at the premier proved extraordinarily intense. “It was wild. I’m never doing that again!” she says. “Stressful na nga yung pupuntahang red carpet, di ba? Tapos nakabihis ka pa, naka-makeup, and you didn’t know what to expect on the big screen! It was just too much, so overwhelming. I tried so hard to concentrate. In the end, inenjoy ko na lang.”
For sure, de Leon has had her share of praise back home, but the past few days of raves and applause and attention are clearly new to this veteran. After three decades of an acting career, she is finally being celebrated for her work—and in her 50s at that. Was there ever a time she felt bitter towards an industry that took too long to realize what she’s capable of? “I did feel bitter, I won’t lie. Because I felt I had so much more to offer,” she tells us. “But then you know—this is a lesson I learned from my daughter, it’s so funny. She told me, ‘Mommy, you just have to keep doing it because if you just keep acting and acting maybe someday someone will recognize you and appreciate you.”
It also took a change of perspective in de Leon’s part. She started seeing work, no matter how small, as training ground. “Inisip ko na lang, ‘Sige gagamitin ko ‘to para matuto rin ako.’” And then she says something that can only come from someone who’s paid her dues. Who’s gone from nameless characters to meaty parts that are pivotal to a narrative. “Kasi acting, it’s really not just about going to school,” she says. “It’s about working and doing it and doing it over and over again.”