When Ruben Östlund screened an early version of his bitter new comedy Triangle of Sadness for Michael Haneke, the Austrian director offered a suggestion: “Cut to Abigail as soon as you can.” Abigail, played by the pocket-sized 53-year-old Dolly de Leon, is a Filipino “toilet manager”, a domestic who mops up after oligarchs, arms dealers and models during a cruise on a luxury megayacht. When the boat is buffeted by a violent storm and ambushed by pirates, a handful of passengers and crew members make it to a desert island where it is Abigail alone who demonstrates survival skills and takes charge: “On yacht: toilet manager. Here: captain.” Those who have never uttered the phrase “Yasss queen!” might consider this the ideal time to start.
Triangle of Sadness, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, has made De Leon a rising star and potential Oscar nominee. She has been acting for decades, mostly in homegrown films, plays and soap operas, always needing to supplement her income with other jobs – hosting children’s parties, say, or training office workers in etiquette and social skills. No surprise, then, that when we meet at the London headquarters of the film’s distributor, her manner is affable, her eye contact unwavering. She is wearing a black suit and clutching a tiny vape. She takes care to drop my name into her answers at regular intervals, which has the same effect as if she were fondly patting my arm.
Should international audiences recognise De Leon at all, it will be from several pictures by the Filipino auteur Lav Diaz. Is she a celebrity back home in Manila? “People sometimes look at me in the street,” she says. “It’s like they’re thinking: ‘Did we meet? Were we classmates?’ Then they walk on. That’s how famous I am in the Philippines.” Triangle of Sadness will change that. She has already noticed that former schoolfriends of her older children (she has three in their 20s and one nine-year-old) are emerging from the woodwork. And she has started popping back and forth to the US to do her bit on the awards circuit. “Kissing babies,” she says with a faint smile. “I’m like, ‘Why can’t everyone just base it on the performance?’”
If they do, this season’s best supporting actress prizes are as good as hers. It is intensely satisfying to watch Abigail rise to the top, whether she is guarding fiercely her stash of pretzel sticks or luring the young dreamboat Carl (Harris Dickinson) away from his girlfriend Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean) each night in exchange for extra food. All this would count for nought, though, if De Leon didn’t convince as a woman who harbours enough experience of injustice and reserves of strength to pounce on power the moment she spies an opening.
“If you’re living in the Philippines, you will know at least one Overseas Filipino Worker [OFW],” she says. “I know lots. My mother spent 30 years in the US as an OFW. So I already understood how someone like Abigail would handle that situation. These are strong people. It takes courage to leave your country and your family. It is not for the weak of heart.” Her mother died recently, at the age of 91, but De Leon talks about her in the present tense. “She’s a tough cookie. She is a force to be reckoned with. I didn’t think of her consciously when I was creating Abigail but they are similar. Natural born leaders.”
One thing De Leon knew immediately about Abigail is that she shouldn’t be downtrodden. “I felt she needed some sex appeal even though she’s a toilet cleaner. I didn’t want her relationship with Carl to be purely transactional. I wanted him to have a bit of enjoyment, too. I would like to think Abigail satisfied him sexually more than Yaya.” I point out that women of Abigail’s age and young men such as Carl are each at their respective sexual peaks. “Exactly!” she whoops. “That would make it very passionate. At my age, women tend to be more confident, which means you’re in touch with your sexuality. You don’t have the usual inhibitions which get in the way when you’re younger. We know how to play the game. We know how to flirt.” She drags on her vape like a latter-day Lauren Bacall.
Not that she was feeling self-assured when she auditioned for the part after years of thankless minor roles. “A lot of times I’ve wondered, ‘Why am I even here?’ I knew I could do something more thrilling for myself as an actor. You’re the first person I’ll tell this to, but since we’re discussing it: I have depression, so that’s in my system, too. But I love acting so much that I chose to keep doing it even though the parts I was getting made me miserable.” Her expectations were low when she auditioned for Östlund. “I thought: ‘No one’s going to hire me anyway so I’m gonna have fun with this.’” I pass on what the director told me: that he had never cast anyone so quickly before. “He said that? Wow! That’s the first time I’ve heard this.”
Östlund is a famously hard taskmaster, often demanding upwards of 20 takes for each shot. “So many!” she says, grimacing. “And we had to do push-ups before every take because, in many of the scenes, we need to look exhausted. I can’t do push-ups but I can do jumping jacks, so he let me do those. And Charlbi would give me tips: ‘Darling, shadow-boxing is also effective …’”
Her co-star Charlbi Dean died in August at the age of 32, and De Leon shifts between tenses when discussing her. “The great thing about Charlbi is she sees what’s in people’s hearts. She’s kind to everyone. It comes naturally to her. She’s sort of otherworldly. She’s one of the main reasons why the filming experience was so great. Really, Ryan! From day one, she hugged me like we were old friends.” De Leon says Dean also gave her career advice. “In Cannes, I told her it was nice she had her fiance with her, and she said: ‘You should have brought someone.’ But I didn’t know I could. She looked at me and said: ‘Dolly, you need to get an agent and a manager, they will sort everything for you.’ Imagine, Ryan, at my age, I didn’t know any of this! And I’ve been acting for over 30 years.”
How would her younger self have handled her current levels of attention and acclaim? “Very differently. I had a chip on my shoulder, so I would’ve taken this with so much arrogance and been a total bitch to everyone. But now I understand the world better and I like to think I’m a more loving person.” Among the other new experiences that Triangle of Sadness has brought her is the chance to say no, where previously she took any part that came her way, no matter how meagre. “It feels so good,” she whispers, as though fearful of jinxing things. “Though sometimes it’s scary in case people think I’m being a diva.”
On the contrary; she simply knows what she wants. “People are still typecasting Filipinas as helpers and nannies. Yes, there are lots of us who do these jobs. But there are also lots who are professionals, power women, people with conflicts, mental health issues, those navigating the world as single parents. All these stories are waiting to be told from the perspective of an Asian person. Am I supposed to go back to square one and do the same old thing? I want to test myself and see how far I can go in my craft.”
Asked to single out work that has made her proud, she mentions the pilot episode of the raunchy Filipino comedy series The Kangks Show, which I manage to track down later. De Leon is devilish in it as a divorcee wooed by a pretty-boy in his 20s, only to find that her eager young lover doesn’t quite have the equipment necessary to satisfy her. I think back to Abigail singling out Carl around the campfire, tauntingly branding him “cutey-pie”. There are worse sorts of niches for an actor to find herself in, I suppose. One thing is clear: Dolly de Leon has arrived. Lock up your sons.
• Triangle of Sadness is in cinemas from 28 October