'Triangle of Sadness' star Dolly de Leon: 'We have this colonial mentality as Filipinos'

The Filipina actress starred alongside Woody Harrelson in Ruben Ostlund’s political parable, which picked up the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival 2022

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Things have certainly changed overnight for Filipina star Dolly de Leon since Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness, in which she stars alongside Woody Harrelson as a mild-mannered toilet cleaner-turned ruthless survivalist Abigail, picked up the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

It could hardly be called an overnight success — the actress has been a mainstay of Philippine theatre and TV schedules for three decades — but since the film's win on the Croisette the humble actress, who didn’t even have an agent when she auditioned for the role, has become the toast of the world’s cinephiles.

She's even been forced to enlist the help of a friend to handle the sheer volume of demand for her time coming from a hungry global media.

It’s certainly a change of pace for de Leon, but one she seems to welcome with open arms. “I've always wanted to play better roles, more exciting roles, to work with an international producer, because the way they work is very different from how we work in the Philippines,” she tells The National from her Manila home.

“I don’t find it annoying at all because everyone’s very polite — they don't like grab you or shout at you like the way they do with Woody every time we go in front of the cameras. They would shout at him like he's a dog: ’Woody, Woody, Woody, Woody’, that's so annoying, but the way they approached me is very polite, like, they're not sure yet."

She says it's the regular viewers who appreciate her work that are more valuable that critics. "The critics are helping me get there, but it's really the audience in general that counts.”

The film is an interesting choice for the Palme d’Or. The world’s politicians and sections of the media would have us believe the public are “sick of politics” after the seemingly interminable dramas of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the National Assembly in France. Yet, with its Parasite-like tale of an oppressed Asian worker rising up over her masters, not to mention Harrelson’s Marx-quoting yacht captain who despises the rich and powerful, he is forced to ferry around the open seas, the film lands squarely in political parable territory.

Some of the gross humour Ostlund employs, on the other hand, is more Farrelly Brothers than high brow art.

“I hadn’t thought of the Parasite comparison, but now you mention it, it is a similar device, but I wasn’t surprised by the success," says de Leon. "In fact, I was already telling my friends ‘you have to find a way to distribute this in the Philippines because it's going to be a hit’. I knew that from reading the script.

“I was a little surprised by the Palme d’Or, though. I mean I watched some great films, so that's where I got excited, and a little scared. What I did not expect is that I personally would be the subject of so much attention. I thought the basis would be the film itself, because it's a very original concept.

"I love the way Ruben has twisted that whole power dynamic around. You have all these billionaires making weapons for mass destruction on a yacht, and then they’re stuck on an island and the cleaning lady turns everything around. She's the one in charge all of a sudden, and they lose all their power and influence.”

Although de Leon isn't as sure how it will go down in her home country particularly as, she says, not many Filipinos even know of the Cannes Film Festival. "I'm scared it will bomb here," she says.

"The quality of the films that we have here are not in the same playing field as this one at all. It's so different. Cinephiles, and people who really love watching art films, I think they would appreciate it, but the general public? I hope that just the fact that there's a Filipino character in the film would be encouragement enough for them to watch it."

The tale of a put-upon toilet cleaner rising up against her rich masters is surely one that will resonate with many of the 1.5 million Overseas Filipino Workers scattered around the globe, and while de Leon falls short of suggesting they all take to hunting and killing their own food — and masters — she clearly feels a great responsibility to the hard-working diaspora.

“We have the power, and we have a voice. Our voice matters a lot, and we can use it as a weapon,” she says proudly. “We have to stop getting intimidated by ‘white people’, because we have this colonial mentality as Filipinos. We were colonised by the Spaniards for 300 years, and then by the Americans for 50 years, so it's innate in us. It's built into our bones, that way of thinking, and we have to overcome that.

"Just because they're white, doesn't mean they come from a superior race. Just because we're brown, doesn't mean we're weaker. And we have to get that out of our heads.”

Triangle of Sadness has been acquired for Middle East cinema distribution by Front Row Filmed Entertainment, and in the Philippines by TBA Studios, although the release date has yet to be confirmed.

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Updated: June 07, 2022, 8:08 AM