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Dolly de Leon: From struggling extra to toast of international cinema

by Bong Godinez
Jan 1, 2023
Left: Dolly de Leon at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Right: Dolly de Leon glamour headshot.
Actress Dolly de Leon has come a long way from her days as an extra in the movies and television. Dolly's performance in the satirical black comedy Triangle of Sadness catapulted her to worldwide fame and earned her nominations from several international award-giving bodies.
PHOTO/S: @dollydeleon Instagram

Whether you’re an avid or casual fan of television and the movies, it’s quite likely that you’ve seen Dolly de Leon at one point or another.

As in the case of most “extras,” Dolly, for most of her acting career, portrayed roles that are oftentimes lost in the memory of viewers too mesmerized by the sight of the bigger (and oftentimes more glamorous) stars on screen.

Nowadays, Dolly is getting VIP treatment both at home and overseas, thanks to her memorable performance in the satirical black comedy film, Triangle of Sadness.

Written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness continues to create buzz months after making its debut at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in May.

The film was accorded a standing ovation en route to winning the festival’s prestigious Palme d'Or award, opening doors for more citations from various award-giving organizations.

Caught at the center of all this attention is Dolly, whose portrayal of a toilet manager in a luxury yacht had critics calling her performance “commanding,” “hysterical,” and “scene-stealing.”

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Individual awards came next for the veteran actress, winning Best Supporting Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Breakthrough Performance Award at the Middleburg Film Festival.

Dolly also made history as the first Filipino actress to be nominated at the Golden Globes, the award-giving body founded in 1944 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

An Academy Awards—popularly known as the Oscars—nomination is also a possibility, fingers crossed.

All these blessings are the culmination of Dolly's hard work and perseverance throughout the years.

Dolly, by all means, is not an overnight success, making her rise to the top all the more inspiring than it is surprising.

ACTING AS AN ESCAPE

Dolly discovered the power of acting while doing a school activity as a young student.

“Di ba nung elementary tayo, pinapagawa tayo ng mga teacher natin ng skit-skit sa classroom?

"Yung eksena namamatay daw yung nanay namin 'tapos malungkot kami,” she vividly recalled in a conversation with PEP.ph (Philippine Entertainment Potal) via video chat.

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She continued, “For some reason, nung time na yun, talagang dinibdib ko nang husto yung eksena to the point na naluha talaga ako nang totoo.

“Mamaya, naiiyak na talaga ako nang totoo and parang nabunutan ako ng tinik. Na-release ko lahat ng pent-up emotions ko as a child.”

That mundane but cathartic exercise inside the classroom was liberating for the young Dolly, who grew up in a household where openly showing vulnerability was frowned upon.

“Kasi nung bata kami, bawal umiyak. Hindi ka puwede umiyak, lalo kung pinapagalitan ka,” shared Dolly matter-of-factly.

“Pero dun sa classroom na yun, na-release ko yun.

"So dun nag-start na talagang nahiligan ko na ang acting.

“To this day, para sa akin, ang acting is a release. It’s like therapy for me. Therapeutic siya kasi lahat ng frustrations ko sa buhay, nalalabas ko pag umaarte ako.

“I can live vicariously through characters or be people I can never ever dream of becoming.”

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Dolly cited her role in Erik Matti’s 2021 horror film Folklore: 7 Days of Hell for HBO Asia as a good example of the magic of performance art.

“Policewoman ako dun. Never can I ever imagine na puwede akong maging policewoman,” Dolly said.

“So, yung mga ganung klaseng roles na never ko maa-accomplish in real life, nagagawa ko yun pag umaarte.

“So, that’s the part of acting na talagang na-attract ako nung bata ako.”

SHOWBIZ AND STRUGGLES

Acting became a lingering fascination for Dolly even in high school at St. Scholastica's College.

In college, she took Bachelor of Arts in Theater at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

One of Dolly’s mentors during her formative years as an actress was stage director and actor Tony Mabesa, who in 2019 was posthumously named National Artist for his contributions to theater arts.

Performing on stage allowed Dolly to hone her craft.

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Theater instilled in her the importance of discipline and professionalism while learning valuable techniques that came in handy as she furthered her career.

Like many stage actors, Dolly would branch out to television and movies to go alongside her theater projects.

Dolly’s name first appeared on the big screen in 1991 through the horror film Shake, Rattle & Roll III.

She would take on supporting roles for decades, doing projects produced by major and independent studios under the watch of young and established directors.

A quick glance at Dolly’s resume reveals that she appeared in the movies The Arrival, Anatomiya ng Korupsiyon, Diary ng Panget, Trophy Wife, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 3: The Real Untold Story of Joseph Bracken, Cuddle Weather, and On The Job: The Missing 8.

On television, Dolly was seen in the shows Sa Dulo ng Walang Hanggan, Pintada, Yagit, Mirabella, Ang Dalawang Mrs. Real, Pusong Ligaw, Anak ni Waray vs. Anak ni Biday, and the drama anthologies Ipaglaban Mo and Magpakailanman.

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Dolly appeared in more movies and TV shows than what is listed online under her filmography.

However, work for bit players like Dolly can be few and far between at times.

The meager pay afforded to character actors didn't help either.

Thus, it’s not unusual for Dolly to take on several jobs simultaneously to keep her afloat financially for the sake of her four children.

She recounted facilitating team-building activities and teaching presentation skills and social networking to help individuals learn how to conduct themselves in a corporate setting.

“Minsan nga nagpa-facilitate ako ng mga team building sa ABS-CBN.

"Kung iisipin mo, artista ako pero nagpa-facilitate ako ng team building ng isang soap para may mga bonding workshop, ganyan,” Dolly mused.

“Yan yung mga ginagawa ko kasi hindi talaga sapat yung kinikita ko bilang artista, so kailangan kong maghanap ng ibang paraan para kumita.”

She poignantly recalled, “Dumating sa point ng buhay ko na apat yung trabaho ko, sabay-sabay — facilitator ako ng team building, naghu-host ako ng mga children’s party, tsaka nagda-dubbing ako para sa mga teleserye, 'tapos umaarte ako.

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“Nag-mascot na 'ko na baka.

"Ako yung nasa puwet 'tapos yung kasama kong lalaki, sa harap siya, siya yung ulo.

“So, nakahawak ako sa hips niya 'tapos sumasayaw-sayaw kaming ganyan.”

Dolly added, “Nagtrabaho ako sa isang fast food chain in my mid-20s, naglinis na ako ng toilet, naglinis ako ng dining area, naglinis ako ng kitchen… naranasan ko na iyan.

“Naranasan ko na rin na hindi mo alam kung anong kakainin mo sa susunod na araw.

“Hindi mo alam kung saan ka kukuha ng pambili ng gatas ng anak mo...

"Kung paano mo babayaran yung kuryente dahil mapuputulan na kayo.

"Minsan, naputulan na kami. Nangyari na yun sa akin.”

ALMOST QUITTING SHOWBIZ

The uncertainty of work in showbiz made Dolly contemplate quitting the industry altogether.

Juggling various jobs with no stable work to rely on took its toll on Dolly mentally and physically at some point.

“What kept me going were the phone calls, the texts, the producers, and the directors still hiring me,” Dolly looked back.

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“Parang para sa ‘kin, hindi na importante kung ano yung role, hindi na importante kung malaki yung bayad.

“Basta hangga’t kung gusto pa nila 'ko kunin, habang may gusto pang kumuha sa ‘kin umarte sa produksyon nila, enough reason na yun para sa ‘kin and iyon ang dahilan kung bakit hindi ako nag-quit.”

Being grateful and simply enjoying the process helped Dolly see things from a broader perspective.

She was still getting offers and referrals for acting projects, anyway.

“Actually, yung idea na iyon, nanggaling iyon sa panganay ko,” she said.

“Dahil yung time na gusto ko na mag-quit, sabi niya, ‘Hindi, mommy, tuloy mo lang yan. Sayang naman, 'ma, tuloy mo. Pag wala nang tumawag, itigil mo na, sige. Pero habang may tumatawag pa, ituloy mo lang.'

“Sabi ko, ‘Sige na nga, sige na nga.’

"E, hindi naman tumigil yung mga tawag, awa ng Diyos. So, kaya tuluy-tuloy lang ang laban.”

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BREAKING THROUGH

Dolly could only thank herself for not giving up as she would land the biggest break of her career soon after.

In 2018, Dolly learned that an audition for an international movie written and to be directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund was ongoing.

How Dolly got wind of the opportunity was typical of the Bayanihan spirit prevalent in the close-knit community of artists in the entertainment industry.

“Sanay na kasi tayo sa ganyan,” said Dolly, who credits overseas-based Filipino actor Jake Macapagal and producer Bianca Balbuena for letting her know about the project that would drastically change her life and career trajectory.

“Marami kaming ganun na artista sa Pilipinas na nakakahanap lang talaga kami ng trabaho through word of mouth.

“Kasi maliit lang ang community natin, lahat tayo magkakakilala, lahat kami magkakaibigan sa industriya, so tulong-tulungan lahat

“So para sa akin, normal lang yun nung nangyari iyon.

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"Parang walang pinagkaiba sa ibang mga trabaho na nakuha ko.

“Pero ganun lang, word of mouth lang talaga lalo sa mga artista na katulad ko. Kami-kami nagte-text-an, ‘Uy, may audition,’ ‘Uy, punta ka, bagay ka sa role na ganito.’

“Ganun lang talaga kami, tulungan.”

Dolly submitted audition clips for what turned out to be the satirical black comedy film, Triangle of Sadness, in October 2018.

She filmed three scenes for the audition video that she submitted.

“Tatlong eksena yun. Yung isang eksena yung dini-distribute ni Abigail yung pagkain, yung pangalawa is yung may nagnakaw nung pagkain na nirarasyon namin," recounted Dolly.

“Pangatlo is eksena ni Abigail and Carl [Harris Dickinson] sa loob ng maliit na boat.

“Yun yung tatlong pinagawa nilang eksena.

“Yung pangatlong eksena yun yung sinabi niya [Ruben] na ginawa ko raw nang natural, sabi niya.”

Dolly met with Ruben online through Skype in December of that same year to discuss more about the film and role that Dolly was auditioning for.

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“Dun ko siya unang nakilala. Hindi pa uso nun ang mga Zoom tsaka yung mga Streamyard, hindi pa uso nun.

“So, abalang-abala kami sa bahay, sine-set up namin yung laptop tsaka yung mga ilaw. Wala pang mga ring light kaya yung mga ginamit lang namin mga lamp sa bahay, nilagay namin lahat sa harap ko,” Dolly recalled.

Much to her surprise, Dolly bagged the role of a toilet manager named Abigail.

She was later informed that filming for the movie would commence soon.

“Pero matagal akong naghintay. Isang taon ako naghintay kasi naghanap pa sila ng funding.

“Siyempre kasi independent film siya, e. Naghanap pa sila ng mga co-producers so matagal-tagal yung hintay ko, mga more than one year.

“Akala ko nga hindi na ko matutuloy, e.

"Pero nung 2020 natuloy kami.

"Dun ako nag-start na mag-shoot nung March 'tapos umuwi ako, 'tapos bumalik ulit ako nung September same year 2020, 'tapos natapos ako mga end of October.”

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Working with Ruben was nerve-wracking at first for Dolly, who was a fan of the director’s past works Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017).

“Sobra kong intimated kasi unang-una, Palm d’Or winner siya and first time ko magtrabaho sa ibang bansa with a non-Filipino director, so sobra akong intimidated,” Dolly shared.

“Yung kaba ko lalo na yung first day, parang mamatay-matay ako sa nerbyos.

"Pero habang tumagal mas naging light na nang konti kasi mabait naman pala siya.

“Very welcoming siya sa mga suggestions namin, nakikinig siya sa mga artista.”

Dolly commended the Swedish filmmaker for making sure that working conditions were safe and comfortable for everyone on the set despite the limitations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cast and crew shot scenes in Sweden and Greece.

“AYOKONG MAKA-OFFEND”

Portraying the character of Abigail in Triangle of Sadness had certain challenges that Dolly had to overcome to effectively bring the role to life.

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There was, of course, Ruben’s vision for the character and how it fits into the overall narrative.

Likewise, Dolly had her own ideas on how to take on both the subtle and noticeable characteristics of Abigail as the story progresses.

“I think yung pinakauna kong challenge talaga is yung accent niya," contemplated Dolly.

"Very unique ang accent ni Abigail, e. Hindi siya yung typical Pinoy kagaya natin magsalita pag nag-English tayo.

“Hindi rin siya typical na OFW na nakapirmi sa isang lugar. Nagtatrabaho siya sa yate, so ibig sabihin iba’t ibang nationalities ang nami-meet niya. So yung accent niya kakaiba, very unique.

“So yung accent niya, doon talaga ako nahirapan.

“Ang ginawa ko nagpatulong ako sa mga actresses na kinuha nila para gumanap bilang mga crew ng yate.

“Nagpatulong ako sa kanila kung paano yung accent kasi medyo matagal na sila sa Sweden. Pero hindi ko ginaya, ang ginawa ko iniba ko pa rin.”

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Another challenge for Dolly was how to best show Abigail’s strong personality which is necessary for the latter part of the movie.

“Kailangan ma-portray siya na napakalakas na babae, yun talagang powerful.

"Siyempre medyo challenging siya sa akin kasi ang liit-liit ko, e. Petite na petite ako, so paano ko yun gagawin, di ba?” she laughed.

“Kailangan woman of power talaga. Yung tipong matatakot ka sa kanya, makikinig ka sa kanya pag meron siyang sinabi sa iyo.”

She praised Ruben’s brilliance behind the lens for solving this dilemma.

“Yung angling ng camera niya hindi ako nagmukhang maliit sa screen. So ang galing din niya.

“Kapag may mga name-meet nga ako na mga tao dito [America], nagugulat sila na ang liit-liit ko. Kasi sa pelikula parang matangkad ako.”

Finally, there’s the challenge of assuming the character of an overseas Filipino worker.

Dolly was cautious not to come across as stereotypical in her portrayal of Abigail.

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“Unang-una sa lahat ayoko maka-offend ng kahit sino sa mga OFW natin," stressed Dolly.

“Kasi para sa akin mataas ang tingin ko sa kanila, nirerespeto ko sila so ayokong maging katatawanan si Abigail.

"Ayoko siya maging parang caricature.

"Gusto ko lang siyang gawing totoong tao.

“Kapag napanood ng mga workers natin at migrants natin sa ibang bansa, magiging proud sila.

“Masasabi nila na parang nakikita ko ang sarili ko sa kanya.”

PUTTING THE WORLD ON NOTICE

The critical success earned by Triangle of Sadness caught Dolly by surprise.

She knew the film was good, but nothing prepared her for the deluge of positive words from critics and viewers who saw the movie.

Dolly is no stranger to acting awards. She bagged the Best Supporting Actress award in 2020 from FAMAS for the movie, Verdict.

But there's no denying that the recognitions she got for Triangle of Sadness were huge affirmations for someone who toiled in obscurity for more than two decades.

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“Finally, nabibigyan ng recognition yung ilang taon kong pinaghirapan,” said Dolly, who already clinched the Best Supporting Performer from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Breakthrough Performance Award given by the Middleburg Film Festival.

“Pag umaarte ka kasi nang matagal 'tapos pare-pareho lagi yung role na binibigay sa ‘yo, magkakaroon ka ng self-doubt, e.

“Parang dapat ba 'kong nandito? Parang kailangan ko na kaya maghanap ng ibang propesyon kasi wala namang nangyayari.

“'Tapos, may mangyayaring ganun. Para bang nakahawak ka sa lobo 'tapos lumulutang ka na lang sa hangin. Parang ang gaan-gaan ng pakiramdam mo.

“Ang sarap-sarap ng feeling na nare-recognize.”

Triangle of Sadness made its Philippine debut in November at the QCinema International Film Festival before making the rounds of movie houses across the country courtesy of TBA Studios.

DEALING WITH GRIEF AMID THE WINS

Dolly has various Best Supporting Actress nominations including from the Golden Globe Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and London Film Critics' Circle, to name only a few.

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But fate has an odd way of throwing unexpected curveballs to keep us grounded.

Amid all the glowing reviews that Triangle of Sadness was getting came the shocking news that the film's lead star, actress and model Charlbi Dean, passed away on August 29, 2022 from bacterial sepsis while in a hospital in New York.

Charlbi's death — which came three months after the Cannes Film Festival — deprived her of the chance to witness and enjoy the success of the movie that she did with Dolly.

“Thirty-two years old lang siya. Namatay siya bago pa ako makalipad sa Toronto so sobrang bittersweet talaga,” Dolly said about the unfortunate fate that befell her co-star.

Adding to Dolly’s heartbreak was the passing of her mother while she was in the middle of touring the West to promote Triangle of Sadness in an effort to boost its chances of landing an Oscar nomination.

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“Yung nanay ko kasi 91 years old na siya. At nung time na nandoon ako sa Toronto, may sakit na siya at naka-confine na siya sa hospital,” Dolly said, trying to hold back her tears.

“Nadalaw ko siya noong first week of October. Pero dahil kailangan kong lumipad papuntang London, iniwan ko siya kasama ng kuya ko.

“And sumakabilang-buhay na siya noong October 11.

“Pero alam niyo, yung nanay ko, napakatinding alaskador niya. Ganoon siya magpakita ng pagmamahal, tough love.

“Lagi lang niya akong inaalaska, ‘Artista ka talaga… artista ka talaga.’

“Puro yun lang ang sinasabi niya, on her deathbed. Mahinang-mahina na siya pero tinutukso pa rin niya ako.”

“Napanood niya yung first half ng Triangle of a Sadness, but because she’s too weak, hindi na niya talaga kaya, hindi na niya natapos.”

Dolly continued, “Actually, hindi ko siya makikita bago siya namatay kung hindi dahil sa pelikulang ito at kung hindi dahil sa Oscar campaign.

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“Ang mahal-mahal lumipad dito. Hindi ko ma-afford pero dahil sa Neon [U.S. distributor ng Triangle of Sadness] at dahil sa Plattform Produktion, yung producer ng pelikula, nakapunta ako ng Amerika at nakita ko ang nanay ko.

“I was able to spend five days with her bago siya pumanaw.

“So, bittersweet siya. Malungkot pero, at the same time, masaya dahil nagsama kami, nagkita kami, at nayakap ko siya for the last time.”

INSPIRATION TO STRUGGLING ARTISTS

The coming weeks and months of 2023 will reveal the outcome of Dolly's several nominations from international award-giving bodies.

We will also find out if an Oscar nomination is in the cards for Dolly — something that many of her kababayans are praying for, hoping to finally witness a Filipino clinch the coveted honor.

Being the current toast of Philippine and international show business is unnerving for someone who is used to staying quietly in the background, dwarfed in the spotlight by her more popular co-stars.

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But Dolly knows too how fleeting these moments are in an industry driven by shifting trends and where people are always hungry for the next big thing.

“Nung una weird siya sa akin — nung una. Pero ngayo nai-enjoy ko na siya.

“Sabi nga ng isang kaibigan ko, ‘Alam mo lilipas rin ‘to, e. Hindi ito permanent gaya ng lahat ng bagay sa mundo.’

“’Lumilipas naman lahat yan, e. Darating ang araw na hindi ka na naman mapapansin. Darating ang araw na wala lang. So habang nandyan, ienjoy mo na lang.’

“So yun ang ginagawa ko ngayon ini-enjoy ko na lang. I just make the most of it.”

More than the awards and recognitions, Dolly is happy and proud to serve as an inspiration to fellow artists who continue to strive and love their craft despite the many challenges.

Dolly knows how difficult it is to get that elusive breakthrough project, and how luck, aside from hard work, can play a huge role in achieving that dream.

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“Nagpapasalamat ako dun na nagsisilbi akong inspirasyon dahil hindi biro ang struggle ng isang aktor sa Pilipinas or kahit naman saan sa buong mundo,” said Dolly.

“Hindi madali ang buhay namin and para may magsabi na inspirasyon ako sa kanila, natutuwa ako dun.

“Kasi gusto ko naman na kahit papaano may naku-contribute ako sa mundo kahit in small ways.

“Gusto ko rin na makita nila na hindi sila dapat sumuko. Kailangan tuluy-tuloy lang ang laban, trabaho lang nang trabaho.

“Kahit anong mangyari may mararating yung pasisikap, e.

"‘Di ba walang mangyayari sa atin kung uupo lang tayo at maghihintay ng grasya?

"Importante, trabaho lang nang trabaho, laban lang nang laban and yun yung ginawa ko ng ilang taon.

“Talagang kayod-kabayo, trabaho nang trabaho kahit puyat, kahit pagod, talagang sige lang nang sige.

“Worth it, worth it yung pagpupusirge and sana marami ring artista na katulad ko na magtiyaga… enjoyin lang natin.”

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For Dolly de Leon, the grind never stops — with or without the accolades.

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Actress Dolly de Leon has come a long way from her days as an extra in the movies and television. Dolly's performance in the satirical black comedy Triangle of Sadness catapulted her to worldwide fame and earned her nominations from several international award-giving bodies.
PHOTO/S: @dollydeleon Instagram
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