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Actress Dolly De Leon was surprised she got the lead in 'Triangle of Sadness'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Filipina actor Dolly De Leon got one of her biggest ever parts in the widely acclaimed movie "Triangle of Sadness." She plays Abigail, a cleaning lady on a luxury cruise who takes orders from Paula, the head of crew. When a shipwreck occurs, Abigail's status dramatically changes as she rises to captain. The 53-year-old De Leon isn't widely known outside of the Philippines, and she told me she never expected to be cast in this leading role.

DOLLY DE LEON: I really suck at doing auditions, so in fact, even a Filipino director pointed that out to me and told me that you're living proof that not everyone does well at auditions. So that was in my head. And when I got the call to audition for this film, I was in a state of, yeah, I'm not going to get this, you know? I mean, but I'll try my luck. Let's see what happens.

MARTÍNEZ: Why do you suck at auditions?

DE LEON: I get too nervous. Yeah, and, you know, my ego takes over, and I'm just thinking of, OK, I have to get this part, you know? So what happens is I'm too focused on trying to get the part that I lose sight of what I'm supposed to do in the scene. So, you know, the whole idea of wanting to get the part gets in the way of telling the story of the character.

MARTÍNEZ: So what did you do different in this audition that wound up getting you the role of Abigail in "Triangle of Sadness"?

DE LEON: I just went there and played around. That's really what I did. And because I was just playing around, that's what Ruben saw.

MARTÍNEZ: And Ruben's the director - Ruben Ostlund. Yeah.

DE LEON: Ruben Ostlund is the director and the writer. He saw how Abigail can be played. And he told me that actually, that he saw how playful I attacked her character - because if you read her on paper, she's very serious, straight to the point, very stereotypical. But I played around with her a lot in that audition because I went in thinking in my head, I'm not going to get this, but I'm going to have fun with it because I love to perform anyway.

MARTÍNEZ: And you got it.

DE LEON: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: You got Abigail.

DE LEON: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: So tell us about Abigail, the cleaning manager on a luxury cruise on a luxury yacht. Actually, you're called the toilet manager - that's the name that was used in the film - definitely not treated equally with the passengers that are on the ship. Set the scene for us.

DE LEON: OK. So, Abigail - she's a toilet manager. First of all, a toilet manager - that's all they do. They just clean the bathrooms - right? - the toilet. They don't really interact with the passengers. And the passengers are billionaires, social media influencers, basically very rich people, very powerful, influential people. But she does not interact with any of them. She just cleans the toilet. So that says a lot about her character because she has no kind of social interaction with them. Therefore, she's able to build a thicker wall between herself and these people. And that makes for a really rich interpretation when she ends up on the island with them, and she needs to have a social interaction with them.

MARTÍNEZ: And I can imagine that from the perspective of the passengers, the very rich and powerful people that are on the ship, someone in your position with your job on that ship is not even seen, right? I mean, if they even see you at all, they don't acknowledge you ever.

DE LEON: Exactly. And that's exactly how Ruben wanted it. He wanted Abigail, in part two, to be invisible, for no one to notice her so that when she comes in part three, they're surprised by her presence and they're like, where'd she come from? Because that's exactly the point. When these powerful people get into a hotel or a shop maybe, or a yacht or a ship, they don't really see the people who are working there because they just take them as, oh, these are people who are just doing their jobs. That immediately sends a message that we're invisible.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And the movie is set up so we know that you're on this very expensive ship with a lot of rich and powerful people that all of a sudden deals with a lot of disaster. All of a sudden you're on an island - an isolated, it seems at the time, island, and the social order is turned completely on its head once the setting shifts there. Let's listen to a piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRIANGLE OF SADNESS")

DE LEON: (As Abigail) Who am I?

VICKI BERLIN: (As Paula) You're the toilet manager.

DE LEON: (As Abigail) No. On the yacht, toilet manager - here, captain. Who am I?

DE LEON: Prior to this scene, she's in the boat. They find the boat, they knock on the boat, and they take all her food away from her and her water. And that's the transition right there. It happens right there in that scene where she's still compliant. She still takes orders from Paula, who is the purser of the yacht. But then that gets her to think that these people are frivolous. They're not practical thinkers. They're going to finish up all the food supply, and we're all going to die. And true enough, when she gives out the food, they chug it - and the water, they drink it all up like it's nothing without thinking of what's going to happen tomorrow, because they don't know how to save. They don't know how to, you know, reserve resources. But she does. So that's the transition point of where she decides, OK, you don't know how to manage yourselves. I'm in charge now.

MARTÍNEZ: Carl and Yaya are two social media influencers that are on this ship and now shipwrecked on this island with you. And they're very beautiful. Both of them are very beautiful people. And the dynamic shifts in terms of like, what exactly does beauty buy you?

DE LEON: Beauty is a commodity. It's really valuable. And when you're stuck on an island, you would think that maybe it may be a little useless, right? But in this case, Carl's beauty had some use to Abigail because she has needs. She's a woman, you know. I mean, she has sexuality and women as they age - especially at her age, she's at her peak. So, well, he was lucky that she had that need, right?

So it's quite sad, actually, if you think about it, that everything in this world is really based on how we look. Carl was able to use his looks as a commodity also on the island, and he was able to use it to be able to help Yaya also stay alive and keep her nourished. And yeah, he also took advantage of that. It's unfortunate. It's unfortunate that we live in that kind of a society. And it's also unfortunate that Abigail made that choice to rebuild a society based on those laws, on those unspoken rules. But then when a person is exposed to that world for such a long time, they don't know any other way to do it.

MARTÍNEZ: In the end, Dolly, what did this film and working on this role teach you about power dynamics and how it flows and how it works?

DE LEON: Well, there are actually a lot of parallelisms with the film and what's really going on in the world right now. We're all judged based on how we look. We meet the person for the first time, and we judge them. We don't mean to, but that's just how it is. We have eyes so we can see. We judge someone based on how they look. We judge someone based on how they dress. Some people calculate the cost of what they're wearing.

Is what they're wearing branded? Are their shoes branded? Are they wearing jewelry? Are they pretty? Are they ugly? Are they fat? Are they thin? If they're fat, maybe they overindulge or they have no self-discipline. If they're thin, maybe they have an eating disorder. If the color of their skin is whatever, you know, they're being judged, but everything is being judged.

So, I mean, I know that the film is funny, and it's a comedy, but I hope that it gives people some insight on how we look at the world and how we can just go beyond surface level and go deeper into what's inside the person and interact with that person and establish a relationship based on just that and what's inside us.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Dolly De Leon. She stars in the widely acclaimed film "Triangle Of Sadness." Dolly, congratulations and thank you.

DE LEON: Thank you, A. This was fun. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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