Dolly de Leon: ‘I’ve endured challenges: from experiencing rejection after rejection after rejection….’

95th Oscars: From Michelle Yeoh to our own Dolly de Leon— Asian actors make history

Dolly de Leon
Dolly de Leon on the Oscar Red Carpet photo from Oscars Press Site (Blaine Ohigashi / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

When the cheering and emotions settled down at the Oscars, only one thing remained clear: It was the night of the Asian story, the Asian actors, and the Asian actors’ difficult journey to well-deserved recognition.

It was also a night of quotable quotes from the victors.

Someone noted how every rejection, every disappointment, has led one to this moment at the Oscars.

Quivered a very emotional Ke Huy Quan after accepting his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Everything Everywhere All at Once: “My mom is 84 years old, and she’s at home watching. Mom! I just won an Oscar!”

He went on: “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp, and somehow, I ended up here, on Hollywood’s biggest stage…. This is the American dream! … Dreams are something you have to believe in, I almost gave up on mine. To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive.”

Quan got the part after a hiatus of some 40 years, when he tagged along with an older brother to a casting call for the role of Short Round, the plucky Chinese sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

He ended up in a room with Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford.

At that time, his family couldn’t even afford to go to the movies.

He got the role and described the filming in Sri Lanka as “the best adventure of my life.”

Michelle Yeoh as Miss Malaysia in 1983 at age 20. (From Miss World Malaysia FB)

From the first-time Oscar Best Actress Michelle Yeoh: “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is history in the making. Ladies, don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re past your prime.”

She made history as the first Asian and the first Malaysian to win Best Actress in The Academy’s 95-year history.

Filipino filmmaker Keith Sicat said of Yeoh’s triumph: “Lots of mixed feelings for her historic win. Somehow it gives a bit of hope that the world is ready for wilder storytelling, a broader set of faces, a wider spectrum of voices. Here’s hoping it won’t take more than 20 years for another person of color to win Best Actress, or 39 years for another Asian to win Best Supporting Actor. Michelle Yeoh is fire!”

The 60-year-old actress could be looking back on her modest beginnings in the movies as a James Bond leading lady, the cantankerous mom in Crazy Rich Asians, and as the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady. She had to take piano lessons for the part since the Burmese leader played the keyboard.

Her showbiz past also yielded the unthinkable: She was Miss Malaysia in 1983 and joined the Miss World the same year but failed to make it to the top 15.

Michelle Yeoh applauds Nora Aunor in the ASEAN film fest in Sarawak, Malaysia, in 2015. (Photo by Pilar Mateo)

In 2015, Yeoh handed the Life Achievement award to Nora Aunor in the ASEAN filmfest in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Another historic moment was the presence of Filipino actor Dolly de Leon, even if she didn’t get an Oscar nomination.

Dolly de Leon

The cast and director of ‘Triangle of Sadness’ at the Oscars led by director Ruben Ostlund, with Dolly de Leon. (From the FB post of Ferdy Lapuz)

She arrived at the 95th Annual Academy Awards alongside Triangle of Sadness co-stars Harris Dickinson, Vicki Berlin, Zlatko Buric, and director Ruben Ostlund.

She wore a double-breasted jacket with a statement flower pin from the Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini Pre-Fall 2023 collection.

Dolly de Leon

Dolly de Leon at the Oscars

She had no illusions about the Oscars. She was honest enough to say she was disappointed by the Oscar snub. But deep in her, she has learned the value of acceptance.

Riding a tsunami of international nominations for best supporting role and winning quite a sizable number of them, de Leon has much to be proud of. Nobody from the Philippines has gotten that number of nominations from international bodies.

Looking at those historic awards nights from LA to London and Sweden, she can recall only the red carpet walks, the photo ops and interviews. She remembered how those involved a lot of walking in the limelight. “You get used to it somehow,” she said in one interview.

Dolly de Leon

Dolly de Leon at BAFTA awards night in London (From the FB page of Ferdy Lapuz)

She became the first Filipina to be nominated for the Golden Globe and BAFTA.

The Cannes Palme d’Or-winning social class satire earned Oscar nominations for Best Film as well as Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for its Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund.

Ustlund said of his Oscar nominations: “Ahoy! My gratitude goes out to the Academy this evening. Free Botox for everyone! Maybe now I’ll lose the ‘Swedish director freaks out title.’ It is the perfect dramaturgy! The ‘triangle of sadness’ refers to the space just below one’s forehead, between their eyebrows, that is often considered the first thing to go as we age. In Sweden, we call it, ‘the trouble wrinkle’ and its emergence suggests that the owner has lived a life filled with struggle. This production was not that…As a director, one of the things I value most is the communal experience we all share when watching something together on the big screen. This film, perhaps more so than any of my previous work, is truly made for cinemas. It is loud, unapologetically in your face and meant to elicit strong reactions.  I am so lucky to do what I get to do while working with an all-star ensemble cast of actors and the production team who were all crazy enough to go on this wild ride with me.”

De Leon became the first Filipino actor to win at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and the Guldbagge Awards, which is Sweden’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Back from Cannes where Triangle of Sadness won the Palme D’or, de Leon was swamped with offers: Salome written and directed by Teng Mangansakan; Kitty K7 written by Pamela Miras and directed by Joy Aquino; Do You Think I’m Sexy written and directed by Dennis Marasigan; Pura Serbidora written by Dennis Evangelista, directed by Louie Ignacio; and a role in the top-rating teleserye, Dirty Linen.

Given this hectic career, she got herself a manager, the seasoned talent discoverer Ferdy Lapuz, a choice dictated by the fact that she loves the independent filmmaking scene in Manila. “Just look at the stories they tell, the filmmakers, the atmosphere on the set. I knew Ferdy (Lapuz) would help me continue to do more work in that world. Ferdy and I really complement each other,” she told us in an email interview.

The recognition of de Leon marked a sudden turnaround for how theater actors are treated in the Philippines. “The feeling is like I just landed on another planet. People were acting really strange. It made me realize how people around us change more than we do when something remarkable happens to us.”

Truth is, the lesson she learned from Cannes is simple: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Of the awards and nominations, she said in another interview: “Of course, the feeling is one of elation. It is doubly good when what you aimed for as an actor is appreciated on a grand scale. Acting is not easy. For the most part, it is tough, especially considering that you had to work with mostly foreign actors and an acclaimed foreign filmmaker.”

Every line delivered by her character, Abigail, prompted cheers from the press during its initial public screenings.

An entertainment magazine wrote, “Her story is just one part of Östlund’s searing commentary on privilege, greed, and power—but Abigail’s power play, exquisitely brought to life by de Leon’s deadpan delivery, is what audiences will remember.”

‘It’s like heading for the deep ravine and you feel safe that someone will come to your rescue’

De Leon gives credit to Ostlund: “Everything started with him. It was all his vision and his ideas. He always made sure we were consistently on the right track towards truth. Nothing escapes him. He can sense if I am just winging it and I get called for it.  The direction is so tight and well-defined but at the same time, he gives us leeway on how we can contribute. There a sense of freedom even if all our actions are seemingly controlled. He knows what will work and he doesn’t hold back on giving it to us straight. At the same time, I feel I am being taken care of as an actor. It’s like heading for the deep ravine and you feel safe that someone will come to your rescue. I love the feeling of being nurtured by an acclaimed director.”

No stranger to awards, de Leon won a FAMAS Best Supporting actress for the film Verdict.

She considers all awards as the public’s solid appreciation of the film’s message. “When a prize is given, it serves as a reinforcement of their appreciation and is a fantastic affirmation of all our hard work.”

A UP Diliman Theater Arts major, she knows that acting, first and foremost, must create a reflection of life that resonates with at least one audience member. “I also value a collaborative process, a meeting of creative minds whose vision is to get to the truth.”

She can’t talk enough about her experience with Ostlund and the cast.  “He was a perfectionist, which I felt was a good thing. I felt safe on the set because I knew that nothing would go past him and we had to deliver nothing short of excellence. I will never forget the camaraderie and professionalism of my co-actors. I remember Harris Dickinson for being a great scene partner who has a kind of intuition that’s always fun to work with. Charlbi Dean who’s a sweet, gentle and caring lady and was my constant companion. I found a true friend in her plus she’s quite a talented actor; Vicki Berlin who gave me so much in the scenes. She’s such a generous actor. Iris Berben who always shared words of wisdom while having a fantastic sense of humor as well. Henrik Dorsin was also fun and sweet. So was Zlatko and Jean Kristoff Folly who were so caring, fun and great scene partners as well. I love all of them. They’re all so much fun to work with.”

Told that she would have a steamy love scene, she recalled, “I was excited because I’ve never done anything like that on camera. At the same time, I was challenged up to what extent I can portray the part. At the same time, I was a little nervous. Intimate scenes require a different level of acting. It requires a certain kind of concentration and belief. In addition, it is also very technical.”

She asked her co-actor about his limitations. She was also honest about her limits.  “Once everything is laid out in the open, then we can just treat it as any other scene. It also helps that we knew the scene was needed to move the characters and the story forward and that it wasn’t just put there for shock value.”

It was a closed set for the intimate scene and she felt very safe.

She describes her evolution as an actress as a long and hard road: “I’ve endured and went through many challenges: from experiencing rejection after rejection after rejection, to being ridiculed and doubted. Superiors have shaped me into who I am today and taught me great lessons on kindness and empathy. It reminds me to always treat any person with dignity. We all need to look out for each other and appreciate everyone around us.”

‘Teacher Mabesa toughened me up….’

She acknowledges the great acting mentors in her life, foremost of them the late actor-director and now National Artist for Theater Tony Mabesa. “Teacher Mabesa toughened me up. He taught me the value of discipline, to come prepared, be on time for every engagement and to respect all aspects of theater. Jose Estrella gave me the opportunity to explore and test my limits as an actor. Through her direction she helped me reach a certain level of maturity as an actor. I’ll forever be indebted to them. During this whole Cannes experience, I’d think of Sir Tony every day and how proud he’d be. He was always proud of our theater victories big or small.”

A mother of four children, ages nine to 26, de Leon points out how motherhood is also a great teacher for actors. “My children teach great lessons every single day. It’s never ending. They’ve taught me as an actor to be selfless and nurturing. Values that I’m still learning to this day.”

Did it occur to her how the film’s theme—misuse of power—is so relevant in the Philippine setting, especially after the elections?

She sees a lot of challenges for the Filipino people in the next five years. “But we have to endure and fight for the greater good. We have a long way to go to real progress, but it’s doable if we safeguard our history and remind ourselves not to make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. Our children’s future depends on it.”

De Leon will use her fame to drum up interest and support for her chosen advocacies. Apart from the UN Refugee Agency, she lent her voice to the art advocacy program, Project Hulmahan, to help the Marikina shoemakers and other communities nationwide.

Over 700 artists from all over the country produced some 1,500 wooden shoes into amazing artworks for auction.

Project Hulmahan will be unveiled March 15, 6 p.m. at Estancia Mall.

De Leon is all set to work on two Hollywood films in March:  a comedy by Paul Feig, and Between Temples with Jason Scwharztman.

Here’s to more triumph for the Asian actors.

Dolly de Leon

Dolly de Leon with LA-based photographer Raen Badua during the Vanity Fair shoot

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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