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Dolly de Leon’s Next Act: ‘Triangle of Sadness’ Breakout on Her Two Buzzy Sundance Films

Dolly de Leon realized she needed to say goodbye.

The Filipino actress who landed on Hollywood’s radar last year with her turn in “Triangle of Sadness” as Abigail, a toilet cleaner who becomes the domineering leader of the pampered survivors of a cruise ship disaster, had become so deeply entwined with her character that it was starting to take a toll.

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“I was carrying Abigail for a long time,” de Leon says via Zoom from her hotel room in Germany, where she’s about to start shooting the Hulu series, “Nine Perfect Strangers.” “She was getting in the way, without me being even aware of it. It was driving me a bit crazy.”

But even as she struggled to turn the page on “Triangle of Sadness,” which earned her Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, de Leon moved seamlessly from one project to another. At this year’s Sundance, she has two new movies, one a comedy and the other a portrait of grief, highlighting the different sides of Dolly. In “Between the Temples,” de Leon plays the Jewish stepmother of a depressed cantor (Jason Schwartzman), who is suspicious about his relationship with a septuagenarian bat mitzvah student (Carol Kane).

“She cares deeply about her stepson, but she just has a really weird way of showing it,” says de Leon. “She’s controlling. She wants everything perfect and done according to her own standards. And she believes her stepson is capable of doing more, but she’s just so frustrated that he’s not putting in the effort into making his life better.”

Then there’s “Ghostlight,” where de Leon portrays Rita, a member of an amateur theater group who helps an emotionally damaged construction worker named Dan heal after they star in “Romeo & Juliet” — the pair are very aware that Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers aren’t supposed to have as much gray around their temples. Rita had tried to make it as an actress, moving to New York City, but failed to catch her big break. Her character’s experience made de Leon reevaluate her own professional journey.

“I empathized with her,” de Leon says. “But it also made me realize that I might be putting too much stock in my hardships as an actor. There are a lot of people going through much tougher challenges in their lives. Rita never really achieved success as an actor. But she’s OK with that because she still is able to touch people’s live around her and to find joy in performing.”

De Leon’s career has been turbocharged by the success of “Triangle of Sadness.” It has given her the kind of opportunities to work in the U.S. that she dreamed of. But it’s also come with its own burdens.

“The downside is people still talk to me about Abigail,” says de Leon. “And sometimes, it’s like, ‘Can we just get over it?’ It’s like everyone’s expecting me to match that performance. But I’ve tried to not let that get in the way of how I work, because that’s going to screw me over. It’s time to let that go and just find the truth behind all the characters that I’m going to play in the future.”

Going forward, de Leon says she’s consciously avoiding playing roles that are similar to her part in “Triangle of Sadness.”

“I want to stay away from that as much as possible,” she says. “It’s not fun playing the same character every single time. I want to explore other people.”

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