Filipino actors

[Only IN Hollywood] The irony of Soliman Cruz, Dolly de Leon getting their breaks in foreign films

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] The irony of Soliman Cruz, Dolly de Leon getting their breaks in foreign films
'When the audience started clapping, I remembered, actor pala ako dito! Ako pala ang pinapalakpakan!' Soliman Cruz recalls of his Venice Film Fest experience.

LOS ANGELES, USA – Finally, world cinema is paying attention to the Filipino diaspora and the OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) phenomenon that has resulted in Pinoy workers in almost all countries around the globe.

For sure, there have been films – local and foreign – about our hardworking kababayan all over the world, but two films this year spotlighted the OFW in a major way.

Last May at the Cannes Film Festival, Dolly de Leon made a huge splash as Abigail, a Pinay luxury yacht employee in Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness, which went on to win the festival’s Palme d’Or.

[Only IN Hollywood] The irony of Soliman Cruz, Dolly de Leon getting their breaks in foreign films

In the recent Venice Film Festival, Soliman Cruz has the lead role in To the North (Spre Nord), Mihai Mincan’s Romanian entry based on a 1996 true story about how Joel, a religious Filipino seaman, found a stowaway aboard a ship already on its transatlantic journey.

An entry in La Biennale’s Orizzonti (Horizons) category, To the North won Premio Bisanto D’Oro for best film by a group of Venice-based independent critics.

I already wrote about Soliman’s terrific performance in To The North in an earlier column. In the screening that I caught at the festival on the Lido, the audience broke into vigorous cheers as the credits rolled.

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I can’t emphasize enough how significant Soliman’s casting is – the actor, relegated to supporting roles in Filipino movies and TV shows – plays the central, important part in a European film. Siya po ang bida!

Soliman plays quietly but effectively Joel, a simple man upon whom one life and his fellow Pinoy sailors’ jobs depend. Should Joel hide Dumitru (Niko Becker, also good) from the Taiwanese officers running the cargo ship, else the young stowaway be thrown overboard and die? If Joel hides Dumitru but is discovered by the officers, he and his compatriots’ jobs are over.

That is the suspenseful plot, and Soliman’s solid, man-of-few-words performance reflecting Joel’s dilemma fuels the thrilling and dangerous cat-and-mouse elements of To the North from start to finish.

It would be fascinating how the Filipinos versus Taiwanese aspect of the story plays out when the movie goes on a wide release.

What is also interesting is that Filipino actors in supporting parts like Soliman, Dolly, and Stefanie Arianne, who plays a caregiver in Japan in Plan 75, are getting their breaks in international productions. Director Chie Hayakawa won a Golden Camera – Special Mention prize in Cannes for Plan 75, which was recently announced as Japan’s entry to the best international feature race in the coming Oscars.

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Nakakatuwa nga,” Soliman commented about this development involving him, Dolly, and Stefanie. We can happily call this welcome trend “the rise of the supporting actors.”

By coincidence, both Soliman and Dolly have appeared in Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s films.

Soliman Cruz
I’M HERE. Soliman Cruz on the red carpet of La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia/Andrea Avezzu

Via Zoom, I recently interviewed Soliman who is back home, busy with projects, but is most excited about a Christmas play he will act in.

You may remember Soliman, whose nickname is Sol, as father Paco Oliveros in Auraeus Solito’s much-lauded 2005 The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros). A year later, he played another father (Judy Ann Santos’), Rommel, in Joey Javier Reyes’ Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo.

Just last August, Soliman won the best supporting actor honors in the Cinemalaya Film Festival for Ma-an L. Asuncion- Dagñalan’s Blue Room. In 2010, he won the first of several best supporting actor prizes for Raymond Red’s Manila Skies (Himpapawid). That honor was from the Gawad Urian Awards.

He was in Erik Matti’s On the Job and On the Job 2: The Missing 8. Soliman’s teleserye credits include the popular Ang Probinsyano, where he appeared as PNP Chief Alejandro Terante.

Mihai watched Soliman in Lav’s films and asked his producers to find and contact him. They found him through CNN Philippines’ Shirin Bhandari, who wrote the 2018 piece “The resurrection of Soliman Cruz,” in which she interviewed Soliman about overcoming his battles with drug addiction and being homeless “by choice” for a time.

SOLIMAN AND LAV. Soliman Cruz (left) and Lav Diaz in Venice. Cruz was cast in ‘To the North’ by Mihai Mincan after seeing him in Diaz’s films. Courtesy of deFilm

The following are excerpts – Soliman in his own words – from my video conversation with Soliman, who has grown salt and pepper facial hair and was wearing glasses, a t-shirt, and a bucket hat. He spoke mostly in Tagalog but I translated our conversation into English and left some words in Tagalog for impact.

How he landed the lead role – Soliman in his own words

The director, Mihai Mincan, is a fan of Lav Diaz. He watched Lav’s films, including Norte, the End of History. They chose me based on Lav’s films. Mihai asked the producer to look for me.

They read Shirin Bhandari’s article on me on CNN Philippines. They contacted me through her.

They also cast Bart Guingona and Noel Sto. Domingo (credited as Emmanuel Sto. Domino in the film) based on Lav’s films.

I usually play supporting roles here in Manila. When they sent me this film’s script, there was no mention of my character, Joel, in the first few pages.

But then Joel’s lines started appearing and it was all the way to the end of the script.

CAST. The cast at the screening red carpet, from left: 𝘈𝘭𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘰 𝘉𝘢𝘳𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘢 (festival director), 𝘈𝘭𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘳𝘦 𝘕𝘨𝘶𝘺𝘦𝘯, 𝘙𝘢𝘥𝘶 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘶 (producer), 𝘔𝘪𝘩𝘢𝘪 𝘔𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘢𝘯 (director), 𝘉𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘎𝘶𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘰𝘯𝘢, 𝘚𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘊𝘳𝘶𝘻, 𝘖𝘭𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘦𝘳 𝘏𝘰 𝘏𝘪𝘰 𝘏𝘦𝘯, 𝘕𝘪𝘬𝘰 𝘉𝘦𝘤𝘬𝘦𝘳, and 𝘐𝘰𝘢𝘯𝘢 𝘓𝘢𝘴𝘤𝘢̆𝘳 (producer).

This project took four years to make a reality. But they hung on to me as the lead. They really wanted me to play the lead.

I was told by the producer that the real Joel is now living in Los Angeles. I asked the producer if I could talk to Joel. But they told me Joel no longer wants to revisit that period of his life.

Filming in Romania

SEASIDE. Soliman Cruz in Romania, where ‘To the North’ was filmed. Courtesy of deFilm

We filmed last year in Bucharest. It took almost three months. But first, there were two weeks of daily rehearsals. There was also a week of rehearsals with the cameras on set.

The original plan was to shoot in a studio but they found a NATO ship in Romania that had not been used for 12 years. So we shot all the interior scenes there.

My knees hurt. I have to kneel a lot in my scenes with the stowaway (Niko). And it was very cold even though it was not winter.

So what I did was put padding on my knees before putting on thermal pants. But what happened was, it got so tight that it prevented blood circulation in my legs.

After one scene where I was kneeling, when I stood up, I collapsed.

The atmosphere on set was intense, like the film. So I decided to make people on set laugh to lighten the mood. After all, if our scenes were very intense, why should the mood on set also be intense?

I joked around with the cinematographer, wardrobe people, and others.

TRIO. Soliman Cruz (middle) and his ‘To the North’ Pinoy costars Bart Guingona (left) and Noel Sto. Domingo during a filming break in Transylvania. Courtesy of deFilm

The director, Mihai, also wrote the script so he was very clear on what to do.

One of the producers found a Filipina, Kassie Lorilla, in Greece to translate the Filipino characters’ lines into Tagalog. Mahusay yung bata!

(Bart added via private message, “She sat through our scenes and sometimes, we would discuss translations with her.”)

Mihai told me that Niko came from acting school so he was brimming with acting theories. So Mihai asked me to help guide Niko. I joked to myself, naging guidance counselor pa ako!

After our rehearsals, I invited Niko for beer. I was able to make him laugh. Our conversations over beer after rehearsals were important.

The Filipinos who played the rest of the crew members were provided by a talent agency in Europe. These Pinoys are in Europe as waiters, domestic helpers, etc.

To prepare for my role as a religious seaman, I had Zoom meetings with Mihai before I came to Bucharest. I had many questions.

I live in the Ermita area where Filipino seamen work on their papers. There’s a dorm and a canteen where seamen go to. Doon ako araw-araw pumupunta.

I talk to the seamen. Pinagaaralan ko sila. Hanggang sa hindi ko na sila pinagaaralan. Nakikipag-inuman na talaga ako sa kanila.

Mihai asked me to watch this film and read a poetry book. Hindi ko ginawa.

Because when it came to actual filming, I just concentrated on all the internal stuff. Kailangang alisin lahat. Kasi pag bitbit mo lahat…

Before I went to Romania, I went to Quiapo Church to buy estampitas. I also got a bible and a rosary. Someone gave me a crucifix.

I put all of these in my cabin room on set. Lagi akong nandun sa cabin room ko, humimihiga ako, tinitingnan ko lahat (the religious objects).

Venice Film Festival: His reaction to the applause

SHADES. Soliman Cruz in Venice. Courtesy of deFilm

Nawala ang bagahe ko, with my barong and tuxedo, so I did not get to wear them in Venice. The luggage was found when I was already flying home via Lithuania, Latvia, Dubai, then Manila.

I saw the film in Venice for the first time. Pag upo ko sa theater, audience member ako. Nahiwalay ako sa actor. Nanood lang ako.

I was seated between Mihai and Niko. They watched the film intensely.

The audience reaction when the film ended was overwhelming. When I was watching, tumutulo na yung luha ko sa gilid. When the audience started clapping, I remembered, actor pala ako dito! Ako pala ang pinapalakpakan!

Lalong bumuhos ang emotions ko. Kasi pinipigilan ko. Bow lang ako ng bow. Hindi ako makapagsalita.

Kasi pag nagsalita ako, malamang may tutulo sa ilong ko o sa bunganga ko.

There was a Q and A after the screening. Tinawag ako sa harap with Mihai, the other actors – Niko, Bart, Olivier Ho Hien, Alexandre Nguyen – and our executive producer.

Naiyak ang nanay ko sa tuwa noong nabalitaan niya.

CONFRONTATION. Soliman Cruz (left) and Niko Becker in a scene in ‘To the North.’ Courtesy of deFilm

His humble beginnings

I was born in a military hospital, the V. Luna General Hospital, now also known as the Armed Forces of the Philippines Medical Center. My father was a soldier.

I grew up in Camp Claudio in Parañaque, near the beach. In Grade Five, I participated in the Kasaysayan ng Lahi Summer Arts Workshop at Nayong Pilipino. A bus took us there and also brought us back to Camp Claudio.

The workshop offered lessons in folk dance, chorale, and others. I chose theater. I attended for two summers. My workshop teacher was Onofre Pagsanghan (noted teacher and theater director). He also taught at Ateneo High School so some people thought, nag-Ateneo ako. But I went to public schools.

When the Philippine High School for the Arts opened, pinahanap ako ni Onofre. He recommended me to the school. Dun talaga ako nagsimula.

Then I worked, first on the technical side, at the Folk Arts Theater and Bulwagang Gantimpala. Then umacting na ako.

I also taught children’s theater at St. Scholastica’s and other schools.

By the way, I am also very grateful to the Cinemalaya Film Festival. Because of the films in the festival that I was in, napansin ako ng mga producers sa TV. Kaya ako nakuha sa mga teleserye.

SOLEMN. In ‘To the North,’ Soliman Cruz plays Joel, a simple man upon whom one life and his fellow Pinoy sailors’ jobs depend. Courtesy of deFilm

What’s next

I have TV and film projects. I have a Christmas theater play. Mas excited ako sa Christmas play. Matagal nang hindi ako nag-theater.

Dolly de Leon

Dolly de Leon continues her journey with the North American premiere of Triangle of Sadness at the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Since the film debuted to acclaim in Cannes, Dolly’s breakout performance as a toilet cleaner who suddenly rises to power, due to a twist, among the super wealthy and popular social media influencers, continues to gather momentum, especially as the awards season begins.

In the transcript that I obtained from the screening and Q and A of Triangle of Sadness at the Visa Screening Room of the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, Ruben introduced Dolly and Harris Dickinson. Ruben had been called on stage earlier by Steve Gravestock, TIFF programmer.

Ruben said, “I would like to welcome two actors on stage, Harris Dickinson (who plays Carl) and Dolly de Leon (applause). It’s amazing to be here again. It’s always a fantastic atmosphere in the screenings in Toronto. It’s great to share this together with Harris and Dolly.”

CANNES. Director Ruben Ostlund, Palme d’Or award winner for the film “Triangle of Sadness,” and Dolly de Leon pose. Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Then Ruben dedicated the screening to Charlbi Dean, who played Yaya in the film. The very promising actress died of an unexpected, unspecified illness last August 29.

The Swedish filmmaker said, “It’s also a very emotional screening for us because of Charlbi Dean, our colleague, one of the main actors who passed away 15 days ago. Of course, we wanted her to be here by our side and to share this fantastic moment.”

“I want to say a couple of words about Charlbi. She was a very caring colleague. She was a person who was lifting up everybody on set and was bringing out the best of everyone.”

“And you will also see that she was a very precise actress. So, take a close look at her performance in this film. The three of us want to dedicate this screening to her family and Charlbi in order to pay honor to her work.”

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“I’m 100% sure that Charlbi would like us to have a really fantastic night here. This would be an important night for her also to present the film to the North American audience.”

“And we want to discuss something about society, about our existence. We really want to do that with you after the screening. So, the three of us will be here and answer questions.”

After the movie ended, Ruben, Dolly, and Harris returned to the stage to sustained applause. Moderator Robyn Citizen, TIFF director of festival programming and Cinema Tech, noted the particularly loud cheers for Dolly and quipped, “Dolly, you have a fan club.”

“My friends are here,” Dolly remarked. “They’re my friends.” (Later, when I complimented Dolly, via private message, about the prolonged ovation for her, she replied, “Yes! Ang sarap, in fairness.”

Robyn asked Ruben how he cast his actors, including Dolly, whom she described as “this standout in the film.”

“We went all over the world,” recounted the writer-director. “We went to Manila, London, New York, LA, and the Scandinavian countries. We met a lot of actors and we did improvisations.”

“We were trying out the different scenes. Harris and me. I played Charlbi’s part, Yaya, and I was pushing Harris. We were doing improvisations.”

EMBRACE. De Leon (left) and Charlbi Dean in “Triangle of Sadness.” Fredrik Wenzel/Plattform Produktion

Addressing Dolly, Ruben added, “I think that you and Pauline (Hansson), who is the casting director, did improvisations around when you take command, right when you say, ‘Here, captain,’ like that. So, we did a lot of improvisations and tried out the actors.”

“We tried to have a long casting session the first time. So they shouldn’t be stressed, we should have time, we should be able to relax. That’s the idea.”

Dolly, when asked by Robyn how familiar she was with Ruben’s oeuvre, answered, “I was very familiar with his work. I first watched Force Majeure, and then, of course, when The Square came out, I had to watch it. So, when I found out that they were holding auditions in Manila for a part, I had to go.”

“It was very important to me to make it. I was and still am very familiar with Ruben’s work. He’s considered, especially by the cinephiles in the Philippines, one of the most important directors of our time.”

On how she figured out who Abigail was and how she got into the character, Dolly shared, “I trusted the material, the script, because reading the script by itself, I already felt like we were doing something important. And even after I got the part, we did improvisation in your (Ruben’s) office in Gothenburg.”

“So, he (Ruben) played Carl, and I, of course, was Abigail. We did a lot of improvisation. That was part of me discovering Abigail, too, and how he wanted me to play her or how he saw her, which really helped me a lot.”

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“As Harry said, you don’t really go into a project knowing 100% how you’re going to play a part but the collaboration with the director helps. And that day we spent together helped me a lot in finding how I was going to play Abigail.”

Ruben added about Dolly and Harris’ roles: “Both of your characters are going from one place to completely another place. And in order to trust that journey, it’s not so much about understanding the character but understanding the setup of the situation.”

“So, all of a sudden Abigail will have power. What do you do when you are in that power position when a young man starts flirting with you?”

Robyn asked the filmmaker, “When you say explaining your own behavior, was there anything in your real life that inspired or sparked Triangle of Sadness? I’m thinking about the scene where they’re discussing the check or the bill, but even up to the vomiting in other scenes.”

“It’s completely based on when I met my wife like eight years ago,” Ruben replied.

When Robyn followed up with “Which scene?” Ruben explained, “It’s, okay, I feel less and less shame in my life. The older I get, I feel, okay, I can handle awkward situations. But when it came to that bill situation, and as a man, the expectation is on me to pay and I wanted to impress her.

“But I felt at the same time, ‘Come on, I like you too much. I can’t take this role of being the sugar daddy. I have to grab the bull by the horn.’ Because I want to be equal. The actual lines that Harris is saying, I said to her.”

Dolly quipped to Ruben, “Are you saying that you’re Carl in the film? Are you Carl?”

“In that situation, I’m 100% Carl,” Ruben admitted.

RUBEN. Ruben Östlund directs Dolly de Leon (back to camera). Tobias Henriksson

Robyn next asked Ruben what he will do next after his “trilogy of male absurdities” – Force MajeureThe Square, and Triangle of Sadness.

“I’m going to make a film that is called The Entertainment System Is Down, and it takes place on a long-haul flight,” Ruben revealed. “Quite soon after take-off, the crew announces to the passengers, ‘Unfortunately there will be no entertainment. The screens are not going to work.’”

“So we will have modern human beings dealing with a 15-hour long flight with no digital distraction. I’m going to look into what will happen to us then. Maybe we will find each other or we will be frustrated.”

“It sounds horrifying,” Robyn said, echoing what many of us can’t imagine – more than half a day without our digital diversions.

Dolly’s journey takes her next to Austin, Texas where the Fantastic Fest screens Triangle of Sadness along with other high-profile films, including Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, and Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.