Triangle of Sadness’ fascinating hero/villain Abigail has a crucial secret backstory

Long before Ruben Östlund’s dark comedy Triangle of Sadness debuted at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival — where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or — it was obvious who’d wind up as the breakout character. Filipina star Dolly De Leon barely even shows up in the film’s first two acts, each broken out with its own title card and its own distinct story. But De Leon’s character Abigail absolutely dominates the film’s third act, while still remaining an enigmatic figure right up through the film’s final moments.

Abigail is strongly reminiscent of Ana de Armas’ character Marta in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, another soft-spoken immigrant working for powerful, rich people who underestimate and overlook her until events catch up with all of them. But while their triumphs and journeys are similar, Marta’s backstory and motivations are clearer and more centered in her movie, while Abigail seems to come from nowhere. That’s very clearly intentional — but De Leon tells Polygon it didn’t keep her from coming up with her own elaborate explanation of who Abigail is and where her power comes from.

“I definitely had to create a backstory!” De Leon says. “If I’m going to embrace the mystery every time I do a job, I’m going to be so lost on set, and it’s gonna show. So I wrote a journal, talking about her history and what led her there, what made her the person she is. That really helped shape all her actions and justify why she said certain things in the film, or why she behaved in certain ways.”

Abigail’s secret history may also help viewers decide how to interpret the end of Triangle of Sadness, which writer-director Östlund (Force Majeure, The Square) leaves as a provocation for the audience.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for Triangle of Sadness follow, including end spoilers after the final header.]

Who is Abigail and what does she do in Triangle of Sadness?

The unnamed yacht captain (Woody Harrelson) in Triangle of Sadness, in full white dress uniform, stands next to a black-clad, smiling guest on the yacht at the Captain’s Dinner Photo: Fredrik Wenzel/Plattform Produktion

Östlund’s film tells three linked stories that each focus primarily on a different set of characters. In the first act, fashion models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) navigate their volatile, manipulative relationship. Act 2 moves the action aboard a luxury yacht, where Carl and Yaya have been invited as all-expenses-paid guests because of their influencer status. But they’re minor characters in the story, which focuses more on the yacht’s rich, entitled passengers, the drunken mishandling of the boat by an incompetent captain (Woody Harrelson), and the breakdown of order during a violent storm.

In the third act, some of the yacht’s complement, including Carl and Yaya, end up together on a remote island where they have no idea how to survive. Abigail, a cleaner and “toilet manager” from the yacht, emerges as the key to their survival, since she knows how to catch and clean fish, build a fire, and forage for other food. She quickly takes ruthless advantage of her new power, declaring herself captain of the island and forcing the other passengers to obey her. In the process, Östlund makes it clear that the social order people so often take for granted, with people commanding power largely due to their wealth (or beauty or fame, for Carl and Maya), is a well-maintained fiction that rapidly unravels in a situation where actual skill, knowledge, and experience matter.

That segment of the story specifically highlights the place of “OFWs,” or Overseas Filipino Workers, a well-established category of migrant workers living and working outside their home country, and often taking menial working-class jobs regardless of their education or past work experience. De Leon says OFWs were a particular focus for Östlund in conceiving the film.

“I think he wanted to see the OFWs’ lives from the lens of a person who is a passenger, someone from a place of privilege,” she says. “I think he wanted to keep it that way, because the focus really was the shifting of power. He wanted the OFWs in the beginning and the second act of the film to be coasting along, almost invisible characters, with no real presence, no weight. And you see how [Abigail] assumes a position of power, coming from a place of being invisible and nondescript.”

Where did Abigail come from?

Abigail (Dolly De Leon) stands with her hands on her waist, looking out of patience, with two other passengers from her yacht standing well behind her in Triangle of Sadness Photo: NEON

Triangle of Sadness doesn’t say much about Abigail’s origins, but De Leon felt it was necessary to give the character more depth in order to make her more authentic.

“I don’t know if all actors do this, but I do it,” she says. “I always have a character secret that only I know. And then I only reveal it once the film has been shown. While we’re working on it, on set, I would tell my co-actors [sing-songs] ‘I have a secret. I have a secret! I’ll never tell you! I’ll tell you after.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, me too, I have a secret!’”

Her headcanon about Abigail was even a secret from Östlund. De Leon says he allowed her a lot of freedom with the character, including making her a single woman with no children, but that she kept a full journal about Abigail’s life that was solely for her own development.

“She definitely grew up by a lake or the ocean,” De Leon says. “She lived somewhere in Cavite, a province on the edge of Luzon, where I come from. I grew up in the city, so the closest I ever got to nature was dragonflies and butterflies. She grew up where her mother would go to a river and do their laundry there, by the running water, and Abigail would play with the other kids there, and catch fish and tadpoles. That’s why she got really good at fishing, because she started early in life.”

De Leon says it’s obvious that Abigail wasn’t from a fishing family, because she doesn’t use nets or boats to catch fish, just her bare hands. “I felt that had to come from a deeper source, from way back when she was really little. When you’re a child and you’re playing make-believe games, it gets really ingrained into your system, and you really believe it, and become really good at it. That’s what happened to her.”

De Leon specifically wanted Abigail to be unattached, with no one she needed to get back home to, but that part of the character also required careful navigation. “The part where she has no children, she has no family, I had to make sure that was clear, and what circumstances led to her being a single woman,” she says. “Because that’s almost unheard of in the Philippines. We all have families, we’re all married. If we’re not, there has to be a really good solid reason.”

Her solution was to fill Abigail’s early life with tragedy, and reasons to distrust her employers and crave power over them.

“She worked for a very rich family — she started as a teenager, when she was 16 or 17, because sometimes that’s how early we start working,” De Leon says.” “And the son had a relationship with her, without the knowledge of his parents. She got pregnant, and of course, she knew she couldn’t keep the baby. So she left the household.”

De Leon characterizes that relationship as “kind of abusive, in a way,” because her lover had power over her and was older, maybe 19 or so. “To her, it wasn’t abuse — she was really in love,” she says. “But he didn’t care for her. He just used her. And when she left the household, she got a miscarriage, and that’s how she lost the baby. After that, as she grew up, as she matured, she looked at that experience in retrospect, and realized that he took advantage of her, and that the man he loved betrayed her.

“So after that, she was very bitter about love, and she felt like a scorned woman. She didn’t ever want to fall in love again. That was a conscious decision she made. And that’s how strong she is, to make a decision like that and stick to it. That takes a lot of willpower and strength. So that’s why she doesn’t have a family.”

What does Abigail’s story mean for the end of Triangle of Sadness?

Fashion models Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) lie in bathing suits on white loungers on the deck of a yacht in Triangle of Sadness, with Yaya holding her phone and smiling at something offscreen, and Carl looking perturbed Photo: Fredrik Wenzel/Plattform Produktion

Triangle of Sadness closes on a pregnant moment, with Yaya and Abigail alone together. They’ve just discovered that what they thought was a deserted, isolated island is actually a spa and resort. As soon as they make contact with the other people on the island, Abigail will go back to being a menial worker, and possibly face legal trouble over how she treated her former bosses on the island. So she picks up a rock and sneaks up on Yaya, clearly planning to murder her and then return to the others and lie about what they discovered.

It’s unclear whether Yaya is completely oblivious to the danger, but with her back to Abigail, she offers the older woman a job as her assistant once they return to civilization. It isn’t the kind of power Abigail has been enjoying, but it isn’t murder and lies, either. Abigail hesitates, and the film ends.

Given De Leon’s elaborate fantasies about Abigail’s past, does she have fantasies about her future after the end of the movie as well?

“That question has been asked over and over again,” De Leon says, “but I never get tired of answering it, because it’s really very interesting to answer. It really depends on the day, on what my state of mind is, on where I am as a person. Of course when I was filming it, I had my own ending in mind. But once you put a character on screen, they’re immortalized, and their story can change depending on your interpretation. So it depends on the viewer, and it also depends on me.”

She says she’s watched the film three times now, and she’s imagined a different ending each time. She’s also heard from fans of the movie who spin out even more elaborate endings. So while she says she’s shared some of her theories in the past, she’d rather people answer the question themselves. Her backstory might help viewers interpret what Abigail does next, given where she came from and how she feels about it. It might also make their decision harder — Abigail clearly comes with both a strong sense of moral justice, and a burning hunger for vengeance. Which one prevails is up to you.

Either way, De Leon hopes Triangle of Sadness inspires viewers to “change the way they perceive people who they think are lower than them, or higher than them.”

“If any one person on that yacht had showed Abigail some measure of kindness, or some personal connection, I think her arc would have taken a totally different journey, a totally different spike on it,” she says. “So I hope viewers think about that, about adding a little personal touch, or some extra kindness to people that they encounter. It’s not even workers, it’s just being kind in general, to anyone. Why do we have to be kind to people in power only? I think kindness should reach every human being, because it should be our nature to be kind to each other, and not to be evil or violent.”

Triangle of Sadness debuted in U.S. theaters on Oct. 7 and is currently rolling out worldwide.