Glass spoke to Charlbi Dean on her journey going from minor to major

Glass speaks to CHARLBI DEAN in the Autumn Issue of Glass, the once little-known actor on the brink of stardom as she takes the lead in the Palme d’Or winning Triangle of Sadness.

The following interview took place on 18th August 2022.

Charlbi Dean sadly passed away on 29th August 2022. Glass is publishing the piece in tribute to the talented actor whose life was taken too soon. The team working on this story were mesmerised by the South African actor’s kindness, warmth and sheer enthusiasm about her latest project, Triangle of Sadness, a film in which Dean’s performance will undoubtedly make an enduring impression. This interview has been edited accordingly to offer insight into the project and to celebrate all she had achieved.

Our thoughts are with Charlbi’s family and friends.

Charlbi_Dean_01Charlbi Dean. Photographer: Damien Fry

After two and a half hours, the credits began to roll, the Fred Again track that heightened the tense final scene became faint, and I felt like I could finally catch my breath again. Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Östlund’s takedown of the super-rich that had prompted an eight-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, had left me stunned as well. It was that type of cinema experience that you rarely have anymore as superheroes, remakes and big-budget car films are all the craze, and yet, this film was built on a storyline that propelled past its characters and straight into the audience.

“I think it shows that art films can actually be really entertaining and thought provoking without being slammed down your throat,” says Charlbi Dean, the film’s lead actor over a video call. After being suddenly thrust into the festival spotlight, after the film won the coveted Palme d’Or, the 32-year-old South African is enjoying her last couple of moments of stillness before the film’s much-anticipated premiere this autumn.

“The amount of attention [at Cannes], it was so unbelievable. Just so new to me. I took it all in and was loving every second of it, but then you come back home and you’re like, that is not reality, it’s just part of the job and now your life is still the same”, she acknowledges. “I think the fun part is the whole journey of getting there and not being so caught on being like, this is where I want to get to, but rather the process of it all”.

For Dean this idea of journey is rooted at the very core of who she is, as her childhood in Cape Town was not centred around stability but rather built on transience. “My mum and dad are separated and so I didn’t really have a stable house, and I was moving around a lot when it came to schooling,” she recalls. “So, I didn’t really have a core group of friends and a lot of the time just felt like I didn’t belong anywhere”.

Charlbi_Dean_02Charlbi Dean. Photographer: Damien Fry

Charlbi_Dean_04Charlbi Dean. Photographer: Damien Fry

It was this feeling mixed with a disliking towards education and failing grades that led her parents to push their daughter to find something that she loved. “I danced at my school, and I remember being the worst in the class. Literally, the worst. The teacher would actually tell me to go to the back because I was distracting the other kids with my wrong moves,” she amusingly recalls.

“But then I became obsessed with it. I practised and practised, and I ended up getting the highest marks in the Western Cape”. From there it became evident that the young girl had a penchant for the stage and her talent was quickly acknowledged as she was offered a place at the Waterfront Theatre School to fine-tune her skills after her class. “It became my only place of belonging because I would still change schools and go from one house to the next, but the theatre is where I felt the most at home”.

Aside from this, Dean had begun accumulating minor roles in commercials since the age of six, and though not proving to be that fruitful, when a Japanese agency came to South Africa and offered her a modelling contract when she was 13-years old, the chance to travel further than the houses she was split between wasn’t something she was ready to miss out on.

Charlbi_Dean_05Charlbi Dean. Photographer: Damien Fry

Reflecting on her teenage years that were spent sporadically going from her hometown to Tokyo, New York, and London, she realises the effect they had on who she is. “I think my fundamental self-image was really distorted for a long time and I’m still working on who I am,” Dean carefully admits. “I think it’s why I enjoy acting so much because when you play something, you get to be that fully. It’s like all these different characters that when you don’t really know who you are and you get to play them, it’s comforting. It makes you feel safe”.

In 2010, Dean made her acting debut in the South African film Spud, followed by a string of minor movie roles. Despite her unassuming screen presence, she became the acclaimed Swedish filmmaker’s big find after one of his wife’s friends showed him videos of her while he was unsuccessfully searching far and wide for a female lead to play celebrity model Yaya in Triangle of Sadness. “When I got Ruben’s script, I really didn’t take it seriously,” she explains. “I was, like, it’s just another huge director who I’m going to pour my heart out for during this audition and I’m never going to hear anything. And that’s fine because, like, who am I?”

Charlbi Dean. Photographer: Damien Fry
One self-taped improv interview later, an invitation to speak over Zoom arrived in her inbox. “He said he was struggling to find a girl that could be that typical model hot but also have a part that was redeeming, something you could actually feel for,” Dean remembers and shortly after she flew to Sweden to meet him. “I did so much prep, like anything and everything I could do. I was like ‘if I lose this, it’s fine but it’s not going to be for a lack of work’.”

Östlund offered her the part but it came with a warning. ‘I don’t want you to be blindsided,’ he said over the phone to her. For those unaware of his directing method, there was an average of 23 takes of each scene for Triangle of Sadness, with some days dedicated to shooting one single scene, as well as an emphasis on not sticking to the script. “I knew that was going to be gruelling, but at the same time I’m so new to the industry that it’s so great to have the chance to practice that much – it takes a lot of the pressure away”.

Charlbi_Dean_03Charlbi Dean. Photographer: Damien Fry

After 73 days of shooting across Europe, the result is a film that manages to harness the entertaining power of comedy and the thought-provoking side of sociological ethics through trendsetting model couple, Yaya and Carl (played by past Glass Man cover star Harris Dickinson). What is initially disguised as a romance film, quickly takes a turn as the pair are invited onto a luxury yacht for the super-wealthy, captained by Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson) and results in an unfortunate accident leading them to get shipwrecked – but don’t be mistaken, no tissues will be needed.

Beyond the enthralling narrative and myriad of one-liners, the film investigates how individuals superficially interact with one another. “Everybody has currency and ours happens to be beauty, others had power or influence,” elaborates Dean. “In doing this movie, it definitely made me think about the perks of looking a certain way, but at the same time, when we get to the island, all of our currency is no longer of use. All of a sudden, it’s like what do you have to offer that is actually of value?”.

Elaborating on this realisation, Dean understands the necessity to subvert predictions by shifting the focus to her craft and away from her looks. The novelty of this already award-winning film being her entry into Hollywood is not lost on the actor as her genuine humble appreciation for this opportunity floods into our conversation as it comes to an end. “When there are so many people up for parts, and people who are so much more successful than you, it’s so hard to get a foot in the door so honestly this film means so much to me. Like how lucky am I to have this be the film that I get to come out with?”.

With the industry churning out content at an unprecedented rate, there are rarely any big-screen introductions that cause an actor to fast-track themselves to the upper echelons quite like this one will. Once it premieres, though Dean may not see audiences applauding, hear her name being praised or feel the overwhelming admiration she is predicted to receive, she gave one final perennial performance that will anchor her deep in cinematic history.

by Imogen Clark

Triangle of Sadness is released in the UK on October 28

Autumn issue of Glass is out globally on stands now. 

Photographer: Damien Fry

Stylist: Bailey Moon

Make Up: Genevieve Herr

Hair: Dj Quintero

Photography Assistant: Effy Feng

Styling Assistant: Laura Spriet


Look 1: Blazer GABRIELA HEARST Necklace, bracelet BRIONY RAYMOND

Look 2 &3: All clothing and shoes LOUIS VUITTON

Look 4:All clothing and shoes PROENZA SCHOULER Earring KATKIM

Look 5: All clothing and accessories SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO

Look 6: All clothing KHAITE