As the director of the Oscar-nominated black comedy Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Östlund knew well before anyone else that Charlbi Dean had delivered a star-making performance.
“She may have been working as a model and was an actress before, but it felt like this was a little crossroad where [her career] was heading somewhere [exciting],” Östlund told us ahead of the film’s October release in the United States.
Dean delivered a revelatory, emotionally layered performance as Yaya, a model whose popularity as a social media influencer earns her and her boyfriend (Harris Dickinson) an all-expenses-paid trip aboard a doomed luxury yacht along with a group of eccentric one percenters. (The satire became particularly infamous for its extended vomiting sequence, earning it the title of “most disgusting movie of 2022.”)
The Cape Town, South Africa, native earned instant praise for her work when Triangle premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2022, where it won the prized Palme d’Or for best film.
Then tragedy struck.
In late August, Dean fell ill and was admitted to a New York City hospital. Within hours, Dean, only 32, died. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be bacterial sepsis, likely related to having her spleen removed following a serious car accident in 2008, increasing her risk of viral infections.
Dean’s death came just two weeks before the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and five weeks before its U.S. release.
“We were just about to go off and do this [press] tour together and go to Toronto and have the whole ensemble standing there presenting the film together,” Östlund recalled. “And all of a sudden there’s one spot that is missing. Someone is not standing there and taking part of the credit for the work. So that has been something that’s felt really, really sad on a level that was unexpected.”
Östlund first met Dean, who had previously appeared on the CW superhero series Black Lightning, during the casting process four years prior. He says he grew close with the performer during the production, which lasted about 100 days.
“It was during the pandemic and it was a very close environment, a small group, spending an intense period in our life together. And it was really an ensemble movie. … And I think that everybody got very close to each other during this shooting. And then of course there’s always tragedy when someone is passing that is young.”
Ultimately the Swedish filmmaker hopes that Triangle of Sadness, which is up for three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) at Sunday’s ceremony, will serve as a memorial to his lost star.
“Knowing that her family was proud of the film, and Charlbi was so proud of the film after Cannes, [we look at it as a way to] pay tribute to her work. It would’ve been so interesting to see which part she would’ve taken after this. … Yes, it is sad, but at the same time, I hope that the film can be a way for us to pay tribute to her family and to her, and her work as an actress.”