When Da'Vine Joy Randolph first met with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, she was flattered to learn that he had asked for her by name. She didn't really know, however, exactly who Payne was. "To be honest with you, I had watched some of his movies before then, but at the time, I hadn't made the connection that he was the person who'd made those movies," the actress admits.
"At the end of the conversation, I asked him, 'Well, what have you done that I can look at?'" Randolph recalls. "He was so humble. He was like, 'Oh, you don't have to watch any of my films.' But I told him, 'No, it's important to me that I know your style and who I'm really working with.' He said, 'Well, I made The Descendants, and I did this thing called Election with Reese Witherspoon.'" She laughs retelling the story now, "I was like, 'Nah, I didn't see Election.' But The Descendants, I knew about. Sideways, I knew about. I said, 'So, I do know some of your work!'"
For his part, Payne had first become aware of Randolph through her breakout turn in 2019's Dolemite is My Name, which proved that she could navigate the same tricky blend of dramatic and comedic tones that are typically present in Payne's films. "She kind of steals that movie in the scene she's in with Eddie Murphy," Payne told A.frame. "When it came time for the casting director to set up meetings for me with actresses, I said, 'I want to meet that gal from Dolemite is My Name.'"
The film is The Holdovers, which centers on three misfit characters — a grumpy boarding school teacher (played by Paul Giamatti), a troubled young student (newcomer Dominic Sessa), and grieving cafeteria matron (Randolph) — who are forced to spend their Christmas break together. Slowly but surely, they come to understand one another on a deeper level, and the grief that Randolph's Mary Lamb feels over the recent loss of her son spills over.
As such, Randolph is at the center of some of the most emotional moments in The Holdovers; but her approach to those scenes may seem unorthodox. "I just try to have a really awesome day," she tells A.frame. "I'm in the business of helping people and healing people, but also giving them a good time. Life's too short. Enjoy it."
At the 96th Oscars, Randolph earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
"It's a really surreal moment," she said of the recognition. "It's not easy to be an actor and it's a lot of time and investment put into this craft, and so to have a moment like this, where we're amongst people who I've admired and people who I have looked up to for so many years, to see me in this light is just unbelievable, truly. I'm so over the moon. Delirious."
A.frame: When you first found out that a director like Alexander Payne wanted to work with you, did you even need to read a script? Or were you immediately willing to agree to the project?
I always read the script, just because I like to do my due diligence. It's important to me and my process. However, I was extremely grateful and humbled to hear from him. It all happened kind of matter of factly. My team told me that Alexander wanted to talk to me, and I didn't really know what it was for. The first questions that are usually on most people's minds when they go to meet with someone about a project is, 'Are they crazy? Will I want to actually work with them? Are they sane?' With Alexander, at the end of our first talk, I thought, 'Okay, this is a cool guy. He seems nice, smart, and intelligent.'
When I read the script, I realized it was a really well-written story that doesn't come along too often, to be completely honest. Between the depth of the detail and the fact that Mary — a woman of color, let alone a Black woman — had a full arc in the script, I was just like, 'Thank you.' I knew it was great, and I knew I wouldn't have to fight my way through this one or put on a writer's hat as well as an actor's hat, like I've had to sometimes do in other productions. I knew I could just be an actor and trust and know that it was all there for me on the page.
Alexander has said that he specifically wanted you to play Mary because he loved your performance so much in Dolemite is My Name. How does it feel to be at a point now where directors are seeking you out based on your past work?
It's a blessing, and a kind of affirmation. As you're trudging along in your career, there are certain markers, you know? A lot of times, it feels like you're just in your head, on your own tunnel vision journey. You just hope that you're making the right decisions and that you're saying yes to the right projects, working with the right people, and relying on the right team. You're thinking about all those factors all the time. When a moment like that then comes from someone whom the public reveres and loves, it really means a lot. If nothing else, it confirms that you should keep going and that you're on the right track. You're onto something, and you shouldn't overthink it.
You and Paul both attended the Yale School of Drama. Did you find that you share a similar approach to acting because of that?
Immediately. Literally, during the first scene, within the first three takes, it was clear, which is such a gift. Because it means that your shared baseline is immediately high. When you realize that, all you gotta do is plant roots and get to work. That's when I realized, 'This is gonna be a good movie' — and not in a cocky way. I don't think people realize that most times when you're acting, it's complete strangers coming together. You don't know anything about the person you're working with, about their past or their history. They have their own style of acting, and you usually have to find a way to meet them there. With Paul, I'll be honest with you — I knew it was going to be excellent. When it came to our connection and what we could bring to a scene together, I knew, 'This is going to be great.'
To be completely transparent, I've worked with other people where it's turned out really good, and we didn't have the same kind of connection that Paul and I had. So I knew that if it's possible to be good with someone I don't necessarily have an innate connection with, that means nothing but great things when I do. And he's just an amazing human being. He's kind, generous and loving, and he genuinely cares and he makes sure to check in. We also were all isolated together in Massachusetts. In many ways, it was like art imitating life. We weren't forced to bond, but our circumstances definitely encouraged us to connect, learn about one another, and have valuable conversations.
You have a number of emotionally demanding scenes in this movie that require you to be extremely vulnerable on-screen. How do you get yourself in the right headspace for moments like that?
I just try to have a really awesome day. No, truly. Meaning, I don't allow myself to just sit there and be like, 'Oh, I have to prepare for the scene. I'm going to start being sad now for seven hours before I start to actually work.' Who would want to be around me? I go the opposite way and try to have a really awesome day. I wake up a little bit early, have an awesome shower, and have an amazing breakfast. I act like it's my birthday. I reward myself. Joke around all day. And then, when it comes time to do it, you do it. I've done my homework and prepared in advance so that when it's time to do it, I can do it. If you're just sitting there listening to sad music, you're wasting all of that energy. Listen, across the board, the best takes will always be the first three. I don't care what anybody says. So, if I start to get into that space too early, say while I'm in a hair and makeup trailer, I'm giving the performance of my life in front of the mirror when there's no camera around. I don't want to do that. But I know what I have to do when the time comes.
A lot of it is a conversation and negotiation with myself. Am I willing? That's really what it is. Am I willing to go there? Am I willing to reveal myself and be vulnerable in front of all these people, including my coworkers? Am I willing to show a side of myself where I experience pain, and allow other people to be clued into that? Am I willing to allow all of that to be recorded by a camera? The entire world has seen a glimpse into my own pain. That's heavy, but why I signed up for it and why I do it is because I truly believe that doing so can make the world a better place. Whether I make you laugh, cry, or think, it's all part of an effort toward being the best versions of ourselves that we can be. A lot of acting for me is therapeutic, and not only for myself. I want it to be therapeutic for the viewer, too. It's beyond me. Not to get super spiritual, but I'm a vessel. I've got to be willing to be egoless enough and willing to surrender myself enough to the given circumstances to reiterate a version of what is written on the page. Not to sound weird, but that takes courage. It's a brave act.
What did Paul, Dominic and Alexander do to make you feel comfortable enough to go to those places?
They created a safe space. I remember when we filmed the scene in the kitchen at the Christmas party, Alexander was like, 'Are you ready? I don't really want to give you any notes. Let's just do whatever you think it needs to be.' So, I unleashed one take and was on the floor at the end of it. Dominic was holding me when it was over. It's crazy that he just knew to do that. It was almost like we'd recreated the Pietà, but an inverse of it where the boy is holding his mother figure. He was holding me and it was deafeningly quiet. Alexander never said, 'Cut.'
Dominic stepped away, and I tried to regulate my breath. Our DP, Eigil Bryld, stepped out and Alexander just said, 'I mean this in the the best possible way, but please don't do that again.' I couldn't take any more of that. I wouldn't be able to handle it. We have that one in the can. Let's do one more, and then I want to be done with this scene. I'm emotionally drained. So, after we did the second one, we broke away for around 10 to 15 minutes, and then we went to do another portion of the sequence. They all created the space for me to do that. That's what they did. They really created a space for me.
At this point in your career, what draws you to the projects that you're drawn to? Is it the stories, the directors, other actors?
It's always going to be the stories. It's always going to be the script. I don't know if that's because I come from the theater and was taught reverence and respect for the text, but I've been in many situations where it didn't matter how amazing or phenomenal a director was, because there wasn't enough present in the text. Something needs to show up somewhere in the script so that we have somewhere to build from, and many times, I've had to put on the hat of the director, actor and writer, because it wasn't there.
Right now, I just want to keep working at the level of The Holdovers. I want this to be my new standard, and I hope that the more people who see it — whether they be filmmakers, producers, or studio executives — the more people understand that this is the new bar I want to start from. We can't go below this. Let's tell a myriad of fun stories and sad stories and everything in between, so long as it all starts from this level.
By Alex Welch
This article was originally published on Nov. 28, 2023 and has been updated throughout.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category for an interview.