Da’Vine Joy Randolph: Major Prizes, Major Attention, Major Unease

The “Holdovers” star Da’Vine Joy Randolph has had a charmed run through awards season so far: Considered the favorite for the supporting actress Oscar, she has already taken the Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award and prestigious trophies from both the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

The 37-year-old actress is well-aware of the power of those prizes, and knows that even being in the Oscar conversation can change the course of a career. But does that mean her awards season has been easy to navigate?

“It’s overwhelming, if I’m being really honest,” Randolph told me in a candid conversation last week. “You really do earn your stripes going through this awards-season thing.”

A monthslong Oscar campaign can be more arduous than people realize: a pileup of Q. and A.s, wardrobe fittings, round tables, photo shoots, interviews, red carpets, ceremonies, movie premieres, cocktail parties and festival appearances that demand always-on levels of poise and adrenaline. Everyone you meet at these events wants something from you — a conversation, a selfie, an autograph, an acceptance speech — and at the end of these glitzy and exhausting nights, there’s not much left over for yourself.

Randolph is no novice: Tony-nominated for her role in “Ghost the Musical” (2012), she earned Oscar chatter for her breakout film performance in “Dolemite Is His Name” (2019) and has worked steadily in films like “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (2021) and TV shows including “Only Murders in the Building,” “The Idol” and “High Fidelity.” Still, nothing she has experienced so far compares to the white-hot awards spotlight shone on her in the wake of “The Holdovers,” and Randolph is still figuring out how to adjust to its glare.

“With things that were once small, now everything is augmented,” she said.

Directed by Alexander Payne, “The Holdovers” casts Randolph as Mary, a boarding-school cafeteria manager who bonds with a tetchy teacher (Paul Giamatti) and a troubled student (Dominic Sessa) as they stay behind during Christmas break. Each nurses private wounds, but Mary’s may be the hardest to heal: She is grieving the recent death of her son, who was killed serving in the Vietnam War.

“Reading the script, I understood that she was the aching heartbeat of this movie, and I knew that if I did this, I was going to have to be fearless,” Randolph said. Though Mary is not always forthcoming about the pain she’s feeling, all of that private agony erupts in a pivotal scene, set in the kitchen of a Christmas party, where she finally lets loose and wails.

“I think this is probably the most naked or vulnerable I’ve ever shown to anyone, and it is out there forever,” Randolph said. “But when I would get trepidatious, I would bolster myself and say we have to, because people are going to feel seen and be able to heal.”

I met Randolph for lunch in Los Angeles just days after her Oscar nomination. Warm and forthcoming, she apologized for her hoarse voice: “When Paul’s name gets called, I lose it,” she said, referring to her joyful reactions to Giamatti’s own Oscar nod and his recent wins at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. Has it been easier for her to process Giamatti’s awards-season good fortune than her own?

Yes, Randolph admitted. “I’m glad that I get to experience this with humble, kind people because when they win, it feels all the sweeter,” she said.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

How’s your day been?

It’s so full. It’s good. It’s just, it’s not enough.

Not enough time in the day?

No, uh-uh. I feel when I wake up, I’m already behind the ball. But what do they call it, “golden handcuffs”? These are very, very good problems to have.

Despite all of the fantastic things that are happening right now, I would think there’s a certain amount of reconfiguring that has to happen in your life.

Bro, it’s unnatural. In the mass of four weeks, in a very otherworldly way, my entire world has changed. As a cause and effect, everyone around me has changed as well. Now I’m having conversations with my parents and family: “You can’t tell everybody all our business. People who we may think just want to chitchat may have other [motives].” My parents are smart, they get it. But still, it was a moment where I had to realize, “Oh wow, this is also affecting you.” It’s wild.

So how do you synthesize that?

I give myself grace, I give them grace, I do a lot of deep breathing. And then it’s just, OK, what do I actually need in this moment? What is of no service to me? Because my world is bigger now, everything inside of me and around me is bigger.

Can you still find those crucial small moments in between everything major going on?

Yes. And they’re the most ironic of places — a plane ride, going to the bathroom. I’ve become ritualistic with making it an event to go to bed, to put an importance and a value on my sleep and my self-care. I’ll ask other people that are in this with me, Is this normal? What have you found that helps you? And it’s been a really nice community of people giving little tidbits. A lot of us are going through the same thing.

You really bond with your fellow nominees during an awards season.

Oh, yeah. I’m seeing them every weekend, basically. That actually is the best part, so I hold onto those moments. But yeah, it’s a lot. You really do earn your stripes going through this award-season thing.

Elaborate on that for me.

It’s taxing. I can see why people feel neurotic or crazed or crying. I think when you’re at an award show, there’s so much feelings combating within you and banging up against your body, so in that moment you’re just like, “Ahh, it’s so much!” But gems and beautiful moments erupt in the midst of the go, go, go. When someone stops you on the street to tell you how your current body of work has affected them, that’s when I’m like, “Chill out, Da’Vine. It matters.” And I know that, but it’s a good reminder.

That kind of thing is what awards season is meant to represent, right?

Absolutely, and I try to always go back to that. It helps root me, it helps me be able to traverse all of this.

Has the Oscar nomination landed fully for you yet? Or are you still in the middle of processing it?

Very much still processing, yeah. And that’s OK. I’m trying to give myself grace. I feel really guilty about it.

About what?

Not that I don’t experience joy, but it just hasn’t hit me yet. It’s almost like when you’re told that someone you love has passed away. It’s at that stage.

Have you watched it hit other people?

Seemingly, right? The ecstatic joy. And I possess all that, but it’s not showing up in that way yet. It’s overwhelming, if I’m being really honest.

It’s been about two years since you started shooting “The Holdovers,” right? What a long journey for a small film.

Yeah, truly. I just did it because the script was good and the character was complex. I never thought that it would amass to this.

Why do you think it’s clicked the way it has? Is it just the right film at the right time?

I think timing and luck is always a component in this industry. I also think it’s honest. Especially since the pandemic, we are begging for authenticity. People want the truth, they don’t want smoke and mirrors anymore. Rip away the facade. That’s scary, but it seems as if people need it.

In one of the movie’s key scenes, your character has an emotional breakdown in the kitchen at a Christmas party. What is it like to watch a scene like that, after you’ve done something so vulnerable onscreen?

I don’t watch my stuff.

You haven’t watched “The Holdovers” yet?

I have seen the movie. They made me. They were like, “There’s a screening room, everything’s set up. You have to go because what are you going to talk about when you do press?” I was like, I think I remember what my body went through, but fine. So I sat there and watched it. Very uncomfortable.

Have you always avoided watching your work?

I work from a place of reckless abandonment in my characters. I’m very protective over them and I do a copious amount of work to create a foundation for the character. Then, when it’s time to do the work, that’s where I have my reckless abandonment, my freedom. When I’m in pocket, the lines between myself and the character are blurred.

So I don’t watch myself because I trust the process. I don’t want to analyze the natural occurrences because so far they’re working. If I start watching myself, I know myself enough to know I’m going to start judging myself. I love that I can actually work from a judgment-free zone. Most actors can’t, so I’m preserving it.

How did you get through that screening? Did you disassociate or were you able to take it on your own terms?

Completely disassociated. I was quiet the whole rest of the day, I felt so naked. It’s not natural, most people don’t have a mirror up to them while they’re in pain. But I get it, everybody has their own process. Some people enjoy it, and that’s cool.

There’s a quiet, devastating moment where Mary unpacks a box with her son’s baby clothes. Tell me about shooting that scene.

Alexander filmed that for a very long time. I thought we were going to do it in five minutes but he really let me sit in those rooms, and it was beautiful because at a certain point my brain forgot and I was just in the space, getting lost in the tasks. But what I did was write soliloquies for myself. When a person seems lost in thought during grief, they’re actually talking to themselves very loudly, rationalizing, trying to figure out how did it happen, where did I mess up? Or sometimes they want to comfort themselves and play back fond memories of when they were together.

I wanted to show all the stages of grief because I quickly understood that they don’t always happen in that convenient sequential order. There’s so much fluidity in grief, and unpredictability. You’re constantly negotiating: Do I let it swoop me up in its powerful wave? Or do I try to stand 10 toes down in the sand and let that wave crash and almost knock me out?

Da’Vine, are you describing grief or awards season right now?

[Laughs.] My friend, hey, who knows at this point?

On the other side of all this, how do you hope your career changes?

I must work at this level of proficiency, of excellence. I don’t want to move backward. And a lot of that is dependent less on me and more on the jobs that I choose and the people I work with.

I get the sense that you don’t just work for the sake of it.

I’ve always been that way. I don’t do it for the money, it has to matter. But even more so now, because the audience has widened, I’m like, “OK, now it’s really going to get to the juicy stuff.” This is really the first moment I’ve had of accruing success and true visibility, and I had a lot of close calls: “Darn, we didn’t get that second season of ‘High Fidelity,’” or “If only you had one more monologue in ‘Dolemite.’”

So what good can come of this new visibility?

I just came from a meeting for a TV show that I’ve come up with, and I think we found our showrunner today, which is very exciting. I am just hitting the surface. I’m very grateful for people’s appreciation for my talent but in no way, shape or form have I showed the scope of me. I’m now beginning to have a growing platform to do so. Let’s do it!

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