Da’Vine Joy Randolph Did Not Approach Her Award-Winning ‘The Holdovers’ Role Any Differently

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Da’Vine Joy Randolph Did Not Approach Her Award-Winning ‘The Holdovers’ Role Any Differently

Let’s rewind back to November 2023, the very first weekend after the historic Screen Actors Guild strike ended. Back then, star Da’Vine Joy Randolph shared with IndieWire that she was already at ease with how “The Holdovers” would be received, despite only director Alexander Payne being able to promote it during its first couple of months of screening.

“I knew that we would reach people’s hearts,” said the eventual frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, who plays Mary Lamb, a prep school head chef and grieving mother in the Focus Features release. “I feel like I was a part of something really special that could have sustained and held it, even if [the strikes] went all the way through the end of the year.”

Sparkling in a plush green full-length dress with fuzzy trimming, seated inside one of the hospitality rooms inside a Beverly Hills hotel, Randolph described her role in the film penned by David Hemingson as one she was destined to have more than fought for. At that point in time, she was filming Sanaa Lathan’s directorial debut “On the Come Up,” and Payne was more familiar with her than she was with him.

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She was told in the background, as they were putting “The Holdovers” together, that “he always said, ‘I want Da’Vine.’ And they were like, ‘Well, let’s give you some bigger names.’ And these 30 actresses came forth [and auditioned], and he was like, ‘I want Da’Vine.’” Though Mary Lamb was not specifically written for her, the Oscar-winning filmmaker had been impressed by her breakout performance in “Dolemite Is My Name,” another role that called for a balance of comedic and dramatic chops.

“As much as I can be bouncing around all these different characters, the throughline is quality — a story of a minority female being told with integrity and craft. Always,” said Randolph, explaining her criteria for the roles she pursues. “I’ve usually had to endow and imbue those things in, or negotiate with the creatives about making that be there. What was lovely with this, and when I read the script was, ‘Oh, there’s stuff already here on the page.’”

Upon realizing she had already seen some of Payne’s work (and been impressed by it), there was a moment of worry that he may be a certain level of auteur that’s resistant to feedback, but the actress left their first conversation realizing “Oh, OK. He’s going to let me do my thing, not take over or anything like that. This is going to be a true collaboration.” She added, “I’ve been in situations where it’s not and I’ve fought to give you guys the results that you see. So to not have to have that fight, I was like, ‘Well, this is refreshing.’”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 16: Rhianna Dillon, Director Alexander Payne, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti attend
Rhianna Dillon, Director Alexander Payne, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti attend “The Holdovers” BFI Screening and Q&ATristan Fewings/Getty Images

Though supporting roles in period pieces have been the most fruitful for Black actresses awards-wise, there often still is a fear of falling into the Magical Negro trope, where one’s character is only there in service of aiding the white protagonist. Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” which happened to make Hattie McDaniel the first ever Black performer to win an Oscar in 1940, is unfortunately often cited as the prime example.

Early in the filmmaking process, Randolph was quick to make sure they avoided Mary Lamb being read the same way. “If that’s what it was, my name would not be here. My face would not be on there. It’d be some other lady,” she said, gesturing toward a “The Holdovers” poster on an easel nearby. When Payne casually was talking about the character saying “Yeah, so she’s a cook at the school,” Randolph replied “No, no, no. She’s the head chef in charge of the culinary department at this prep school institution, at this Ivy League educational system … that’s where I’m at with this.” 

Randolph was given the leeway to approach Lamb with real confidence in her proficiency as a cook. “I don’t look at myself as the help. I run it,” she said. “As a Black woman being able to have candid, frank conversations with a straight white male. What? That’s epic, to be like, ‘You’re an asshole,’ in 1969-1970 Boston. Where they doing that at?” 

Working opposite fellow Yale Drama School grad Paul Giamatti added to the pivotal work experience. Because she is often newer to film shoots than her scene partners, Randolph said, “I’ve developed a trait, a habit, an ability to, without words, just watch and observe their style, their ways, and just meet them there.”

However, with Giamatti, it felt like “Oh, wow. We already know what the dance is. I don’t have to learn your choreography,” said Randolph. There was no need to adapt to his creative process in a way that still fed hers. “This was a situation where it was like, ‘No, we’re both gonna eat,’ which was amazing,” she said.

Randolph refers to the third part of “The Holdovers” three-hander, newcomer Dominic Sessa, as an old soul, yet new enough to the film acting process to not have any bad habits he needed to unlearn. She finds one of the most moving moments in the film is toward the end, when his character Angus calls for her as he awaits a decision on whether or not his parents will rip him out of the school, and send him off to a much stricter environment. 

HO_14151_RC Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in director Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers”Seacia Pavao

“That means everything to me as an actress, and to Mary as the character, to imagine that she is down in that basement cooking for these kids, doing her job, and that the principal’s assistant says, ‘He asks for you. He needs you. Something’s going down.’ She don’t ask no questions and she comes immediately. She got stains on her apron and everything,” said Randolph. “I imagine she puts down the pot immediately, just goes and puts her hand out. She don’t need to know because if you think of it on a deeper level, she knows if this don’t go right for him, he’s going to military school. And she can’t have another son go to war. Due to her grief, she don’t even know what to say. All she knows is she’s going to be there physically.”

Though the sequence is sparse on words, it exemplifies how Mary’s arc is multilayered, with “The Holdovers” rewarding multiple rewatches. It reflects what kind of work Randolph seeks out next. “I am looking for multiple dimensions. I’m looking for complexities. I’m looking for a person that is okay to make mistakes and trying to figure stuff out,” she said.

Speaking to IndieWire prior to any major wins she’s had on an indomitable awards run, her response to Oscar chatter was: “You never know. You don’t do it for that, but you definitely try your darndest,” said the actress. “I, at least, do, as if every one could be that one. And it’s just that crazy minutiae of the industry where it’s just not in your control.”

Thinking it over a bit, Randolph added, “Maybe what the difference with this one more than others is, quite honestly, the quality of work, and people being able to see me. There is definitely the Alexander Payne factor, to be completely transparent.”

Though she is immensely proud of “The Holdovers,” seeing it as a rare film the whole family can enjoy, she said, “I didn’t do anything different in this that I wouldn’t have done in any of the other characters. However, the magic and the great opportunity you have with working with higher ups who have achieved many things in their career is some of that stuff rubs off on you. And you get the access, and you get the eyes on it that, potentially, because it wasn’t a name they knew of, or they didn’t get a chance to catch a TV show or whatever their reason is, I now have that ability for people to at least watch it.”

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