Da’Vine Joy Randolph on Alexander Payne Teaching Her to Smoke Cigarettes for ‘The Holdovers’: ‘We Redid Takes Because He Said It Doesn’t Look Right’

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It could have been easy for Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s role in “The Holdovers” to be yet another stereotypical trope for Black women that Hollywood has lazily thrown out throughout history. If that had been the case, the actress tells Variety that would have passed. “When I meet with these studio execs and they ask ‘What is it you would like to do next?’ she says. “I straight up say I would like to tell the same stories as a white straight male in this body. I’m challenging you. Figure it out.”

The industry needs to figure it out because the Philadelphia-born actress is an outstanding and vibrant talent, as seen by her invigorating turn in director Alexander Payne’s latest dramedy. She plays Mary Lamb, a cafeteria worker who, in the midst of dealing with the children left at an elite boarding school during the holiday break, is grieving the loss of her son (who died in the Vietnam War).

On this episode of the award-winning Variety Awards Circuit Podcast, Randolph discusses her thought-provoking process of building her character in “The Holdovers,” in addition to what she’s looking for from Hollywood and how she pitched herself to Yale Drama School. Finally, the roundtable comes together to discuss the end of the Hollywood strikes, and the last movies to drop in the season — including A24’s “The Iron Claw,” Disney’s “Wish,” Warner Bros’ “The Color Purple” and Apple and Sony’s “Napoleon.” Listen below:

DaVine Joy Randolph in Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers”

Read: Variety’s Awards Circuit for the latest Oscars predictions in all categories.

“The Holdovers” tells the story of a curmudgeon instructor at an elite New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the students with nowhere to go. He forms an unlikely bond with a damaged, brainy troublemaker (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa) and the head cook (Randolph).

Payne, a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” allowed Randolph to learn from her peers and learn new skills. According to Randolph, when she realized she got the role, the filmmaker sent her two cartons of cigarettes to her door. “It was very important to him that it looked believable,” she says of her smoking skills. “He would say, ‘I feel like the act of smoking means so many things and tells such a vivid story. It tells on you if you don’t know how to do it. I don’t smoke at all. We sometimes redid takes because he was like, ‘No, doesn’t look right.’”

With a smile and a laugh, she adds, “But what about the acting?”

That wasn’t all the preparation she did for the part. Randolph speaks passionately about her process of building a character inside and out. It’s hard to imagine this wasn’t a lifelong destination for her as a prestigious Yale Drama School graduate. “While applying to schools, they would ask, ‘What do you want to get out of this program?’ she recalls.

She responds: “I would love to have the skill set to play Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and you believe me, no matter what the status of my body looks like.”

Every school would be snide about her remark, except for Yale, which held true to the promise of what its program was all about.

That background helped her and fellow Yale alumnus Paul Giamatti develop a rapport, because they “spoke the same acting language.”

Randolph went the extra mile to get into character, hiring a dialect coach who has worked with actors like Nicole Kidman and Will Smith, in order to perfect the Boston accent as it would sound in the early 1970s. In addition, she created micro-stories not in the script about how Mary would acquire specific outfits, particularly a dress she wears in a crucial scene near the film’s end. “In my mind, I had crafted, there was a goodwill in the neighborhood of the boarding school, and she saved up her money, and that became her ‘nice’ outfit.”

From “Dolemite is My Name” with Eddie Murphy, to serving as a series regular on “Only Murders in the Building,” Randolph is making her mark in the business, one that will likely be rewarded with deserved accolades.


Also on this episode, “Maestro” makeup artist Kazu Hiro discusses the craft of transforming Bradley Cooper into famed composer Leonard Bernstein.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.

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