“Shameless, but this is how it went down,” the 37-year-old actress begins her story about meeting the two-time Oscar-winning writer-director behind such films as Election, Sideways and The Descendants for his latest film, The Holdovers.
“I got a call from my team. They said, ‘Alexander Payne would like to have a meeting with you.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So we went on a Zoom, I’m talking to this man, and he’s talking about this project. And he’s like, ‘I’m interested in you for this role.’ I was like, ‘Cool. So if you have any movies that you want me to look at for me to get a better understanding of you and your work, let me know.’”
Payne hesitated, then mentioned Sideways. “Oh the wine movie!” Randolph yelled out. Then The Descendants. “Oh with George Clooney running down the hill in flip-flops?!” He did those, he told her. “Oh, OK, yeah, I like your stuff!,” she retorted. “You’re that man!”
The filmmaker clearly wasn’t insulted. He cast Randolph — who earned a Tony nomination for Ghost: The Musical, appeared in the series High Fidelity and Only Murders in the Building and whose biggest film credit to this point was the Eddie Murphy vehicle Dolemite Is My Name — in the role of her young screen career. The Pennsylvania native is considered one of the frontrunners to win the next Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa star in The Holdovers. (Seacia Pavao/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)
She plays Mary Lamb, the head cook at a 1970s New England boarding school who intervenes when tension grows between a curmudgeonly professor (Paul Giamatti) and the lone student (newcomer Dominic Sessa) stuck at the institution over winter break. Mary is reeling from the recent death of her own son in Vietnam, which informs a confident yet shattering performance from the Yale School of Drama alumna.
“It was a lot,” Randolph says of the story’s deep-seated grief. “I think at the end of the day, I was so convicted in telling her story, because it’s such a beautiful one to me that I was willing to be the vessel for it. I think a part of what’s beautiful about acting is that you get to take on people’s lives and artistically show a range of possibilities. I have to be honest in this moment and surrender into this.”
Randolph ultimately employed what you might call the opposite of Method acting.
“I mean, it’s already the dead of winter in Boston. That’s sad, for me, so I was already like, ‘I can’t go deeper and just be depressed the whole winter.’ So I actually did the opposite. I would watch cartoons, laugh, be a jokester on set, stuff like that. So that my emotional capacity was open to then have that.”
The Holdovers is now playing.