“This Is My Activism”: Da’Vine Joy Randolph On Her Groundbreaking Oscar Nomination (& Win!)

Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images/LACMA.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a thief. Her victims include A-list actors like Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name), Zoe Kravitz (High Fidelity), and now Paul Giamatti (The Holdovers). Randolph pulls off expert heists in all the films or shows she’s played in by one-upping the supposed stars of each. But it’s not just that she’s stealing scenes and making it impossible to look away from her work (even when her respective co-stars are also giving heavyweight performances), with every count of cinematic larceny, she’s also amassing an eclectic arsenal of a filmography that proves she’s ready to move from swiping attention in the shadows and step into her very own spotlight. 
With The Holdovers, the Alexander Payne-directed ‘70s drama about a crotchety prep school professor, Paul (Giamatti), who has to stay on its New England campus over Christmas break to babysit a troublemaking student, Angus (Dominic Sessa), and develops a friendship with the school’s head cook, Mary Lamb (Randolph), the rest of the world seems to be catching up to what those of us who have been watching Randolph in awe for years already know: she deserves it all.
The film has been nominated for several Oscars thanks to its quiet complexity and heart-warming ruminations on grief, family, and friendship, and the subtle yet electric performances of its cast – including Randolph’s Mary, a woman who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. In a lesser film, Mary would simply be a side character used to advance Paul and Angus’s journey from antagonistic rivals to unlikely allies. She’d pop in with some punchy one-liners and a sombre backstory to make us care more about the lonely uppity white man and the bratty selfish kid he’s stuck with. To be honest, that’s what I was expecting.
Instead, Mary is a fully-formed Black woman (what a concept!) dealing with an unimaginable tragedy who is fighting to hold onto her warmth, compassion, and spirit amidst unbearable grief. The Holdovers is as much a story about Paul’s redemption and Angus’s maturation as it is about Mary’s personal restoration. Ultimately, it’s about three sad souls who find each other at Christmas and its greatest gift is giving Randolph room to show off her Yale-educated acting prowess. 
If you know Randolph from her most recent roles in Only Murders In The Building, The Idol, or Rustin, you know that she can easily swing from comedy to drama, from serious to side-splitting, and from deadpan to devastating. Whether she’s playing a pop star’s manager, an exasperated detective, or famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Randolph is giving range; she’s giving depth and variety and a multifaceted catalogue that many Black actresses are not afforded. She’s fully aware of all of this. Here, Randolph explains why the roles she chooses are her activism, refusing to read criticism and how she “fought tooth and nail” for authentic Black hair & makeup in The Holdovers. 
Refinery29: I read that you didn’t know who Alexander Payne was before you were asked to do this project. What made you sign on to The Holdovers
Da’Vine Joy Randolph: I knew of his work, but I didn't know he was the man [behind some of his famous projects]. My team was like you're having a meeting with Alexander Payne. I was like, okay, cool. And then towards the end of our meeting, I was like, ‘if there's any of your work [I can look at] so I can get a better understanding of you and your style, and how you vibe, please let me know.’ When he started listing his projects, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know who you are! Yeah, I'm a fan of your work.’ 
Then did you decide to do whatever he wanted you to do? 
DJR: If I'm really honest, no. I wasn't like, Oh, my God, you're Alexander Payne. I'll do anything. And I only say that because I'm very strategic about what roles I take, especially as a Black woman. I don't care if it's Oprah, it's very important for me that the type of work I'm doing is at a certain level of quality. And that these characters, especially for Black women, are fully-realised, fleshed-out, multi-dimensional people who are not just surface [sidekicks] to someone else where we don't know nothing about them. They just magically show up and magically go away like a leprechaun. I'm not into that. So to just be honest, it's no shade or disregard to Alex, but I'm not one to just be like, Oh, my gosh, well, okay! I'm very intentional about what I do and what I'm trying to create.
Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
When I saw the film and how fully formed Mary is, I was so excited for you and for people to see your performance. Why was it important for you to have people see you in a role like this?
DJR: It’s tantamount. My whole career has led to this moment, and my prayer is that I will continue to have opportunities in which I can tell these types of stories. And by ‘these types of stories’ I mean, ones of quality. That's all I want. Because you and I both know, if I wanted to work, I could work. But only in a certain limited view. When I think about where and how one can make the most change, you’ve got to be up in it. If I only did Black generated work with only Black artists — as much as that is amazing and necessary and crucial for us to create our own content — the only way that we can really make the most effective change is to get up in the faces and right up next to decision makers that are not us. And get in there and be like, Hey, listen, let me teach you something. Let me break something down to you.
From the creatives to the producers to the studios — [that is how] it happened with Black Panther. Sometimes you have to show people instead of tell people, right? So I see this as an opportunity, where I'm showing them so that they can see ‘Maybe we'll do this again with her.’ That's important to me. For me, this is my activism, if I had to pick something, this is where I feel like I can not only give back but hold it down for my community, to hopefully make the change through the education and skill set that I have to let people know to give us a chance.

"My whole career has led to this moment, and my prayer is that I will continue to have opportunities in which I can tell these types of stories."

da'vine joy randolph on 'the holdovers'
I read this great quote from you where you said to your team that you would “like to tell the same stories as a white straight male in this body. I’m challenging you. Figure it out.” What were those conversations like? 
DJR: Figure it out! From the moment that I was applying to graduate school [at Yale], there’s an interview at the end of the of the audition process, I was telling them, ‘listen, I want to be taught the skills and tools to be able to play Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, despite what I look like, and you believe me.’ Yale was the only [school] that was like, ‘Yep, absolutely.’ And they held true to their word. So now that I have that skill set, when I then went out into the world and was interviewing agents, I said the same thing: ‘Whatever you think this is, I'm not that girl. I could give that girl but I'm not that girl. Not all money is good money for me to be willing to give you that girl.’ I was the only Black girl in my class [and] I was identifying for myself the type of actor I wanted to be. The head of the acting department, Ron Van Lieu said to me, “Tell me the actors and actresses whom you admire.” And when I gave him a list at that time, he was like, “Okay, I just need to make you aware that the names of people you gave are 60 plus year-old white women, and or they are from the UK.” Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, to name a few [were on the list]. He said to me, “There was no Al Pacino, no De Nero or Meryl Streep before they came into the game. You're going to have to literally on rugged rough soil, forge a pathway, there was not one. It's not going to be easy, but it is possible.” I was taught at a very young age, Da’Vine, you're in your own lane, don’t be worried about what everybody else is doing. You came in with a vision at a very young age. See it through. And so what has been so beautiful about this project is this is a moment in time where the seeds that I was planting the soil that I was toiling are now here.

"I fought tooth and nail to the point where I was like, 'if you don't hire this person for hair or this person for makeup, I'm not coming back.'"

da'vine joy randolph on making mary authentic
I’ve heard from a lot of Black actresses from doing this job that hair can be a challenge on a set that’s not predominantly Black or doesn’t have a Black director. How did you work with the team to get Mary’s hair right? 
DJR: [Alexander Payne] and I had a moment where he really envisioned that he wanted Mary[‘s hair] to be in rollers. I said ‘Okay, where?’ And he was like, “Oh, you know, like, amongst the boys while she's cooking. I said, ‘no, no, no.’ He said, “But it's the holidays!” I said ‘It could be Christmas Day, it's not happening. That's not who we are.’ He goes, “Well my mom used to…” I said, as long as [Mary is] at that school, I'm working. I told him the only time you're gonna get me in rollers is in my room alone with the privacy of myself. So that's why you see that moment of me getting ready for the party with little cute pink foam rollers in my hair, as I'm picking out my clues in the privacy of my room. But what I credit [Alexander] for is he was like, “Okay, I didn't know that. Thank you.” It wasn't like you're wearing rollers and that’s it!, which I've dealt with before; people trying to tell me who and what we are. So I say that to say we're getting there. And if it means that I have to continue to toil, then so be it because it matters to me so much. And if nothing else, I hope that it creates a path for many young ladies to not have to push so hard, just to get the very basics of an experience.
Mary’s entire look seemed really authentic to the era and her hair looked great.
DJR: I'm very proud about that. When I tell you I fought tooth and nail to the point where I was like, 'if you don't hire this person for hair or this person for makeup, if you don't hire them, I'm not coming back.' Yes, they ended up both being Black professionals. But if there was an Asian woman who could beat my face for the gods, bring her. It's not a race thing. I just want to be very clear with that. It's about having the true actual skill set. Don't lie and say you could do hair and then you touch my hair like [you’re confused]. No. We have to have the right people there. I’m very intentional. For example, [Mary’s] work hair look, the bun, that's Weezy in The Jeffersons from the first season. If you look at the first season of The Jeffersons, something they did that I thought was genius was her fantastic, blown out curled, pressed ‘fro, she didn't get that until later because she was still in the lower class mentality. So she still had that blue-collar hair. It was a little bun and she had these little curled tendrils framing her face. So I was like, I want that. I wanted to pay homage to her. And then when Mary has that feather flip, but it kind of rolls up into an updo for the Christmas party, that's Phyllis Hyman. In the cover art for one of her albums, she's in this orange kaftan and she just has this effortless sexy high bun.
Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
I always find ways to insert my culture and my women into the roles that I play, whether it's my own family of women [I put] in there, or whether it is paying homage to the women before me who paved the way. I always find subversive ways to subliminally put stuff in that pays homage and that's authentic. We were big on the texture. If you notice, Mary has a little bit of grey in her hair. And so what's funny is we were on a Zoom call, and we were talking about hair, and Alexander [Payne] was like, “Oh, I noticed you got some grey over there.” And I was like, “Lord, Sir, please.” He goes, “No, no, I think it's beautiful. Let's add that in the wig.” And I was like, “for real?” He was like, “Yeah, that's [her son] Curtis right there. The grief has aged her a bit. Let's just have that streak of grey. And that's Curtis right there.” I thought that was cool. It's just finding people that care about all the details, and who are willing to really go there.
I’m excited for awards season to see you on the red carpet. Do you have the same process with those looks? 
DJR: I do the same with red carpet looks, I'm a very visual person. And I really have fun in the whole process of visualising the look for the red carpet in great detail. And honey, I have mood boards. I'll be sending photos to the glam team to let them know this is the look. There's always going to be a reference photo from the past. I love old movies. I think we were killing it in hair and makeup more so back in the day than now.  So I always like to take vintage looks and make them modern. I already had a deep arsenal. There's only one other person that I know personally who is like that, and that's Andra Day. When we did [The United States vs.] Billie Holiday she was [the same] and I was like, “Girl, we kindred!” 
I’m sure you know by now that you are getting lots of awards buzz for this role. The Daily Beast said: ‘The Holdovers’ Will Win Da’Vine Joy Randolph an Oscar.’ How does all of that make you feel? 
DJR: I’ll say this, Kathleen. If nothing else, I'm deeply to my core grateful. I don't work for any other reason than this is a God-given gift. This is within my purpose to do. As we've been discussing, this is my activism, my way of giving back to my community, very much. So I'm grateful that what I do can be seen by the masses. And if, in this moment, this is now a moment of recognition? Cool, thank you. I feel blessed for that. 

"This business is so backwards... One plus one don't equal two. I say that with the utmost respect. People can say all of that and there's also a reality. The time can come and Da’Vine is at home on the couch."

da'vine joy randolph on awards buzz
That was a very humble answer. I know people say they are just happy to be nominated but are you OK with admitting that you want to win one? 
DJR: Girl, I don't even look at reviews! So you’re telling me The Daily Beast said [that] and I didn't know. I don't even look at reviews. You know why? And I'll say this seriously. Number one, there's nerves. Number two, this business is so backwards and warped. One plus one don't equal two. I say that with the utmost respect. People can say all of that and there's also a reality. The time can come and Da’Vine is at home on the couch. And y'all are watching something else. So for that, I protect myself. At the moment, I am absolutely grateful for the things that people are saying, it moves me to my core. And outside of that, I have to let that be. Now, if and when that happens, I'm balling out. I'm wildin’ out. Understand that. But for right now, I'm cool pacing myself.
You mentioned not reading criticism. It’s interesting to see you go from The Idol to this and to Rustin, which is also out now. Both are being critically lauded. But the critical reception for The Idol was basically the opposite — 
DJR: But it got a lot of attention! Press is press. You know better than me that press is press, honey! My name was in the mix. People knew who I was. Check!
Does all of that impact how you view a project, specifically The Idol, looking back on it now? 
DJR: The reason I did it was for pure reasons and the character that I created and the contribution that I gave, I'm highly appreciative of and highly proud of all of the stuff I can control. I wasn't even a part of the earlier reinterpretations of the project. So what I was on set for, there were no shenanigans. When I was there it was cool or else I wouldn’t have been there. I think you can tell enough about me to know, Da’Vine won't even be there. I can't control [the criticism] and that's another reason why I don't engage with it. I did a great job on the project, but unfortunately, due to what people decide to talk about, that might get overshadowed. You got to just do what you do, and believe in it. Give the gift of giving back to people through entertainment so that they can release, they can laugh, they can connect, they can work through things as therapy. That's why I'm in this game. That and putting Black people on to have opportunities so that they can work at a level of quality as well. That's it. The other stuff, cool. It just creates more opportunities for me to continue to do what I have to do to fight a little less harder. 
Imagine a life if all you did was chase awards. I would imagine it would feel empty.  So I think there's nothing more that you can do but be humble. You should have gratitude because this is a very fickle business. But also, there's a lot of people that I know that are so talented, so so so talented, but because it's not their time yet, or possibly will never be their time due to varying factors, [they never win]. It's an unfair business. And so all I can do is take the time that God has given me in this space and make the most of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Holdovers is in theaters now.
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