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Da’Vine Joy Randolph Is Now an Oscars Favorite — and Trying Not to Dwell on It

As cafeteria matron Mary Lamb, Da’Vine Joy Randolph gets one of The Holdovers’ biggest laughs when Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the crotchety classics teacher at the film’s Massachusetts boarding school, compliments her late son’s intelligence. Mary peers at him indifferently and responds, “Mm-hmm. He hated you.” Paul reacts with his signature wryness. “Like I said, sharp kid — very insightful,” he cracks.

This exchange typifies the essence of Alexander Payne’s latest movie, which has prickly edges but a gentle core. Mary’s son recently died after being drafted in the Vietnam War. She’s heartbroken, but she does not need Paul’s pity. She has a job to do. At present, that means cooking for the few so-called holdovers begrudgingly stuck on campus during Christmas break. By the time the holiday rolls around, there’s just one student left, a likable instigator named Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa). The three of them become a makeshift family, a dynamic that let Randolph sink her teeth into a character both spiky and maternal.

Randolph has emerged as an Oscar front-runner for her performance, capping off a year that also includes a standout turn in HBO’s controversial The Idol and a small role as gospel legend Mahalia Jackson in the Netflix biopic Rustin. Since her breakthrough in 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name, Randolph has become one of Hollywood’s most exciting scene-stealers (see also: Kajillionaire, High Fidelity, Only Murders in the Building). Mary is her most layered character yet, so we talked about how she unpeeled those layers.

I read that Alexander sent you cartons of cigarettes before filming so you could practice smoking. Did you use real cigarettes throughout the shoot? I assume most actors would use fakes. 
He sent me two boxes of cartons, right around this time of year, actually, because we talked right before Thanksgiving. Once I said, “Okay, I’ll do it,” immediately I had cigarettes delivered to the house. I was like, What is this? They just showed up. There was a little note, like, “Get to it.” Cigarettes are like dogs and children — they will upstage you if you don’t know how to navigate them. I am not a smoker at all, so I had to learn how to make it look real. Some of the fakes are really bad fakes. The smoke’s a different color, and it’s slower than the smoke of a real one. I don’t like the taste of cigarettes, so I realized I don’t have a fear of being addicted to this. So for the sake of this, I used a milder cigarette in production. To play an avid smoker, you’ve got to figure out when you’re going to pull the drag, when you’re going to talk, when you’re going to release the air. It’s a whole rhythm. It really helped with defining the character.

In your initial conversation with Alexander, what did he say he wanted from you in this role?
He didn’t say much of what he wanted. He wanted to express that he saw me in something and really felt as though I already had the things he was looking for. It was Dolemite, which I did with Eddie Murphy on Netflix. He believed that I could possess the essence of this woman, which I was surprised by. This is the interesting thing, too: You never know who’s watching you. Steve Martin told me straight-up, “Because you did Dolemite and I’ve worked with Eddie and I respect him, we’re offering you the job [on Only Murders].” Or when I did The Last O.G., Tracy Morgan called Eddie and was like, “I’m thinking about using this girl. What do you think?” I think this was a lesson: You got to always just put your best foot forward and do your best work because you just never know who’s watching.

Another actor might play Mary like she is consumed by the rage and grief and exhaustion that she feels at this moment in her life. But you let her warmth poke through those emotions. How did you arrive at that balance? 
I made the decision early on that I wanted to show all the stages of grief from start to finish. I wanted Mary to go through all of them because when the movie starts, she’s about two or three months fresh from surviving her son. It’s very raw. That was kind of like my guiding post. And then on top of it, she is actually enjoying herself. She’s enjoying being around a male adult figure who, if nothing else, gives her the time of day and is engaged in conversation. You have to understand who is talking to her day-to-day as a Black woman in the late 1960s and early ’70s at an all-white, private, elitist prep school for boys. It’s very lonely, it’s very banal. She’s the queen of the castle in the kitchen amongst the other women, but I can’t imagine there’s any real stimulating conversation going on. She’s a very intelligent person, and she meets probably one of the most intelligent people on campus.

They draw things out of each other. 
They can have very meaningful and beautiful conversations. That means a lot to her. And then she can’t help it. She’s a mother, and she’s around a young man with a troubled soul. In many ways, he brings out the most warmth in her without him even knowing it. There’s a moment that is just a tableau that I find so cute. It’s at the restaurant where they’re all having dinner together. That’s like a little family-tableau moment. Another one that’s so dear to me, and so sweet, is when she’s preparing things for Christmas dinner. Paul is seated at the table. I think he’s popping string beans. Angus is digging his hand in the brownies, and she’s like, “Don’t put your hand in there!” And it’s the whole conversation of the Christmas party. It’s like a family.

In preparing to do a Boston accent, you had to conjure not just Boston but the specific inflections of a Black woman in that region in the early ’70s. Tell me what those subtleties were. 
It’s a bit brighter and more spread. I don’t know if this will make sense or not. I’m a musician, so it’s how my brain translates and thinks of it. Now, the modern Boston accent is poppy, whereas back then, it was smaller and quieter. It’s in the back of your throat. Sometimes it’s slurred, and sometimes it’s an overarticulation. It’s almost how in the ’40s, when we think of Katharine Hepburn, it’s almost British. In dialect, we call it mid-Atlantic. Maybe the closest thing we have to it now is how reporters speak on the news, like this elevated, saturated fusion. Similarly to Boston dialect back in the day, it was a bit more proper.

That’s interesting. I was pleased that we get to spend time at Mary’s sister’s house and see some of her family life while the boys go off to the city on Christmas. It gives her more equal weight instead of treating her like a supporting character to the men’s story. Was that scene in the script when you first read it?
Yeah, and that was a moment where I was like, Okay, they’re really giving me stuff to do. With that, too, what I loved about it is the details that some people may miss. She was not ready to go to her sister’s house on Christmas Day, and what I envisioned was that it was almost as if she said a prayer. God, if you want me to go to Boston and see my sister and be with them, show me a sign, because I don’t want to go. I don’t want to face that. Show me a sign, and I will begin the process of dealing with this grief. It’s like she was negotiating with God. So when that boy at the table says, “I want to go to Boston,” she looks at him and kind of chuckles to herself because she realizes in that moment —

Her prayer was answered.
She’s going to Boston, baby. Even when she’s about to get out of the car, she lingers a little bit. She doesn’t jump out of the car like, “Okay, bye.” She’s like, “Are you gonna be okay?” She don’t know how this visit is gonna go. The idea that she’s got to look at her sister and see that her sister is pregnant is painful. New life coming through is a reminder of her loss. It’s just so rich within the text. She needs Angus to hold her hand as she ascends up those steps to her sister’s. When we shot that, I was always told, “Don’t assume your mic is not on.” So as we went up the steps, I said to him, “Now behave yourself. Don’t do anything slick. Don’t stress that man out.”

That wasn’t in the script? 
No. We were told the mics were always hot, and there were cameras everywhere.

She’s been so resistant to going back to this family environment, and while that’s obviously about her son, it’s refreshing to see her laughing with her sister and slipping back into their shared language. After wondering if maybe their relationship is rocky, we see her at her happiest. 
Thank you for noticing that. I imagined that once her sister sees that she brought that box — her sister knows what’s in that box.

Her son’s baby clothes.
That’s huge. That’s the olive branch, if you will. She sees it and her heart drops. It means, “I don’t know how to do this, but I’m trying.”

How much of Mary’s cooking did you eat on the set?
We didn’t eat much, just because we were shooting in real time and it was long. We definitely were eating when we had Christmas dinner. It was really sweet because the food specialists worked on the HBO Julia Child series. I love to cook, and we were just geeking out, so that was fun for me. But they made a beautiful spread for us, and we didn’t eat on our lunch break so we could actually eat the Christmas dinner. Other times, it was just a carrot here or there. But it was all real food: soups, porridge, roasted chicken. Oh, I hope y’all like how that toast looked, because that hangover toast was so delicious. It was really good butter and fresh preserves from a local farmer. That’s why I held it up. I wanted you to be able to see the butter-to-jelly ratio. It was so good! It was fun. That was actually something that I said to Alexander: I must really cook, because that’s another thing like cigarettes. You can tell by somebody’s knife skills or how they handle the food. It’s important to me that you saw this lady was not the help. This is her career.

And she’s good at it.
Yes, and that’s why I love that they had that moment when she tasted the soup and immediately she knows, “Who told you to put paprika? That’s not in the recipe. You’re doing too much.” I love that because it gives her legitimacy. She knows what she’s doing.

With The Idol, you talked about treating the slickness of Destiny’s wardrobe as a sort of armor. How do you position Mary’s wardrobe? When she’s out of uniform, she’s a pretty sharp dresser in her own way. 
All the girls I play are always going to be cute. Unless you have to not be because of the script, baby girl is always going to look good. I love clothing. I’m a fashion girl. We did so much research. Even when I do red carpets, I do a lot of research. I’ll pull photos and put together a mood board. Costume designer Wendy Chuck was so warm and lovely. We were seeking out vintage fabrics, and most of my clothes were custom-made for me.

I spent some time in the pandemic in New Orleans, and there was a famous female chef there named Leah Chase. She’s fed dignitaries and presidents, and though it’s Creole southern cooking, she was this little old lady who runs her restaurant like a Michelin star. She always wore this pristine, clean, white uniform, and so I gave Wendy pictures of her and I said, “I want to be in a uniform. I don’t want to just wear an apron.” Alexander really wanted an apron. I said, “Can you compromise with me? It’s really important to me that she has a uniform. This is a job. She takes pride in this.” That uniform is clean and crisp. She dry-cleans it or hand-cleans it herself. She presses it, she starches it, she lays it out the night before. And then we can put a little apron on top of that to make it softer. That was based off of Leah Chase. We were pulling vintage textiles and corduroy. It was the opposite of The Idol: You wanted to give her a hug.

Which is not what anyone felt about Destiny.
Right. Daggers. And that’s another thing: my nails. I took my nails off, and it was my natural nails. I love nails, and most of the time I can finagle a way for my character to have nails. Alexander was like, “No, ma’am. Short.” I was like, “What about active length?” He said okay, but he would check on my nails. He’d say, “They’re getting a little long. Get that file out.” That’s not me, but I had to succumb to who she was.

The pink outfit I wear at the restaurant was custom-made, and I loved how it was a soft, powdery pink. I wanted to have things where it made people think of their grandmother, their mother, auntie, whatever. I wanted sensory things, fuzzy things, texture. For the budget that she has, homegirl was put together. It’s not that she has many clothes, but the ones she has, she takes great pride in. I always imagine, for the nicer pieces, that she would work and save up and go to the nearby consignment shop or the Goodwill in the nice neighborhood where the school is because that’s where the good stuff is. It’s not like my closet, where everything is all over the place. It’s purposeful, and she has a look for every event needed — no more and no less.

I assume people are in your ear about Oscar buzz and a potentially monthslong campaign. What does that mean to you at this point in your life and career?
Whatever comes of it, I’m grateful to be merely in the conversation and on people’s minds because it’s a reminder to me that I’m not wasting my time and I am in alignment with my purpose and what I’m supposed to do. To be honest with you, I genuinely leave it at that. This industry is so fickle, and I would be crushed if I allowed myself to rely on its inconsistencies. But I honor and respect the earnestness. Listen, people don’t have to say that. And for that, I honor that and I’m so grateful. But I can’t allow myself to marinate on it because if by chance it didn’t go as people said it would, I don’t want to ruin and rob myself of the entire experience that I did have because it didn’t result in that.

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Matthew Jacobs , 2023-11-21 14:52:34

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