Two years ago, Da’Vine Joy Randolph got a call that a director she’d never heard of wanted to meet with her about a new project. His name was Alexander Payne. “To be completely honest, I didn’t know who he was,” admits Randolph with a laugh. During their meeting, she asked him if there were any pieces of his work that she should check out. “And he started listing his movies, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that. Oh, I love that. Oh, okay. And that one and that one.’”
For many, a call from Payne, the director of About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, would have been a big enough draw. For Randolph, however, it was about the part he was offering her in The Holdovers, his new movie set at a New England boarding school in the 1970s. It would center on three lonely people—a professor, a school cook, and a student—who are stuck together at the school over the Christmas holiday.
Payne wanted Randolph to play Mary Lamb, the Barton Academy cafeteria administrator grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War. “He wanted to add in this other element of what he envisioned to be the heart of the movie,” Randolph tells Vanity Fair in her first major interview about the film. “And in the heart of the movie is also the tragedy.”
In just a few short years, Randolph has established herself as a performer you can’t take your eyes off of. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, she was nominated for a Tony Award in 2012 for her role in Ghost: The Musical, playing the same part that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar. Her screen breakout came in 2019’s Eddie Murphy–starring Dolemite Is My Name, with Randolph portraying the legendary comic Lady Reed. She took on the part of a pop star’s manager on HBO’s ill-fated The Idol and has played a recurring role as Detective Williams on Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building. She also has a brief but memorable appearance in another Oscar contender, Rustin, as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
She’s a showstopper, a scene-stealer. But The Holdovers was an opportunity to take on a quieter character study, with the actor playing a woman carrying grief in its many forms. “One thing I liked about this movie, in that it was a skill that I had to adapt and take on as a human being, is the idea of listening,” she says. “And the idea of how invaluable it is when someone entrusts you and takes the time to share with you their feelings, their vulnerability, their pain, their thoughts. It’s a very intimate, very precious and sacred thing. And to have a whole entire movie allow space for that is quite unique.”
After Randolph’s whirlwind few years of booking projects, this charming dramedy set at a school brought her back to basics in a way she never expected. “It was the closest thing in a very long time that felt like school,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re working, to be very honest, you’re checking things off the list. But when I was in school, it was a lot more about discovery. I haven’t felt that in a very long time.”
As soon as Randolph signed on to The Holdovers, two small packages from Payne arrived at her door. They were full of cigarettes. Of course, Mary being a smoker in the 1970s would be no surprise, but Payne told the actor it was very important to him that it was part of the character. “I think that was something that he just always envisioned aesthetically for her,” she says.
Randolph doesn’t smoke at all, and, as a singer, she worried about it affecting her instrument. But she knew she had to practice because Payne wanted to make sure it looked authentic. “I feel like that is a thing that sometimes tells on actors, with smoking. A lot of times it’s just the hand placement,” she says.
So she did her homework, and not just with the smoking. Over the 2021 holiday season, Randolph dived into preparation to play Mary. She worked with dialect coach Thom Jones, who helped her perfect her Boston accent. Though Randolph is originally from Philadelphia and has lived in New York, she was adamant that she nail down a Boston accent—a 1970s Boston accent, no less. “On top of it, being a Black woman in Boston during that time, Black people spoke in a different melodious way than white people did at that time,” she says.
She also created a look book with more than 200 images of women’s hairstyles from the time. She took inspiration from CBS sitcom The Jeffersons, looking at the hairstyles of Louise “Weezy” Mills Jefferson, played by Isabel Sanford, and Helen Willis, played by Roxie Roker. And she worked with Holdovers costume designer Wendy Chuck on Mary’s outfits, with a particular focus on the materials that the clothing was made out of. Randolph always imagined that Mary got her fancier looks from a consignment shop in an affluent neighborhood. “We really wanted things that seemed very lived in,” she says. “She may not have had much, but she took great care. Everything that she put on her body meant something to her.”