Da’Vine Joy Randolph on ‘The Holdovers’ and becoming a matriarch | NPR

Da’Vine Joy Randolph is up for an Oscar for her role as Mary Lamb in The Holdovers.

Conrad Khalil/Focus Features

Da’Vine Joy Randolph just keeps winning — she’s won best supporting actress for her role in The Holdovers at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and Critics Choice Awards, and now she’s up for an Oscar. And her performance as Mary Lamb, the head cook at a boy’s boarding school in 1970’s Massachusetts, really is awards worthy. Mary is no-nonsense, but loving, and grieving a son who’s been killed in the Vietnam War. It’s a moving and subtle portrayal of grief. Da’Vine says part of the success of her performance is owed to the quality of the script and of her collaborators, but she also has an awe-inspiring character creation process. Host Brittany Luse sat down with Da’Vine to chat about how she conveys a character’s spirit – and the personal stories she drew from to build this particular performance – while at the same time battling Hollywood stereotypes about curvy Black women.

Interview Highlights

These highlights have been edited for length and clarity.

On saying “yes” to The Holdovers – and what she saw in Mary

BRITTANY LUSE: Although your performance is like the beating heart of this film, Mary is technically a supporting character. Some might assume that Mary is a familiar stereotype, you know, the woman who’s cooking in the kitchen and she’s a supporting role. But you saw her as so much more. What about the script and the character grabbed your attention and made you want to say yes to The Holdovers?

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: I think the biggest thing was that there was room for me to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I fill in the blanks and that means, quite frankly, the work wasn’t fully done. They overwrite it or they don’t write enough. And this was in a really sweet spot where they were clear in their intention of what it was that they wanted. And from the jump, I felt welcomed in. I really wanted to make sure that [Mary] was someone that people could really connect with no matter what they looked like. I am always trying to leave Easter eggs or subliminal messages with my characters, but especially with her; certain nuances of how she wore her hair or her glasses. I showed [the props team] a picture of my grandmother with her glasses and I said, “If you could find these glasses, that would really be awesome.” And they [did] find the glasses.

BRITTANY LUSE: You had such a clear vision of this role. I heard an interview where you said that you had a lookbook of almost 200 hairstyles —

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: I do that in general, that’s kind of how I operate.

BRITTANY LUSE: Well, that’s I want to know — it seems like there’s a mix of process involved in the way that you envision the character, but it also feels like there’s a spiritual element as well. Where do you get these clear visions that you have for your characters?

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: This is something that my teacher told me, her name was Donna Snow. She [told me], when you get the opportunity to portray anything, it is an honor, a gift, and a blessing. And you are resurrecting — speaking of spiritual — that person’s essence. What I try to do is endow personalities, [and] the essence of people into these women that I’m creating. And I hope the process of me doing that is why and what viewers connect to.

On reflecting upon her family’s grief for this role — and becoming the matriarch

BRITTANY LUSE: The emotional carriage of Mary felt really familiar; being that family member – or Black woman – in many of our lives who are going through something difficult and carrying on despite that. I heard in preparing for this role that you drew from one of your own family members grief to inform your work as Mary.

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: Yeah. So my aunt’s son (my cousin) had passed away abruptly. Very tragic and very sudden. And maybe no more than six months later, she had cancer. And I knew that she was slowly dying of a broken heart. And no one said anything, you know, we were focused on like ‘did you go to your appointments?’ And I remember then understanding the force that grief can be. And at that time, she was in transition of [becoming] the matriarch of our family because my grandma had passed.

BRITTANY LUSE: There’s a pressure that comes with that.

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: And this is a little personal, but I’ve been told by my relatives, in particular my cousin, she said, “Da’Vine, do you know that the family has been grooming you silently to be the matriarch of our family?” I said, “what?” I’m still dumbfounded.

BRITTANY LUSE: I wonder, the way that you played Mary, the way that you inhabited this role and, as you said, called upon these women in your bloodline — it seems like there was some working out in there. Almost like maybe you were playing a version of you as well.

DA’VINE: I’m very strategic about the roles that I pick. I don’t pick stuff just to be picking it. Every role has to matter, especially with what I shared with you of whose story [I’m] going to bring from the grave. And so, yes, every single role I have done, there is a connection that I have to them.

Da’Vine on making all her characters exemplary

BRITTANY LUSE: As somebody who’s watched many of your roles, if not all of them, [they are] believable and you do transform. You’re different to me every time. When Destiny – the no-nonsense pop-star manager you play in The Idol – when she pulled out that gun, I was like, this is real. I believe it.

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: There’s something else I do: I make sure – unless the script says otherwise – my characters are always the best at what they do. Why would I set them to be mediocre?

BRITTANY LUSE: Is this something you do for you?

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: For us. For us. Because you have to be careful with these scripts. They will assume mediocrity or worse. Why would we assume that she’s not put together? So when you think of Destiny, I was like, okay, boom. Based off of this script, in this world, her look is her armor.

BRITTANY LUSE: And you had fabulous costumes.

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: Most of it was from my closet. A lot of times, you know, TV moves fast, and also because I’m a specialty size, sometimes it was like, “we don’t have time to custom make this or that.” No problem. I got it in my closet. No problem. I went ahead and bought it. Do you know what I mean?

BRITTANY LUSE: Oh, I know exactly what you mean.

DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH: Because again, I’m very passionate about this, and I care. So it matters to me.

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