The Holdovers’ Dominic Sessa: ‘Everyone’s like, don’t become a celebrity – stay who you are’ | The Guardian

‘They were all just telling me: Stop acting … Dominic Sessa. Photograph: Conrad Captures

The Holdovers’ Dominic Sessa: ‘Everyone’s like, don’t become a celebrity – stay who you are’

Adrian Horton

A chance audition – and a broken femur – led to a role in Alexander Payne’s boarding school drama The Holdovers, and the debut of a lifetime. Its star’s next ambition? To be in movies without becoming famous

Mon 15 Jan 2024 05.00 EST

Dominic Sessa wasn’t thinking about the movies when he entered his senior year of high school at Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts. The original plan was hockey – Sessa, a scholarship student from southern New Jersey, knew that New England prep schools are a launchpad for college careers. But a broken femur and the school’s winter activity requirement landed him in theatre, which he took to like a fish to water. So, new plan: maybe drama school. But in autumn 2021, when Sessa was starring in a student production of Neil Simon’s Rumors, his drama teacher asked him to audition for a Hollywood casting director who was scouting Deerfield as a potential filming location.

The film was The Holdovers, a bittersweet 70s-set dramedy about an unlikely trio stranded at boarding school over Christmas. The director was Alexander Payne, known for such bleakly comic, emotionally rich films as Election, Sideways and The Descendants. Sessa got a call from Payne two weeks later. “I was like: ‘Wow, this super-accomplished guy is coming to meet me, in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts,’” he recalled recently. “If it had ended with that, I would’ve been as happy as I am now.”

It didn’t end there. Several auditions later, Sessa was cast as one of the leads in what was his film debut – though you wouldn’t know it from his performance. As Angus Tully, a sullen, unmoored teenager left behind for the holidays, Sessa more than holds his own against Paul Giamatti, playing the crotchety professor tasked with babysitting him, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the fictional Barton Academy’s head chef, who recently lost her only son in Vietnam.

A string bean with an angular face, Sessa seems at once young and old. His narrow eyes can easily convey teenage disgust or disdain; the bags under them seem to suggest an old soul. (Or, as one X user described him: “Joan Cusack if she was a guy in his 20s.”) His Angus is a believable misanthrope starving for connection after his mother and new stepfather summarily abandon their Christmas plans for a honeymoon without him. He begrudgingly finds it in the tempering of a curmudgeon and the quiet company of a grieving mother. Sharply timed, sarcastic and with just the right amount of soft, Sessa’s debut has rightfully been heralded as one of the breakout performances of this awards season.

When I meet Sessa, in a suite at a hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he’s in the middle of his “first promo month”, staying at his mom’s house in Jersey when not hopping to events. Now 21, snappily dressed in a T-shirt and black jacket, still with his character’s mop of hair and a muted version of the 70s sideburns, Sessa is looser than Angus, quick to laugh or ponder, giving the impression not just of a good student but a good sport. The character is not that far removed from him, in that both experienced the insulated world of boarding schools in New England, and both are outsiders, in their own way. Angus is a hard-shelled loner from money, missing a father. Sessa’s mother is a teacher; his father died when he was 14. As a financial aid student at a school known as an Ivy League pipeline, “I just made sure I did everything I possibly could and excelled in everything I possibly could,” he says.

He didn’t necessarily feel like an outsider. “It’s not like my friends treated me differently. We were all high-school kids. But it was definitely weird when you see your friends’ parents pull up in a black SUV or whatever, and a helicopter take off.” (This is the school where Taylor Swift once flew to visit her then beau, Conor Kennedy, RFK’s grandson.)

For me to try to input any of my personal experiences felt disingenuous in a lot of ways

“A lot of the kids I went to school with have this very defined path of how things were gonna go” – expectations and lineages and Ivy League educations,” he says. “Angus doesn’t and I certainly didn’t in school, so that resonated with me.” Still, he resisted over-relating to Angus, or trying to feel as if he were him. “It’s very easy, I think, for me initially to create a lot of parallels with my own story, with my own father,” he says. “But for me to try to input any of my personal experiences felt disingenuous in a lot of ways. So I made sure to really get away from that.”

It helped that the general advice he received on set was: don’t overthink it. Just keep it natural, protect the instincts Payne and casting director Susan Shopmaker saw in that first audition. “However raw, his complexity both as an actor and as a person [was evident],” Payne explains over email. “Once he understood what we were looking for, he quickly moulted out of his theatrical exoskeleton and emerged as a fully formed, highly talented film actor.”

Sessa has nothing but praise for Payne, who trusted him; Randolph, who taught by example to ask questions of her character on set and to take the heavy moments seriously but not too seriously; and Giamatti, “the most grounded, down-to-earth person I possibly could’ve ran into in this industry”.

“Dominic quickly demonstrated that he was a natural,” says Payne. “Paul [Giamatti] reports that his main contribution was to offer Dominic constant reminders as to how good he was. Keeping him confident was key.”

“They were all just telling me, like: ‘Stop acting.’” he recalls. “Even just in my life, they’re like, don’t become a celebrity – stay who you are.” Sessa, conveniently for that advice and unlike much of his generation, isn’t a social media person. He’s not on TikTok; his Instagram is unverified and has, at the time of writing, three posts and fewer than 9,000 followers. “I never really think of it as something that I need or want to do,” he says. “The parts of it I want to be involved are the work: making films like this, that make people feel something. And if I get attention, I want it to be for the work that I’m doing and not for any other reason.

“Thankfully the people I’m working with – managers, agents, all of those people, Paul, Da’Vine, Alexander – none of them have pressured me to do any of that stuff,” he says, though he imagines that if he wanted followers, they’d probably help him with that, too. “From the beginning, we’ve been beating him upside the head with warnings about not smoking the Hollywood crack pipe,” says Payne.” “Dominic has so far given every indication that he has his head screwed on straight and won’t mess it up, or let it mess him up.”

Perhaps because, by Sessa’s account, the Holdovers crew “were not super-Hollywood”, the introduction to the industry has been slow. It felt different on the first trip to LA for press, when everyone was in the business, but not that different. “Nothing has really changed,” he says. “I’ve just been in school [studying drama at Carnegie Mellon university, in Pittsburgh]. My first year of school, I didn’t really say anything to anybody about the movie, so it was just normal. I got to just be normal, and it’s still normal now.”

Sessa is consciously, endearingly naive about Hollywood – aware of the nepo baby discourse, for example, but not the actual nepo babies. “I don’t even know who people are, who’s whose kid, all that stuff,” he says, noting he’s not a pop culture person. “I kinda appreciate that ignorance I have. I don’t have any opinions about anybody. I walk in, everybody’s a new person to me. It helps me, because I’m able to be myself and maybe not be as starstruck as I should be in some situations.”

To be clear, some things have changed: he’s got messages from old coaches and teachers who’ve seen him on screen. He now has a Wikipedia page, a nomination for an Independent Spirit award for breakthrough performance, and has landed a coveted spot on Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch list. And he is very aware, now, of two things: that starting a career in high school on an Alexander Payne set is a rare, unreplicable experience, and that the future is wide open.

He is not sure what’s next: maybe a return to drama school, or a different theatre, or another film, if there’s a good opportunity. “Whatever it is, I definitely want to try to do something different,” he says. “The one takeaway from this whole experience is that I just want to be a part of movies in any way possible.” Maybe acting, maybe writing, maybe something else? “We’ll see. But right now, trying to be present.” You know: don’t overthink it.

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