Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the reluctant method actress (and almost opera singer) tipped for an Oscar

The Yale-trained performer is no newcomer: in addition to ‘The Holdovers,’ she has appeared in ‘Only Murders in the Building’ and ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

Da'Vine Joy Randolph Premios Oscars
Da'Vine Joy Randolph at the Critics Choice gala, where she was awarded for her role as Mary Lamb in 'The Holdovers' on December 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.Chris Pizzello (AP)
María Porcel

A lot of people who see Da’Vine Joy Randolph pose for photographers on the red carpets of Los Angeles, in designer dresses, large sunglasses, and a halo of old Hollywood glamour, wonder who she is. She is the actor who, week after week for the last few months, has gotten on stage to accept award after award.

But beyond the designer clothes and long eyelashes of awards season, Randolph’s career has been in the making for a good decade. She has been seen a lot in movies and television, and even in some musicals. Barring a meteorite smashing into Earth — and with the permission of Emily Blunt, America Ferrera, Jodie Foster, and Danielle Brooks — March 10 will see her win an Oscar. And then there will be no excuses for not remembering her name.

Randolph’s career has taken off in recent months thanks to her role as cook Mary Lamb in The Holdovers. It is the last step of a long, stable path, built with care and dedication, based on good offers and also very thoughtful decisions over almost 12 years. And she didn’t even want to be an actor.

Randolph was very angry when she was forced to follow that path. The young Da’Vine was studying to be an opera singer. Ever since she was a child she had a wonderful voice, especially for singing gospel, and for years she sang in her school choir in Hershey, Pennsylvania. In fact, her first steps at local art schools and at Temple University were to graduate in vocal performance. She saw herself as an R&B star, and her mentors saw a career as an opera singer. But after her first steps at university, she was awarded a scholarship at the prestigious Yale.

She intended to go to the downtown conservatory, but due to an administrative error she was kicked out of the program in her first year. Since she had a scholarship and wanted to graduate on time, she was advised by her mother to enroll in theater in the meantime. “I was literally crying, kicking and screaming in administration: ‘Please, I don’t want to be an actor, my mom told me I have to do it,’” she recalled in an interview with Essence magazine two years ago. “And this is what has become of it. So I’m grateful to my mom but I never, ever ever wanted nor desired this at all. To be a performer in some sense, sure. But not this.”

She made a virtue out of necessity and took advantage of her stay at Yale. She was able to spend a summer at Oxford University, where she discovered Shakespeare and fell in love with theater. From there, like every aspiring actor, she went to New York. Sharing a flat and working as a nanny, the days passed, the money ran out and desperation took hold. She was about to leave for Los Angeles to try her luck in the pilot season for series when she found out that there was a vacancy in the Ghost musical. It was for the role of Oda Mae Brown, the 45-year-old psychic played by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1990 film.

It was 2011, she was 25 years old and had nothing to lose. She wasn’t even excited about getting the part, but she landed it. Even she couldn’t believe it. But fate played another trick on her. The actor who played Brown in the London musical had an accident and Randolph had to go and replace her. In just five days she had to learn the role and settle in the United Kingdom. She played the role for two months. The she returned to New York and began rehearsals just two days later. The musical grossed more than $13 million and, in her first professional role, Randolph was nominated for a Tony for Best Supporting Actress.

From there, every role has seemed to take a similar trajectory. She is not a newcomer. She has played almost 50 roles in a decade. Her first appearances in television were in The Good Wife, This Is Us, Selfie, Veep, and Empire... and then Eddie Murphy crossed her path. The comedy star had always pursued the idea of starring in a film about the man who is considered the godfather of rap, the singer, actor, and promoter of Blaxplotation films, Rudy Ray Moore, nicknamed Dolemite. He finally made Dolemite Is My Name in 2019, and chose Randolph as Moore’s partner Lady Reed.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph arriving at the Spirit Independent Film Awards in Santa Monica, California on February 25, 2024.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph arriving at the Spirit Independent Film Awards in Santa Monica, California on February 25, 2024.NINA PROMMER (EFE)

Little did she know that among those who saw Murphy’s movie were Steve Martin and Alexander Payne. Martin, the creator and star of the series Only Murders in the Building, cast her as the exhausted detective Donna Williams.

Meanwhile, she continued starring in series (High Fidelity and The Idol, canceled after a lot of controversy) and films (United States vs. Billie Holiday and The Lost City, for which she always praises the star, and her scene partner, Sandra Bullock). Then, finally, her great role arrived: Mary Lamb in The Holdovers. Payne has been thanked on more than one occasion for some of this season’s events. In the Screen Actors Guild Awards she recognized his “trust and collaboration” “You are truly every actors’ dream.”

As she has said in several interviews throughout this awards season, Payne trusted her during filming, in her judgment and her perfectionism. For example, the director sent her cartons of cigarettes before filming so she could learn to smoke. And she did it. When he explained to her that she had to wear curlers in a scene where she was cooking, she refused because it was Christmas and it was something intimate: “That’s not who we are.” Payne argued that his mother did it, but she refused: “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,” she said in an interview with Refinery29. “What I recognize with Alexander is that he was like, ‘okay, I hadn’t thought of that, thank you.’”

She defines herself as a “strategist” in the roles she chooses, “especially as a Black woman,” she says, seeking to ensure that they are full of nuances and do not remain superficial.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph in 'The Holdovers.'
Da'Vine Joy Randolph in 'The Holdovers.'Miramax (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)

That level of detail with her Mary Lamb has crowned her in these awards. She always approaches the red carpet seriously, as if that were not her place, and little by little, when she greets other colleagues or chats with them at the nominees table, she begins to loosen up. She explained that for her, the awards are something important, that she prepares the clothes and the complete look carefully in advance, and she is one of the few who does not play at pretending to be surprised and improvising on stage. She always carries little cards with a few lines of what she wants to say. “I didn’t write it until an hour ago...” she told The Hollywood Reporter when she arrived at the Spirit Awards on February 25. “It is very fresh in my heart, and it’s exactly what I mean to say. I just write it so that I can make sure that I can articulate it appropriately and how I feel, but I mean it very deeply.”

Da'Vine Joy Randolph, in the press room after winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for her role in 'The Holdovers' on February 24, 2024.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, in the press room after winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for her role in 'The Holdovers' on February 24, 2024.Jordan Strauss (AP)

Regarding the Oscar, she states that she does not expect anything, that she is just “happy to be invited into the building.” With a solid dramatic education at Yale, it would be absurd for her to choose projects just for the awards. “I have a great background. Humbly, I have good taste,” she told reporters after the Independent Spirit Awards. It means she looks for characters that she can research and delve deeper into. After the BAFTAs (where she also won) she stated that for her making films is “almost as if it’s a mission statement or a form of activism. The idea of me even being on a screen and what all of these things represent when you see me, matters a lot. So that in and of itself is the win” According to her, acting is a “God-given gift” and is her way of giving something back to the community. “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.”

That is why she is not afraid of failures. The joys will come. She mockingly states that, if she prepares a path, if she believes that things are going to go one way... the opposite happens. She says that she has made pilots that never came out, movies that took years to be released, and was part of great projects that were canceled. “It doesn’t come naturally, but you have to be comfortable with rejection and loss. I don’t know if it’s a good skill to develop, but you really have to like what you do, because there are a lot of no’s,” she said for the special Oscar issue of Vanity Fair, whose cover she occupies alongside stars like Natalie Portman and Bradley Cooper.

Now that she is having her big moment, the best thing she can do is follow the advice — easier said than done — that her screen partner Meryl Streep once gave her: “Pace yourself and stay present.” She says that she hasn’t even had time to process it all, but that she is happy to experience it and to have her loved ones by her side: her best friend, who is also her publicist, and her mother. In fact, until a few days ago she was asking for some extra tickets for the Oscars, even if they were separate, or at the back, or if she had to pay for them, anything. The family was angry at her for not inviting them. She has already gotten them. And it looks a lot like they will see her take home an Oscar.

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