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Da'Vine Joy Randolph joins IBAM to discuss her Oscar nomination and artistic process

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Da'Vine Joy Randolph has already won several awards for her role in "The Holdovers." On Sunday, she's up for an Oscar, too. In the film, she plays Mary Lamb, the head cook at a boys boarding school in 1970s Massachusetts. She's no nonsense but loving, and grieving a son killed in the Vietnam War. Randolph says that role set a new standard for her career.

DA'VINE JOY RANDOLPH: Everyone please come let Da'Vine at this level. I've been waiting for this level of quality. We hit it. I don't want anything below it.

SHAPIRO: Randolph spoke with Brittany Luse, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute, about the way she portrays her characters spirit and her grief.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Mary is technically a supporting character, and on the surface, some might assume that Mary is a familiar stereotype.

RANDOLPH: Right.

LUSE: The woman who's, you know, 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"?

RANDOLPH: I think the biggest thing was that there was room for me to fill in the blanks. Now, when I say fill in the blanks, sometimes I fill in the blanks and that means because, quite frankly, the work wasn't fully done. I think it's one or two things. They over-write 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 am always trying to leave Easter eggs or subliminal messages, whatever you want to call it, with my characters of all roles, but especially with her - certain nuances of how she wore her hair, her glasses. Her glasses are my grandmother's glasses.

LUSE: Your grandmother's glasses.

RANDOLPH: To be clear, it wasn't her exact glasses. I showed them a picture of my grandmother with her glasses to the props. And I said, if you could find these glasses, that would really be awesome.

LUSE: It sounds like you saw the same sort of love and connection that you held for your grandmother and the other women that you admire in your life. You could feel it on the page.

RANDOLPH: Yes.

LUSE: Like you said, the role was in that sweet spot. But you also had such a clear vision of this role. Like, I heard a interview where you said that you had a lookbook of almost 200 hairstyles and...

RANDOLPH: I do that in general. This is kind of how I operate.

LUSE: Well, that's what I want to know. I mean, it seems like there's a mix of process involved. But it also feels like there's a spiritual element as well. Like, where do you get this vision from - these kind of clear visions that you have for your characters?

RANDOLPH: It's something that my teacher told me. Her name was Donna Snow. Something she said to me that always stuck with me. And this was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, amazing, beautiful-souled woman who said to me, as women, our opportunities aren't as much. And then for you, your opportunities for quality is even smaller. So when you get the opportunity to portray anything, it is an honor. It is a gift. And it is a blessing. And you are resurrecting - speaking of spiritual - that person's essence. What I try to do is I endow personalities, the essence of these women that I'm creating. And I think and I hope the process of me doing that is what viewers connect to. You're really talking about empathy and humanity at the core, right? We all have that woman in our life that means X, Y and Z.

LUSE: It sounds like what you're trying to do is be familiar.

RANDOLPH: Yes.

LUSE: And that is something that really struck me with your performance of Mary Lamb in "The Holdovers." I mean, your character was so familiar. I know people don't smoke as much indoors, but, I mean, Mary reminded me of an aunt of mine that used to smoke the house when I was growing up.

RANDOLPH: Everybody's like, listen here, Mary. Take it outside. She'd be like, listen. This is my house. I don't really care what y'all got to say. Everybody got that one auntie that smoke in the house.

LUSE: On the topic of familiarity, the emotional carriage of Mary also felt really familiar. She's like a lot of Black women in many of our lives who are going through something impossibly difficult and kind of carrying on despite it. I heard that in preparing for this role, that you drew from one of your own family member's grief to sort of inform your work as Mary.

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. I was in my teens. I knew that she was slowly dying of a broken heart. And no one said anything. You know, we were just kind of focused on like, you know, go to your appointments and (vocalizing). And I remember then understanding the force that grief can be. And at that time, she was in transition of being, like, the matriarch of our family now because my grandma had passed. So she was now, you know, coming into the shoes of that.

LUSE: She was a matriarch. There's a pressure that comes with that.

RANDOLPH: Yeah. I've been told - this is a little personal. But I've been told by my relatives, in particular my cousin, who was the daughter of the aunt that passed.

LUSE: Your aunt.

RANDOLPH: She said this to me maybe two or three years ago. 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.

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

RANDOLPH: Every role is. 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 share with you of, like, whose story are you going to bring from the grave and tell, right? And so yes, every single role I have done, there is a connection that I have to them.

LUSE: You had this great quote that I had read about being a curvy Black woman playing a character who is of service to other people, and that you don't have a problem with that because, as you mentioned, the role was so well written, but also because in some ways, that's how you live your life. Even just talking about how you think about your role as an actor, to be in service of the written character and bringing them to life. But you said that the problem with that is that people don't care to ask more about you, like you as a person. What do you want people to know about you that they haven't yet asked?

RANDOLPH: I guess that I really care, truly. It's the process of when I read a script. Who will be impacted by this? Nothing that I do is frivolous or just for a check. I can think of a thousand other ways to make money. Acting is just a tool to facilitate - I don't know if it's a love letter or whatever, but it's just a nod, if nothing else. It's like, I see you.

SHAPIRO: Oscar-nominated actress Da'Vine Joy Randolph, speaking with Brittany Luse of NPR's It's Been A Minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.