Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is set in the last weeks of 1970 and, if attention is paid, you’ll see Da’Vine Joy Randolph pay homage to Isabel Sanford, particularly how the tv legend wore her hair when she played Louise “Weezy” Jefferson in the classic TV comedy The Jeffersons.
“I do this all the time with my characters,” Randolph tells me as she explains how she likes to distract herself from “Da’Vine,” and of how she has sacrificed much of her private life to her professional life.
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In her portrait of Mary Lamb, the catering manager at an elite boys school, she felt like she was “walking this emotional, psychological tightrope,” because Mary’s only child has been killed fighting for his country in Vietnam.
It was a case of constant checks and balances because she didn’t want her Mary to be “whiny and cry. Didn’t want her to be too mean and silent. And so I realized what I needed for myself was to fill my world with other things and trust that would anchor my character and that I could just live.”
So Mary’s constantly smoking as a way, again, of distracting “me from me and me getting in my head or thinking about my character in a certain way. The level of detail for the look, the hair — I do this all the time with my characters, but I really laid into it quite heavy of referencing so many people,” she tells me.
When Mary’s working in the school’s large kitchen and directing her staff, “her hair is in a bun, like Weezy from The Jeffersons in the first season.”
I smile admiringly at the level of exacting detail. “Because in the first season,as the theme song goes of moving on up, she hasn’t quite yet accepted and fallen into her wealth. So she’s still wearing this cute little middle-class working bun, and I thought it was so sweet.”
Randolph was just as attentive regarding what Mary wore in the school’s kitchen. Her eye was drawn to Leah Chase who for decades ran the Dooky Chase Kitchen in New Orleans.
“She recently passed, but though it was New Orleans southern cuisine, she too ran her restaurant like a Michelin star and she wore starched whites because it said something to see a Black woman in this European chef’s uniform. She wanted you to know, ”It’s me.I’m the one.”
Randolph and costume designer Wendy Chuck studied swatches of fabric for the work look and for Mary’s overall look.
”I wanted her to be so relatable and so authentic that you quite literally wanted to touch her or hold her or just sit and cozy up next to her,” Randolph says.
It’s what all the best thespians do. They spend endless hours collaborating with heads of department to get their look so they can wrap it around themselves like an invisible skin. The trick is that it has to appear effortless.
“And so I wanted to show that so that people could connect to her. No matter where you’re from or what your race or creed is, that maternal figure in your life, I wanted people to reminisce, remember, reconnect with, appreciate that person in their life who has been there and what it means to be a maternal figure of support.I really wanted people to have that visceral connection to it.”
And it works. For all that Mary has lost, she wants the shitty little rich kids – or whatever she calls them – to have a Christmas. And she wants Dominic Sessa’s student Angus Tully to have his holiday. And she wants Paul Giamatti’s cerebral classics master Paul Hunham to have some downtime.
And because of the warmth Mary has extended, in her way, throughout the film, it makes sense that in Angus Tully’s hour of greatest need, it’s Mary who’s there for him, as is Giamatti’s Hunham.
The acts of magnanimity are enormously touching.
Audiences and awards voters are clearly seeing that, because they keep showering Randolph, and Giamatti too, with awards season recognition.
What amuses so much about Mary Lamb is that here she is, working at this school of the “brightest of the bright” and she’s stuck with Hunham who’s into Latin and ancient civilizations; she had little education yet she’s the one who possesses common sense; She’s the one who sees Angus and Paul. She can match them in what matters in real life.
“Mary’s wondering why Mr.Hunham stayed working at the school all these years. She’s like, ‘have you ever thought of leaving these walls?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And she says, ‘You’ve never dreamed a whole dream have you?'”
Randolph’s own parents were educators in Philadelphia where she grew up.
“My father was the assistant principal. My mother was a teacher,and my mother taught predominately kindergarten. And so I grew up with this idea of a strong sense of education and how education is the thing that, no matter what you look like, they can never take away from you,” she tells me as she explains how her mother “worked tirelessly, overtime, the afterschool programs all that stuff,” to pay for Randolph’s tuition at private prep schools.
“And then even when I was in college, I had a partial scholarship, but the remaining was debt in her [her mother’s] name,” she says.
The backstory to Mary’s late son the The Holdovers is that she’s working at the school to enable him to get a highly discounted education.
”She can’t give him much,cbut what she can give,cshe’ll fight to give him,” observes Randolph.
She says the film’s about “life unfolding…which I think Alexander is genius at.
“It’s very much of a fly on the wall, slice of life. And what i find then is the challenge for the actor is making the mundane quite special but not overacting and giving an exorbitant performance,” she says.
The actress notes that it was like being on “a tightrope” for her to keep the level of her performance right. The first time she read David David Hemingson’s script she was struck by the thought that “nothing really happens in that movie magic kind of way. Nothing’s happening, but everything’s happening. It’s all in the details. And so that’s when I quickly knew it had to lock onto the details of her smoking, of the dialect, of the clothes, of the cooking .It’s also most as if I was in two movies. The one movie is the talkies, if you will. Then the other is a silent movie where I had to fill in those moments with an inner dialogue.”
She observes that Hemingson’s script would have passages of just setting the scene and the atmosphere. ”And props department and locations were so talented at reading this and taking their own artistic approach on what those environments were like. And then Alexander would just plop me in this environment.”
Yet, what I also felt time and again after several times watching The Holdovers is how Randolph – and Giamatti – convey character through simple physicality, and their eyes.
Angus, the student appreciates that Mary has prepared a lovely festive meal for him and Mr.Hunham.
“You could tell she’s a boy mom. You can tell she likes boys and she knows how they tick.”
I have been following her career for years, ever since she starred in the musical Ghost in the West End and on Broadway. She was way better than the actual show. So, when I see her garnering all this acclaim for The Holdovers it’s not as if it happened overnight. She bloody well worked for it .
She worked and worked for this moment.
And she’s enjoying it.
“I feel as though this is part of my purpose in life and a part of my act of service …listen, I think that’s this art form can be cathartic and therapeutic, not only for myself, but for the viewer. And so I take great pride in crafting these characters ,especially when the quality is there in the script, and there’s no stereotype. And a person can just be,they can be messy and complicated.And so I have to be grateful for this to be a moment where I feel like people have always, in some way shape or form ,acknowledged the gift that i have and my ability to create these nuanced characters.”
She days she doesn’t do the work for awards glory but she finds it “really moving” that her performance in The Holdovers is being acknowledged across the board.
She sighs and says that is been a “hard career.Its lots of sacrifice. I’m very grateful though. I miss out on a lot in life in order to do this .And so when there are moments like this where people can acknowledge the work that I’ve put in, it feels like, okay, it’s worth it.”
I quietly ask what she feels she has missed out on.
“You miss out on birthdays, you miss out on family interactions, relationships, personal romantic relationships because of the hours, the hours that you’re dedicating. But at the same time, it feels like I gain a contribution to the world,” she says holding back tears.
I apologize for making her cry.
“No, it’s okay But you know what I mean. It’s a sacrifice. It really is It’s a trade off, so to speak, between the two. I’m grateful. If nothing else, it feels like a quiet, assured voice of just keep going”, she tells me.
I look Da’Vine Joy Randolph in the eye and urge her to keep going because I see the cost of creating seemingly effortless performances, whether they be on stage or screen.
None of it just happens. It’s dedication. And if you happen to be really good at it then a part of you comes through the screen. That’s why the movies, after all its iterations over the decades, still have the power to hold us.
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