Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” opens on a 1969 New England boarding school crammed with students and staff as the holiday break approaches, but before long the central characters have been narrowed down to a trio: Paul Hunham, a snobbish sad-sack classics professor played by Paul Giamatti; Angus Tully, a rebellious and troubled student played by Dominic Sessa; and Mary Lamb, the school cook, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
A holiday that finds them left behind at the school turns into a road trip to Boston, and over the course of the film the antagonistic relationship between Paul and Angus takes a few twists and turns.
Mary, meanwhile, is a constant reminder of the inequities and dangers of the era: She took the job at Barton Academy to ensure that her son would get a good education, but after graduation he was drafted, sent overseas and killed in the Vietnam War, while his white classmates escaped that fate. And while Randolph may be familiar for the exuberance she’s shown in films like “Dolemite Is My Name,” she breaks our hearts in “The Holdovers” with a performance grounded in grief and delivered with a quiet grace that commands our attention.
“We always see these cute holiday movies that are predictable,” Randolph said. “Things are seemingly great, something happens, they resolve it and everything’s hunky dory. I liked that this was a bit more real and grounded.
“And I liked that there was this woman whom he wanted to be the heart of this story and who was allowed to be messy, who was allowed to take up space. I love the idea that they all were seeking connection and needing to feel heard, and through all of their collective pain inadvertently they were able to be of a great support for one another. I thought that was really beautiful.”
Mary is deep in grief over the loss of her son, but for the most part Payne stayed away from big outbursts or overly emotional scenes. “For my character, parts were kind of like a silent movie,” Randolph said. “It required me to use other parts of my senses as an actor to navigate the role. How do you keep the character alive when the text isn’t there?
“It was difficult at first for me to adjust to it, because I kept feeling like I needed to do something. But Alex wanted to explore the moments when she’s still, and to be in that space was really nice.”
You might not see the connection while watching the film, but to Randolph, the early ’70s Norman Lear sitcom “The Jeffersons,” about a Black family moving to the Upper East Side in Manhattan, was a touchstone for the look of her character, particularly the hair. The bun that she wears in many scenes, for instance, comes from Isabel Sanford’s hairstyle in the earliest seasons: “You’re not seeing her wealth yet, and she’s still dressing as she was in the lower tax bracket.”
They also went for a more stylish flip when Mary gets fancier. “We got that from the character on ‘The Jeffersons’ that Lenny Kravitz’s mom played,” she said, referring to Roxie Roker, who played Helen Willis.
Playing a woman who is deeply grieving, she added, could take its toll if she permitted it to. “I don’t allow it to come home with me,” she said. “I take great measures to make sure it doesn’t, whether it’s as simple as me watching cartoons or something lighthearted when going home at the end of the night. Or speaking with family. Or cooking can be therapeutic for me, something where I get back to normalcy. I have to do it that way because if I were to dive in it, it wouldn’t be helpful for me.” She laughed. “Three months of that in cold Boston was a little too much art imitating life. So I had to find time for myself.
“And also, I’ll say this: Grief has many facets to it. It’s not just super-sad. It can be awkward sometimes, it’s funny sometimes. So it wasn’t just one dimension. You go through the seven stages of grief, but also, there are many dimensions of grief. And that was something I tried to constantly engage and explore.”
Aside from the setting, “The Holdovers” provided another academic connection for Randolph, because she and Giamatti are both graduates of the Yale School of Drama. “We attended at different times, but the language was the same,” said Randolph, who graduated in 2011, 17 years after her co-star.
“We were able to meet each other at a very grounded place from the jump, which was a gift because this is such an intimate piece that you need to have that familiarity.” Some of her favorite scenes, she said, were the ones where Paul and Mary simply sit together on a couch and talk. “We were working with natural light, there weren’t any monitors — and being paired with Paul and having the same education, it felt like I was back in scene study in school.”
A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.