Actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph: ‘Eddie Murphy taught me to pace myself – don’t blow your wad’

<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Philadelphia-born actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph was nominated for a Tony award for her breakthrough performance in the 2012 Broadway stage production of Ghost: The Musical. Since then, she has worked in TV (High Fidelity, Only Murders in the Building) and film, starring opposite Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name and as Aunt Pooh in On the Come Up. Last week she won for best supporting actress award at the Golden Globes for her role in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet tragicomic three-hander, The Holdovers. She plays a recently bereaved mother and the longsuffering head cook at an elite New England boarding school in the 1970s, opposite Paul Giamatti’s curmudgeonly teacher, and newcomer Dominic Sessa as a troubled student.

When you were first approached by Alexander Payne, you didn’t know who he was. How did he win you over for the role?
At the time I was shooting On the Come Up. I’m running around doing 5 million things on my day off and I was told maybe 24 hours before that I was going to have a director meeting. I was starting to vibe with him as he was describing what it was that he wanted to do. And so I asked him, can you please tell me of some of the projects that you’ve done? As he starts telling me these titles [About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants] I realise this is the man who created many movies that I’ve really loved.

She said opera singers get to travel the world and men are fawning over you and the dresses… I was like, sign me up

Your character, Mary Lamb, is the most grounded of the three main characters. What about her appealed?
There’s a fragility, a tenderness; she’s a born leader, a caregiver, a nurturer. This idea that she’s flawed, but there’s still great love and hope within her, whether she’s aware of it or not.

She carries a huge burden – there’s the loss of her son, and there’s also the way she almost represents the grief of American society in 1970, a troubled time. How do you carry that as an actor?
It’s very bleak, probably one of the most bleak times in America. I knew quite early on I was gonna have to protect myself. When we were done, I was done. Cooking is therapeutic for me. I would cook. I would try to connect with my family during that time. Any and all things that I could do to have some sense of normalcy returning to me.

Do you have a signature dish?
Cooking for someone is one of the best gifts you can give anybody. I think you can taste the love and the care in the food. I cook so many things! I’m not much of a baker, but I can make a pretty good sweet potato pie.

You live in LA. I’m guessing that makes you a warm-weather person. Was it as cold as it looked during the shoot in Massachusetts?
Absolutely. We were in abandoned buildings and old nunneries. Where I shot my living room, where we’re watching TV, the boys in the beginning of the movie, their dorm rooms… that’s all a nunnery. We couldn’t turn on the heat because the radiator, if you turned it on, there’d be a ting, ting, ting, ting sound. The snow was real snow, which was kind of magical. Every time we needed to shoot a scene with snow, it always just showed up!

I read that you chose the entire wardrobe for your character in On the Come Up. Did you get involved in the costumes for The Holdovers?
I’m very visual, so I always pull mood boards or share albums through iPhoto. Because it was a vintage movie, we were able to gather a lot of vintage fabric. Lots of corduroy. Lots of delicate little embroidery work. Lots of floral.

When did you first get the acting bug?
I was always very creative and loved to sing. Music was my entryway into the arts. Then acting came about in my junior year of college, I switched majors. I was in the classical musical arts in the voice department – I’m a classically trained opera singer. It was kind of a last-minute change, but I’m really glad I did it.

How did you get into opera?
A new girl had come to my school and was talking about this summer camp for performing arts. I’m a very competitive person, so I blindly applied for it and they were asking for classical singing pieces. Around this time I met this amazing woman at a church Christmas concert; I was just so blown away by the power in her voice. I didn’t really want to do opera, but she saw something in me. She was like: “You have a natural gift for this.” Then she was telling me opera singers get to travel the world and be loved and praised, and men are fawning over you and the dresses… I was like, sign me up, that’s the job for me.

You’ve acted alongside some bona fide comedy legends: Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Martin Short. Is there a specific attitude that you bring to set when you’re opposite a comedy genius?
Number one is coming prepared. Oh, and knowing that you are enough. I think because they’re legends, a lot of times people are intimidated or scared. It’s like if it was a checkers match, let’s say they are the uncontested winner. They’re bored to a certain degree because they’ve beat all these people. And so when someone new comes along and is like, I’m gonna give you a run for your money, they get so excited. Because it’s new energy, and there’s a lot that I’ve found they want to share with and impart to you.

What did you take away from working with Eddie Murphy on Dolemite Is My Name?
I think to pace yourself, which I definitely applied here – don’t blow your wad. So in doing all this funny stuff, when he’s off-screen he’s quiet, reserving that energy. And then I did the opposite. I stayed happy, happy, happy off-screen to be able to go in there and be more serious.

You’ve already won several best supporting actress prizes, including a Golden Globe. How are you handling the awards buzz?
The schedule is overwhelming, but it’s an overwhelming joy as well. This is what actors dream of. So I dare not complain. I’m just taking it day by day. That’s all you can do.

  • The Holdovers is in UK Cinemas from 19 January