Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Oscar Win Is Just the Start: ‘The Roles Will Get Better, The Money Will Improve’

Photographs by Matt Sayles

It’s the morning after the Oscars, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who was out celebrating her big win as best supporting actress until 5:45 a.m., looks as if she’d fall asleep for the rest of the day if she closed her eyes for a moment. And yet despite her exhaustion she’s still radiant, brimming with excitement about the ways that her life has changed since she scored her role as Mary Lamb, a grieving cafeteria manager, in Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers.”

As she sits at a dining room table in a modern Beverly Hills apartment soothing a hoarse voice with cough drops, Randolph declares sleepily, “I’ve got the keys to the castle now!”

It’s a change for the Philadelphia-born actress, who says, “I was taught to make a lot out of very little. It’s exciting to have access to resources and opportunities, especially for a woman of color.”

Randolph burst onto the scene with her breakout role on Broadway as psychic Oda Mae Brown in 2012’s “Ghost: The Musical,” earning a Tony Award nomination and critical raves. That role paved the way for movies such as “Dolemite Is My Name” and “The Lost City,” in which she deftly stole scenes from veterans Eddie Murphy and Sandra Bullock, as well as the Hulu comedy series “Only Murders in the Building,” which found her sharing the screen with her acting idol, Meryl Streep.

Randolph has a way of magnetizing an audience — it’s impossible to look away. That’s certainly the case with “The Holdovers,” which gave the 37-year-old actress the most challenging and rewarding role of her career. The part required her to summon deep reservoirs of pain as she portrayed a mother dealing with the loss of her only son, who was killed in the Vietnam War.

Matt Sayles for Variety

For Payne, there’s one critical scene in “The Holdovers” that fully demonstrates Randolph’s depth as an actress. When Mary, visiting her pregnant sister, ponders giving away her son’s baby clothes, Payne remembers being astonished by “the look on her face.” Randolph wanted to show her character refusing to break down even as she reflects on that early, hopeful time in her life. “She conveys a profound, mournful wistfulness,” Payne says.

But as we sit together on the day after Randolph’s sublime performance was recognized by her peers, the actress is looking ahead to the other great roles she hopes to play.

How are you feeling this morning?

I feel grateful. I feel seen. I feel loved. I feel respected. I feel like the time and work that I’ve put in matters. I feel excited for the future. Growing up as somebody who didn’t have much, imagine when you get a lot: It’s exciting. To have access and to be a woman of color is a very big deal.

You wore your grandmother’s glasses in “The Holdovers.” Why?

Every role that I do, I always leave subliminal love letters to women of color in the details. You can go back and check my résumé — every single role, there’s a connection to someone I know personally, someone in history, a fellow actress. And I love it, because those who know, know. Ultimately what I’m doing is I’m just implanting moments of connection and honesty. And so her glasses were an artifact for me so that if and when I ever got off track or got derailed or lost the connection, the thought of my grandmother and who she was and what she suffered through, those glasses would put me right back.

What was your grandmother like?

She was the matriarch of our family. She was the backbone. She came from the South and endured so much. And when I think of someone who can champion others and be victorious in spite of their own pain, she’s the first person I think of. I knew that she was going to be a guiding light for me in the telling of this story. And that’s a very unique trait: that we, as minorities, can, in the midst of grief and loss and disparity, not only show up for other people, but give and be kind and loving. That really says something about one’s character. We’ve been kicked in the butt so much and so hard that I’m moved to see how much empathy and love we can still possess.

What would your grandmother think about your Oscar win?

She’d be over the moon. No one in my family acts or sings — nothing. There’s no sense of entertainment in my family. Sometimes I feel like an oddball, because I don’t even know where this is coming from. But they’ve always been supportive. They’ve always seen greatness within me and have always nurtured that.

Can you tell me about growing up in Philadelphia?

It was the best. It was exactly what I needed. There’s something very unique about Northeast cities and communities, even in a film like “The Holdovers.” It’s a very distinct culture, behavior, attitude, mannerisms … I love that. They don’t have that anywhere else besides that Northeast pocket. And so whether Boston, New York, Philly, I’m so grateful that I was born and raised and cultivated in a city such as that. I just love the people. They celebrate life and they champion underdogs, and I take great pride in that.

There were antiwar protests taking place outside the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are held, so the show ended up starting late. I heard you were stuck in traffic, and your category was up first. What was going through your mind?

I mean, listen, that’s serious business. But it was what I needed to be like, “Life is real.” While we were in that traffic jam, we were seeing homeless people seeking shelter. It was very interesting that I was in a very privileged situation, and yet the world still turns. It was chaotic, but it was good chaos. It actually calmed me down.

Matt Sayles for Variety

To announce the winner of best supporting actress, the Academy brought out all these legendary past winners — Jamie Lee Curtis, Rita Moreno, Mary Steenburgen, Regina King and Lupita Nyong’o. What was that like?

It knocked me out. I was in the front row, in the center. You know how you can sit too close in the movie theater? Everything is even more grand. I was a mess.

You and Lupita went to Yale drama school together, and you started to cry when she was speaking about you. What were you feeling?

It just felt like a very surreal full-circle moment, because I met her as I was becoming an actor. The emotion came because at that point I had already won for myself. I didn’t care whose name they said. I had already won because I was there.

Over time, there have been over 3,300 Oscar statuettes awarded. But you’re only the 19th Black woman to win one.

In any capacity?

Yes. Ten of those came in your category. So that’s 0.005% of all the Oscars. Can you talk about that legacy of Black women in this industry, and how that relates to your grandmother or any of the women you’ve honored in your performances?

Mary is my grandmother. Mary is every woman. To be a woman of color, to be a woman with financial limitations, there’s a hustle, a drive, a diligence that’s like no other. And so I was really adamant about showing the world what it’s like to be in our skin.

And yet at the same time, I wanted it to be something universal, because I didn’t want it to be something that only Black women could understand, or minorities could understand. I wanted everyone to get it. I actually want that for all my work. I don’t want to just do Black movies.

I will always pay tribute to, honor, uplift and be a part of Black storytelling, but I need to infiltrate and get in the spaces where we’re not. I want to be in a Wes Anderson movie just ’cause. I want to be in a David O. Russell movie just ’cause. Coen brothers. I’ve never seen us there. Because that’s when I think we can really bring about educating and creating real change. If we just stay over by ourselves, nothing is going to change.

You’ve been a star of the red carpet this Oscar season. What’s your approach to fashion?

I just like to have fun. And I just want people to know, “Don’t limit yourself. Find what you’re into. Play. Don’t stay stuck with one thing.” You know why I love clothes so much? Because it’s connected to one’s personality and sense of self. You don’t have to be as obsessive about it as I am, but I think it’s a good practice of self-love too, of like, “What colors do I feel good in? And, oh, these are my favorite pair of jeans.” It’s taking a sense of pride in oneself. And I think that’s healthy and good for anybody.

You sat next to J. Lo at Fashion Week in Paris. What did you talk about?

Life, love, prosperity, success. She was starting to talk about her new project that’s just now come out. It looks really dope. I need to check it out.

When you’ve accepted other awards this season, you’ve brought note cards. You didn’t at the Oscars. Why?

For the past two weeks, people have been telling me, “No cards for the Oscars.” They want to see my face. With those other speeches, half of those notes are from different hotel notepads or a napkin.

When you gave your speech, you talked about violating the Academy’s requests by thanking your publicist, Marla Farrell. Why did you do that?

Why would you not? Why? Why? That lady has been by my side since the beginning of my career. She has shown up for me countless times beyond even what a publicist does, and I would not be here without her. She’s beyond talented, and she has a heart of gold. So, yeah, I don’t care. She deserved it.

You also thanked your acting teacher from Yale, Ron Van Lieu. What did he do?

We used to do scenes and text analysis, and we’d do, like, “A Doll’s House.” Everybody got to play Nora, but I’d be the only one in the class playing, what’s her name — Miss Schmidt or whatever? And I’m like, “Why? Who’s choosing this? Who gets to decide what stories I get to tell?” One time I got fed up, and he was like, “Well, who is it that you want to be?” And I realized I don’t want to be anyone; I just want to be myself. And he said, “Great. You know who else is themselves? Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, De Niro. There wasn’t a them before them. So you’re gonna have to have patience and resilience, because you’re essentially forging your own path. There’s no blueprint for you.” So he just understood me.

Not only did you appear in “The Holdovers” last year, but you also played Mahalia Jackson in “Rustin.” What was it like to play these roles?

It was a full year of beautiful characters. And I feel very proud to have played fully realized, textured, complicated, multidimensional characters — women who have wants, needs, desires and drives. Yeah, I’m immensely proud of what this year has become.

Can you tell me the difference between Da’Vine Joy Randolph on Saturday versus the one who won the Oscar on Sunday?

There isn’t one. There’s a trophy in my house now, but I’m not different. You can’t come from Philadelphia and be changed; they won’t let you. This will be who I am. The roles will get better, the money will improve, the lines will get better. I hope to make a legacy and leave an imprint with this career. I hope my work will matter, and it will be something that people of all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds and genders can connect to. But me, and the soul of me, won’t change.

Makeup: Sheika Daley/Dayone Studio/Lancome; Hair: Tai Simon/The Only Agency/Joico; Location: Mandarin Oriental Residences, Beverly Hills; Styling: Wayman + Micah/The Only Agency; Dress: Custom Louis Vuitton; earrings: Moussaieff; Watch: Omega; Shoes: Alexander Birman