The studios kept telling Ava DuVernay ‘next time.’ With ‘Origin’ she said, ‘No, this time’


We’re back from our break! In our first episode of the year, we treat you to a conversation with two trailblazing artists in Hollywood.

On this week’s episode of “The Envelope” we chat with Ava DuVernay at her Array headquarters about adapting Isabel Wilkerson‘s book “Caste” into her ambitious new feature “Origin,” which interrogates the roots of discrimination. Later, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Golden Globe winner and SAG Award nominee for “The Holdovers,” speaks about her mission to “give voice to the voiceless” in every role and how she prepares to be her own dramaturg, delving into a role before she even steps foot on set.

Mark Olsen: For the Los Angeles Times and “The Envelope,” I’m Mark Olsen.

Yvonne Villarreal: I’m Yvonne Villarreal.

Shawn Finnie: I’m Shawn Finnie.

Olsen: And this is our first episode of the new year. Welcome back to all of our viewers and listeners. It’s good to see the both of you again. So now things are really getting going. The Palm Springs Film Festival had their big awards gala, which was kind of an important whistle-stop early in the in the year. Golden Globes going to Golden Globe and do their thing. Now, we’re charging ahead to those Oscar nominations. But Yvonne, you have a really terrific interview for us this week. Who did you talk to?

Villarreal: I’m talking to somebody who’s been getting a lot of praise and awards buzz. That’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who stars in the Alexander Payne film “The Holdovers.” This is a film set like in the early 1970s at a New England boarding school. And it follows this not-very-well-liked teacher played by Paul Giamatti, and he’s tasked with chaperoning a group of students who have nowhere to go over Christmas break. Da’Vine plays Mary Lamb, who’s the manager of the school kitchen and the head cook. And when we meet her, she’s in the grieving process of losing her son who was stationed in Vietnam. And she really gives a compelling performance that a lot of people are taking notice of right now.

Finnie: I mean, she’s received so many awards already, New York, Los Angeles, National Society of Film Critics, Golden Globe. Which is huge and I think that this sets her on track towards being a powerhouse contender in this season.


Olsen: But also it really builds on what she’s been doing over the past few years. I mean, justice for “High Fidelity.” She’s been building to this and getting a lot of attention over the last few years.

Villarreal: Well-deserved attention. And you spoke with somebody that I think we all sort of admire —

Olsen: Fought over who was going to do this interview.

Finnie: I won, I won. I spoke with Ms. Ava DuVernay about her film “Origin,” which for me, really shifted and moved in so many different ways. I think we said we ugly cried. We bonded on the fact that we ugly cried about that. But it followed Isabel Wilkerson’s life and her own personal loss and her journey, played by the amazing Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, while she’s writing the book “Caste.” And I think that it was so interesting to see the book as we know it — it was built on theory and studies — but then the life behind it at the same time. I think [“Origin”] really bonded and bridged her life with the book as well. And so really excited to speak with Ava about that and spoke to her at the Array campus.

Olsen: I love that people say creative campus, and I really feel like that’s a place that things come out of there. I love that set of buildings that she has there. It’s a really great place.

Finnie: And I think it so amazing because it’s very intentional. They have like their editing bay, they have all of their Array film works that are happening there. The community gets to come there and watch films as well. I interviewed her in that theater. So it just it felt really like, “Oh, I get it.” Being in that space is really immersive.

Villarreal: Not to downplay any of that, but did you ask or did you tell Ava that I want the rom-com with Jon [Bernthal] and Aunjanue [Ellis-Taylor] now?

Finnie: I didn’t tell her yet, but I think this is another opportunity for Part B of the interview. That’s a Zoom meeting we need to have specifically.


Villarreal: I’m available whenever you want to do it.

Olsen: So after the break, let’s get to it. And Shawn, we’ll hear your interview with Ava DuVernay.

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in "Origin."

Finnie: This is Shawn Finnie from “The Envelope.” I am here with a filmmaker whose work I’m really excited about this season and beyond this season that I think will require further discussion. Writer, director and human connector through art, film and culture, director of the film “Origin,” Ms. Ava DuVernay. I have too many things to talk to you about. First, will you tell us where we are?

Ava DuVernay You’re at Array, and that is our liberated territory, as the great filmmaker Haile Gerima calls it. He said that you always have to find a place that’s just for you. A place where you feel comfortable. And for some people, it’s a physical space. And for some people, it’s in their home or just somewhere where you can be courageous in your own mind. And for me, I always patterned it after Oprah and Harpo Studios, or even J.J. [Abrams] and Bad Robot or [Steven] Spielberg with Amblin or Mr. Garima with Sankofa, his bookstore. That’s what I dreamed of. So this is a four-building campus in the historic Filipinotown area of Los Angeles near Echo Park. And you’re sitting in our screening room. We have public programming for the community at large. Anyone who wants to come see a film in this DCP-compliant 50-seat theater, we show all kinds of things. Iranian cinema to Filipino cinema to the latest things that are being discussed in the awards season. Comedies, dramas, anime. So we have a whole department that programs films for folks, for free.

Finnie: I love it. When I watched the film, I told you this in private and I’m going to tell you this in public, I tried my best to string along a sentence to explain the experience that I felt. I felt a shift inside of myself. And for the L.A. Times viewers watching, I left Ava a voice note that I don’t know made a lot of sense, but you caught the intention.

DuVernay: It was beautiful.

Finnie: And I think I understand a bit more of what I wanted to say, though I’m still processing. Thank you for centering Black lives in your projects. The way that you show the full range and breadth of us — our curiosity, our humanity, our love, our loss, our grief, our range of emotions and complexities, but also for showing us beyond our complexion.


DuVernay: Thank you so much. Your voice was so beautiful. And [“Origin”] was really speaking to humanity and dignity. And that’s what I think the film is offering. That’s what I want to offer. It’s really being able to watch this woman writer, a Black woman writer, try to uncover secrets that history holds that goes beyond Blackness or being Jewish, being Indian, and starts to [look] underneath all of the skin and the labels. There’s something else that that animates our reasons for embracing difference. And embracing difference, our reason should be to celebrate. Unfortunately, the way we embrace difference as a society is to divide and into separate. And so the core of “Caste,” which is the book the film is inspired [by] — beautiful book by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson — this is what we’re looking at. The differences are there and it’s a part of life. But why are we embracing it from a place of a fear as opposed to a place of beauty?

Finnie: Somebody asked you a question, “What do you want people to feel after watching this film?” And you said, “I want them to just ask the question, ‘Who am I now?’” And so my question to you is, when I watch what I experienced, I can’t help but [feel] the emotion that was there was also an emotion in the research, also an emotion in the preparation. Who are you now? After creating that world and diving in, who are you now?

DuVernay: Well, for me, that’s a big question. That’s a good one. Look at you, turning my question around on me. We are different people in different spaces. Langston Hughes said, “We wear the mask.” Every single person presents differently to their family than they do to work than they do to the world in general. When [you] walk out of the house, you present differently when you’re having a good day than when you’re having a bad day. And so for me, professionally, it’s really changed me in that it’s strengthened my resolve and helped my confidence in terms of my capacity — how much I can do, how I can do it, and that I don’t have to feel constrained. I don’t feel like I have to fit inside of a box. And I felt that for a long time.

Personally, it has been the happiest time of my life making this movie, the making of it, the writing of it, the production, the post. The presentation to the world has been hard. Now it’s taking a different turn, it’s like waves, but making it, just making it, oh my gosh, I felt so alive, so joyous. And I have to get back to that, you know? I have to get back to and continuously remind myself what I made it for, what it felt to make it, and not let myself get distracted by all of the trappings of the movie. We’re here on “The Envelope” and it is talking about awards season. And for me, I’ve really had to orient myself to what that means to me in the context of this film, which for me is so much greater than awards. Yet I know that awards helps people want to see it. So you get caught in this kind of conundrum. The tail wagging the dog a little bit. My views about them definitely changed since “Selma” and views about my place in the industry, views about my abilities as a filmmaker, views about myself just as a person in the world. So the film has been a great gift to me. And I was speaking with Ed Zwick. He did one of my Q&As, a filmmaker that I’ve followed and really loved his work over the years. And he was talking about the arbiter of success is time, it’s really time. He says. “I made a lot of films. Some people remember and some they don’t.” And it’s time that will tell it. Will your film be remembered when someone watches it years from now? How does it hit them? Will it help someone in the moment in 10 years as they see it passing on free TV? The film itself lives on outside of the context of this moment. And so maybe one year, years from now, someone will dig up this podcast and hear how we felt about it today. But it’s a worthy discussion.

Finnie: It’s impactful now, and it will be impactful, as I said, beyond seasons. And I had mentioned already that I do feel like it’s an invitation for further discussion. I think sometimes at a distance ... it can be looked at like, “Oh, that’s a Black film.” And it’s actually not. In my opinion, it is a film about the globalization of the human story and the complexities and the nuances of all of that. How do you describe the audience that you were imagining, or you were hoping that would connect with this film?

DuVernay: Well, we made it for a global audience. And that’s why we shot in three countries in 37 days. We raised the money outside of the studio system so that we would have the wherewithal to go anywhere in the world that we felt the story took us. We shot in Berlin. We shot in Delhi. We shot here in multiple states. And the goal is to be able to talk about this in a global framework, in the same way that the book addresses these ideas on a global framework. It addresses it both in a historical context and a contemporary context. This is a continuum, this idea of caste. The idea being that caste is a social hierarchy that determines power and status. Really simple. In every culture, on every continent around the world, someone’s on the top and someone’s on the bottom. And that is determined based on a random set of traits. It’s not determined based on merit, based on experience, based on hard work. It’s determined based on things that people don’t have control over. In India, the Dalit people are born into a subjugated caste. They’re just born into it, and there’s no way out of it.


Finnie: That is their reality.

DuVernay: That is their reality

Finnie: And their norm.

DuVernay: And it’s the norm. It is around issues of faith and caste and class and all kinds of things there. But it’s something that the person can’t control. They can be excellent at whatever they’re doing and excel, but they’re still Dalit and they’re still the lowest of the low caste there.

[Clip from “Origin”: SURAJ YENGDE: We have in India, where the Dalits are supposed to be at the bottom and the Brahmins at the top, and between there are various units of caste. What maintains this unit into continuing of caste system is the unending violence in the form of rape, mutilation and murder. In India, a Dalit person is attacked every 15 minutes.]

DuVernay: In the United States, you can look at African American people. And by the very virtue of our skin color, a random set of physical traits that we cannot determine upon birth, we are automatically relegated to, for centuries in this country, be enslaved, be segregated, be criminalized. Doesn’t matter how excellent. There’s nothing you can do to escape that visual mark upon being seen. That’s what caste is. And when you apply the fact that this random set of traits can determine who’s on the top and who’s on the bottom, you start to get into really interesting ideas about who we are, our identity, and why all of these -isms exist. Caste can be applied to sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism. It goes on and on. The LGBTQ community are locked in a caste system. I think these ideas are provocative. And I read them in the book. I thought, “Gosh, we should be talking about this.” And knowing about this, how would I approach this in a movie? This is a nonfiction book. There are no characters in this book beyond a page or two. And really she, the writer, the author — she is the first person a lot in the book. And not a lot, but some places here and there. And she started to kind of rise from the pages. I thought, “Oh, she’ll guide us through. I’ll watch her write the book and she will teach us what she’s teaching us in the book.” In the movie, while I was connecting the dots about approaching her to do it, I learned that the three closest people to her in her life passed away in a 16-month period. And I thought, “That’s a movie character, because that is a hero.” That’s a superhero. You’ve lost the three anchors in your life, and somehow you continue on and you write this beautiful work. And so she became a point of fascination and very blessedly [she] allowed me to ask her many questions over the course of two years in the research and write that part of the screenplay that is not in the book. That’s why I don’t call [the movie] “Caste” because the movie is not the book. The movie is about the life and work of Isabel Wilkerson, the work being “Caste” and her life being this beautiful, treacherous journey through love and loss.

Finnie: I would love to hear you kind of talk through the sound and the score.

DuVernay: Thank you. Not many people ask me about that. Well, we’re fortunate enough to mix up at Skywalker with good friends up there who gave us a deep discount. Thanks, Skywalker. But I’d worked with them on “A Wrinkle in Time,” where you have all the bells and whistles of Disney, and they knew how closely I was holding the story and [they] watched it and said, “We want to help.” So they were wonderful and being just great partners to me as a filmmaker. So that soundscape, so much of what you hear, just the pleasure and wonder of being able to mix at Skywalker Ranch, this incredible place that George [Lucas] has created like an actual liberated territory. His liberated territory, where it is acres and acres of beautiful land and artists walking around focused on what they can hear, what they can see. Really beautiful.

[Clip from “Origin”: KATE: In Germany, there’s memorials to nearly everyone victimized by the Nazis. And there’s no entry sign. No no, no. It’s just open both day and night. Just standing to bear witness. 20,000 books were lost at night. Books filled with imagination, ideas and history.]

DuVernay: And then Kris Bowers, my composer. I always say my composer because I feel like he’s mine. It is our fourth time working together, and it’s just such a delight when you collaborate with someone who’s wildly talented but also has just such a spirit. He has a peaceful spirit to him. It calms me when Kris comes in the room. He’s like a magnet for everything good. Good, brother. Good, good, beautiful musician. And so in tune with my images. He catapults my intention into another place with his music. He lifts up what I meant to do and takes it to another place. That’s what the collaboration is for me. And it’s such a joyous collaboration. We have fun and and I know no instruments and oftentimes I will mention the wrong instrument. “Kris, I think that flute there, it’s a little heavy.” He’s like, “A flute?” I can see him thinking, “Which instrument could she be talking about because there’s no flute.” He’s always kind to me. It’s like, “That would be a trombone, right?” “A trombone. Yes, that’s what I meant. A trombone.” But the music that he that he crafted for this, he did so much research. He researched music that was actually written during the Holocaust in the camps under duress, musicians still performing the sheets of music that were written with no instruments that were found later in the camps, rhythms and notes and words that convey the suffering and the hope and the despair and the loss and the memories. And he delved into Dalit music and actually talked with the musicians and got counsel from them and consulted with them about certain percussions and certain instrumentation so that the people could hear it within our film and recognize it, notice it and feel seen and heard within the music.


Finnie: How did you and [Māori musician] Stan [Walker] connect?

DuVernay: We connected in 2023. The ridiculous ways that people meet in 2023, which means online. Paul Garnes, my great producing partner, longtime producing partner here at Array, I told him, “I need something else. We need something fresh, something different. We don’t want the same thing — find a star to sing the song and then you get the thing.” You know what I mean? I want something anthemic like “Selma.” Something that feels like an anthem. Something that’s cinematic and large and sweeping and all of that, but authentic to it. We gotta find someone off the beaten path. I was just ranting and raving about this, something I was looking for. And literally two days later he brought me a video, a YouTube video of a Māori man with this incredible Māori band and background singers singing a cover of a Kanye West song, “Ultralight Beam.” He was singing his heart out. The voice was like velvet and the band, it was a video, they were gorgeous Māori people. And they were rocking out and they were singing this song and this guy is singing and he looks so cool. I was like, “Who is that?” And Paul said, “I don’t know. I got it off the internet. I don’t know who it is, but it says his name is Stan Walker.” So I went on Instagram.

Finnie: You went and did you slide in the DMs?

DuVernay: I slid in the DMs of the one person we had in common... Because I didn’t follow him, he didn’t follow me. I couldn’t get into DMs so I had to go through somebody that I knew. So we had one producer in common, Chelsea Winstanley. And I slid into her DMs and I said, “This is ridiculous. This is like you texting me, asking me if I know a random Black person in the United States because we are Black. But I am asking you, do you know this man? This Māori man, Stan Walker.” “Yes, I know, Stan.” I said, “Do you follow him because you’re a fan or do you know him? Can you get me in touch with him?” 48 hours later, I’m on the phone with Stan. Two weeks later, I have the song in my inbox. He watched “Origin.” He felt it so deeply. He connected it with his history. He connected what’s going on in New Zealand and their society now with Māori people — a lot of injustice and a lot of unfair policy. And he created this song. There could be no more perfect end to “Origin” than the song “I Am.” And I’m just so grateful. It is an anthem for embracing your identity and being proud regardless of caste. “I Am” has nothing to do with what society says you are. Who are you and yourself? And what a gift of a song it is.


Finnie: I want to dive into a little bit of the scenes from the film, OK? Because I feel like there are a few that landed with different people for different reasons... I love the specific scene with Isabel Wilkerson’s character [who] is with her mom and watching the news with her husband about the murder of Trayvon Martin, and then diving into it. And you see the generational divide as you’re starting to understand what caste is. The assumption is we’re all here. We think the same. And this is horrible, what happened. And she’s not saying it’s not horrible, but her mom is like, “Had he just... maybe if he...”

DuVernay: So you have the mother who’s played by the incredible Emily Yancy. Then you have the couple, Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and they’re talking about this crime, this injustice that happened, as they watched President Obama on television giving the speech, his famous speech about Trayvon Martin, saying, “He could have been me. He could have been my son.” And they are talking about it. And the mother, who is from a different generation, she’s in her 80s, says, I wish the boy would have just — it’s basically respectability politics. “I wish he would have just said where he was going and answered the man the way that he should have.”

Finnie: Right. And maybe he’d still be here.

DuVernay: And maybe he’d still be here. Isabel and Brett, played by Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, say he shouldn’t have to answer to anyone. He was just walking down the street when he was assaulted and killed, just for walking down the street with a hoodie on. And the mother says, “You know what I’m saying. He should have just answered and made it home.” Compromised himself in the moment, been less than human, not having to hold on to his dignity so much, and just kowtowed to this guy and got himself home. And so there’s an argument, not an argument, but a disagreement about that. And by the end of the scene you see that this is generational, but also the scene is interesting because you have this older Black woman, a younger Black woman, and a white man, a younger white man. And so it’s generational. It’s class, it’s race, it’s caste, and it’s all mixed up in this one scene that’s quite a tender scene between family members. And that’s I think what we try to do in a number of scenes. It’s how people from different sides of the spectrum are connecting on very mundane issues. Just a conversation about a crime or fixing a sink.

There’s another scene that people talk about a lot with Nick Offerman and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Nick Offerman is a plumber who walks into the basement wearing a MAGA cap. This is a real story that Isabel Wilkerson experienced in her home when a man, a plumber, came into service her home and he was wearing a MAGA hat. She needed him. Her husband passed away, there was water in the basement, she needed help. The person who showed up to help had on a symbol that basically says, “I don’t agree with you. I don’t believe in you. I’m not checking for you.” This is the way that was metabolized. He wasn’t looking at her, wasn’t focused on her, had dehumanized her in his mind and was treating her as less than a service worker should treat their customer. And so through the scene, as the scene unfolds, you see how she deals with it, you see how he deals with it and where it ends.

Finnie: And where they connect.

DuVernay: Where they connect. Each scene in the film was constructed to challenge and to ask you what you might do in that situation. I know I would have had a different reaction in the plumber scene than Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel does, but it is an invitation, like you said, to discuss and to think about what you would do. What would you say to that older woman who says, just hold your tongue and don’t assert your humanity in a moment when someone disagrees with you. What would you say if someone who you normally wouldn’t invite into your home is the only one who can help you when you need help? How do we wrestle with these issues? And that’s what we try to do in the scenes.

The final act of the film is a collision of images that you’ve made your way to through the film that tie in the ways in which different cultures, continents, periods of time, across the spectrum of the human experience, really have the same wound at the base. The same wound of caste is at the core of so much of the oppression and the challenges that people experience. And if we can look at that wound and work on that a little bit, there’s some healing to be done. But if you don’t know the wound is there and you walk past it and you cover it up and you call it different things, you never really get to the root, the origin of our discontents, the origin of our problems...


Finnie: From a business perspective, I really respect and appreciate how you all have approached this film, which I think is a bit different than how you’ve done it before. I would love for you to just speak about raising the money, doing it outside of the system to be able to create something that doesn’t have to fit but is felt.

DuVernay: Thank you for that. I think raising the money on our own allowed us to make the film we wanted to make and be very free to be experimental, to express ourselves in ways that don’t really fit inside of a studio paradigm. Which is OK. The studio paradigm is a financial system and is a business. It is its own economy. If folks give you millions of dollars they’re going to want to participate in the creative part of it and because they want to try to ensure a return. It’s logical and I understand it, and I’ve participated in it and probably will again. For this film, I needed freedom. I needed to be able to cast who I wanted to cast. I needed to have Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who had never led a film — which is criminal and she should have. That’s a mind-boggler. Had never been the lead in the film. I wanted to be able to say, “I see something in Jon Bernthal that is this tender, connected man, and it’s way more than ‘The Punisher.’” And I know that he can do this, and of course he can. I want Vera Farmiga, I want Nick Offerman, I want Blair Underwood, I want Jasmine Cephas Jones. I want these people. I want to be able to bring in a non-actor to play himself because he’s the best person to do it. I want to be able to go to India and be in the street and shoot on the run and just see where the camera takes us. I want to be able to pull in people who might have been a background actor or might have been a scholar and pull them in and put together this collision of images that don’t necessarily fit in a box. You use narrative, you can use doc, there’s images that are surreal sitting along images that are historic, sitting along images that are contemporary. On paper none of that should work in the film. There is no antagonist. There’s no villain chasing her around the world. The villain is us, all of us. We are complicit in the ways that we treat one another.

[Clip from “Origin”: ISABEL WILKERSON: I don’t write questions, I write answers. AMARI SELVAN: Questions like what? WILKERSON: Like why does a Latino man deputize himself to stalk a Black boy to protect an all-white community? What is that? SELVAN: The racist bias I want you to explore. Excavate for the readers. WILKERSON: We call everything racism. What does it even mean anymore? It’s the default. When did that happen? AMARI SELVIN: Hey, Brett. Wait, so you’re saying that he isn’t a racist? WILKERSON: No, I’m not saying that he’s not a racist. I’m questioning why is everything racist?]

DuVernay: Those things would not be allowed for me anyway. Maybe for someone else. But for me, there’s no way I could do it. I couldn’t shoot on film. I’d been asking many, many times my colleagues and my partners at various studios about shooting on film. Cost-prohibitive, the workflow is challenging. Let’s just do digital. Let’s do it next time and next time and next time. Next time. By raising the money and being independent, I was able to greenlight myself and say, “No, this time.” And able to work with that delicious 16 millimeter that makes me just want to lick the screen when I look at the frames. And so it was just a joy when I say it’s the most joyous piece of filmmaking. It’s tough subject matter approached with such a joy and such a hope that I feel this film is a love story. A love story to humanity.

Finnie: I would love for you to close with the Seat 16 [initiative] and the impact that is being created to make sure that generationally, individuals have access to experience this.

DuVernay: We just want young people to see the movie. I remember when I was young, my Aunt Denise. We’re [currently] in this theater. It’s the Amanda Cinema. Her name was Denise Amanda Sexton. She’s since passed on, but she gave me my love of movies and my love of of all things to do with the arts. And she took me to an Amnesty International concert when I was young. And I remember I got a little book of my human rights. And I’m from Compton, I don’t know anything about the world. I’m young, I’m maybe 14, 15, and I remember holding a book that had my human rights in it, and I thought, “Wow.” This a radical concept to me, that we all shared this and this is something that we all should be able to enjoy. And that people in different parts of the world and even in this country did not. And so I was 14 or 15 and those early ideas really formed who I am and my sense of justice and dignity and identity. And so I want this film to maybe be that for someone. So that 14-, 15-, 16-year-old, I want [them] to be able to come and see this film for free. I’m into free movies. So basically, you can buy a ticket for a [teenager]. It’s called Seat 16 for $16. They get a free ticket to the film and they get a one-year subscription to MasterClass. MasterClass has partnered with us. I mean, all those master classes that are on that thing. They can go learn how to cook, they can learn how to direct, to write, to do whatever. This film was based on a banned book. This book is banned in many counties in this nation. And the idea that the film can stand in the place of books that have been taken off the shelves so that young people can determine what they want to learn when they want to learn it and how, it is one of the things we hope we can do. Seat 16. You go on, spend 16 bucks. Buy a ticket for a kid and and put some learning in them.

Finnie: After the break, Yvonne will be interviewing Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph in "The Holdovers."
(Seacia Pavao)

Villarreal: Da’Vine, it’s so nice to have you here.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph: Thank you.

Villarreal: The role of Mary Lamb came to you because director Alexander Payne had long had you in mind for this. But he had to deal with studios thinking he should get a bigger name at one point. Talk to me about what your conversations were like with him and what he said, why this role was for you.

Randolph: First, he had mentioned that he had seen a good amount of my work in advance, which is rare, to be honest. Or they’ll know of like one. That’s their personal one, right? For whatever reason. But he in particular had highlighted “Dolemite” and said the nuances that I was able to contribute in that role, he saw connective tissue for this character, for Mary Lamb. Which is an amazing honor. I didn’t have to audition. I was grateful and blessed for the opportunity to get a call. And that call — it was two calls. The first one was him basically describing the character, describing the gentleman, deciding the kind of things that he wanted to bring out, themes, ideas. And then [the second call] was like right before Thanksgiving. At the end of the conversation, he gave me the script. And then after that we were to reconvene. If I enjoyed it, if I felt connected to it. Which I did, of course. Well not “of course,” but there was something really special about the script. And how [Mary Lamb] is complicated and real. I feel like I’m always chasing authenticity, but that I have to do all the heavy lifting or a lot of the heavy lifting in order to make that come through my characters. And it was very refreshing and rewarding to have an experience in which not only me, but also David Hemingson, the writer, as well as the crew from top to bottom, came in with that level of support and resources. And so I read it, I dug it. We talked about, “How does the time period affect, what are her things? Do we want a dialect?” Do not want a dialect. I thought it was important because she’s not the help. She’s hired, it’s a job. And so all characters that I portray, whatever their job is, I always support it. I mean, they’re good at it ... unless, specifically, it’s in the script. Now I’m working on different characters and producing my own stuff. I know that if that’s not in the script, I always assume that they’re good at their job.

Villarreal: Oh, interesting.

Randolph: Also to be selfishly honest, as people of color, it is important for me to see. In the midst of people struggling and tribulations, people good at things and dedicating themselves — I think a lot of times people leave a lot of blanks and spaces for characters of color, and I think people just leave things not to be written. And so a lot of times it’s about filling in the blanks.

[Clip from the “Holdovers”: MARY LAMB: I heard you got stuck with babysitting duty this year. How did you manage that? PAUL HUNHAM: Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I failed someone who richly deserved it. LAMB: Oh. Osgood kid? Yeah, he was a real a—. Rich and popular combination around here. HUNHAM: It’s a plague. You’ll? You’ll be here, too? LAMB: All by my lonesome. My little sister Peggy and her husband invited me to go visit them in Roxbury, but I feel like it’s too soon. Like Curtis, will think that I’m abandoning him. You know, this is the last place that my baby and I were together. Not including the bus station. HUNHAM: Well, I look forward to your fine cooking. LAMB: Oh, no, no, don’t do that. All we’ve got is whatever’s in that walk-in. No new deliveries till January.]

Villarreal: How have you sort of navigated that throughout your career? Filling in those blanks.

Randolph: I was very lucky to go to Yale School of Drama for graduate school. So there were certain tools and skills that I learned in my three years of being there. And one of the biggest ones in regards to this in particular is that there was a dramaturgical department. I was very spoiled because with each project or production, play, musical or whatever, there was a dramaturg assigned. And for people that don’t know, it’s basically in layman’s terms, someone who is obsessed with the world of the play or the project. Right? So, for example, for “Holdovers,” this person would have all historical references, all the cultural and historical events that happened during this time period. If there are catch phrases, if there are certain products or a brand or something listed, they know everything about the world of this. I haven’t been on a production yet where they’ve done it.

Villarreal: But you did it!

Randolph: So I become my little own dramaturg wherever I go. And so that’s how I fill in the blanks. And I’ll just have conversations with the creatives of like, “Well, this is referenced here and this is what this means. Is that what you mean to say? Are we going to lean into this?” Or, “Historically during this time period, she would be doing this or she would be wearing this.”


Villarreal: I want to talk about how we’re first introduced to Mary, which comes about like seven minutes into the film and she’s over a hot stove, her whisk in hands. And there’s a moment where she sort of looks out the window and you can feel and see the sadness and contemplation that she’s experiencing. And you captured so much in literally, like, 20 seconds. And it just made me think, in everything that I’ve seen you in your first appearance on whatever screen it is, whether it’s “High Fidelity” or “My Name Is Dolemite,” you make such an impression with that first appearance of your character. I’m wondering if you’re cognizant of that, how much that first appearance means to you when you read it in a script in terms of what you’re going to bring to it?

Randolph: As you were asking me the question, the first thing that came to my mind was, I remember in school they said, “Listen, this is true of a monologue. This is definitely true of an audition.” And this is something that I’ve always shared with my peers. And that was that “the beginning and end is the thing that will stick with people for forever. And the middle is just sustaining in between.” And with that being said, I really care about these people, these women who I portray... I know whatever I’m going to do, I’m going to really invest in it and it’s going to cause sacrifices. It’s going to require my time to be divided away from my personal life, my family, and my loved ones. Because in my baby stage of my career, I don’t know how else to do it yet. But in regards to “Holdovers” in that moment, that was one of her many silent moments. And so in those times, the script changes almost until like a novel or prose changes form. I mean, it’s in the best way possible. I think romance novels are amazing, but I don’t know, in the literary world if people look down on it or not. But how in romance novels, the details are so —.

Villarreal: Precise.

Randolph: It’s almost like erotic literature, the sensory. You feel it. And that’s how this man wrote. And I didn’t have any word. And I remember reading it being like, “Why does it change like that?” Because they didn’t tell me. Sometimes this stuff will be in a script and no one ever, the viewer will never see it. We know this and we’re like, “Oh, that was interesting.” I think it was the first time we did do one of these silent scenes, I was like, “Oh!” Because I didn’t prepare for it. I thought it was just for me to know and then to figure it out. In that moment, I’m beginning to learn the power of being and just showing up. So a gift that this movie has taught me is that I can also have power in stillness. I think I’ve played strong characters, but I’ve played characters that tend to be very bombastic and full and that was something that drew me to this character, that I realized this is a whole other thing. She’s more quiet and contemplative in general.

[Clip from “The Holdovers”: ANGUS TULLY: Let’s take Mary home, make sure she’s OK, and we’ll come back. HUNHAM: Out of the question. TULLY: Come on, would you give me a break? God, I was hitting it off with Elise. HUNHAM The niece? Are you kidding me? This poor woman is bereft, and all you can think about is some silly girl. LAMB: I don’t need you feeling sorry for me. See, I’m just saying, this was the first good thing that came within this prison with you.]

Randolph: A part of me kind of believes that she, too, like Mr. Hunham, wants to be here. Her sister is only 45 minutes away. If she wanted to go home, she could have went home. And I always imagined that it was almost as if she was in bargaining negotiations with God, like, “I will only go [if] you show me a sign that I need to go.” And when that boy says he wants to go, that’s why I think they’re just so beautiful together.

Villarreal: All of them.

Randolph: All of them.

Villarreal: There’s that moment where she’s attending a colleague’s holiday party. And it sort of shows the different ways [grief] can sort of just overtake you, right? The emotions. She arrives somewhat fine emotionally. And as the night goes on, you see how it sort of overcomes her. And there’s that moment in the kitchen where she’s inconsolable and she’s grieving.

Randolph: She’s there for the kid to have some kind of familial sense of home, a memory for him. Seeing that young man happy brings her joy. And soothes some wounds for her. I think it is no coincidence that she gets to spend Christmas with this young man and with Mr. Hunham. This is quite possibly the first time she’s ever really had a real communication with another faculty member, let alone them talking about life and interests dislikes, which is so beautiful because in many ways they’re playing their own version of “The Newlywed Game.” And throughout the entire movie, whether it was romantic or not, who knows? They’re invested in one another and they care. And she’s concerned about him and that he’s not living life, and that in many ways, he’s like this agoraphobic person locked away in the ivory tower. So I think her focus is, “I’m here for them. I’m gonna help them.” And probably due to nerves, fatigue, you don’t sleep that much when you’re grieving. Your thoughts are keeping you up at night. She thinks alcohol is going to give her the liquid courage and the alchemy of alcohol can do one or two things, and it does the other. And so I think it’s why it goes on this — she never intended for that to happen. That lady never would’ve even walk through that door —

Villarreal: She always keeps it together.

Randolph: — if she thought that was going to happen. And I think the alcohol, she genuinely believed that the alcohol would give her the courage and that she would just be buzzy. And I think I used to think, if anything, her fantasy [was that] she would be dancing and having a good time, having jokes, cracking jokes and being in the life of the party. Which is why I feel like there’s a clue when she says, I’m in charge of the music. I don’t want to listen to this wack music. I’m a DJ. I’m going to play my tunes. I got this stuff going. But she plays herself. It’s almost like if you’re going through a breakup, why are you on social media looking. It’s like we do it to ourselves.


Villarreal: We do it to ourselves.

Randolph: Why are you listening to y’all’s song? Why would you do that? Of course, but it’s that. And that’s also something that’s so complicated by grief, right? Sometimes it’s like, “I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid off, ahhhh!” And then there’s other times where we just want to be — I can’t even think about it. I don’t know. I think she’s just trying everything possible.

Villarreal: I mean, Alexander talks about this is really a love story of these three very different people coming together and finding ways to love each other. And obviously, we know Paul Giamatti is this veteran who delivers stellar performances with everything he does. But Dominic [Sessa] is this newcomer who hasn’t done this before. How was that finding your way through this film together?

Randolph: Easy. I don’t know why, but it was easy. I knew Paul was going to bring it and then some. I’ve watched everything that he’s done, but even in that he’s exceeded what I ever thought. And one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. So caring and loving and kind. And so in that, especially as being the lead, it sets the tone, I felt comfortable as an actor. And I felt supported as an actor by him. And then Dominic they cast for a reason. You know what I mean? But listen, I think anybody can act.

Villarreal: You haven’t met me, Da’Vine. I cannot act.

Randolph: No! It really comes down to vulnerability. If you’re willing to expose.

Villarreal: I’m not.

Randolph: And that’s why acting’s hard. Because it’s crazy. It’s abnormal. It’s a little weird for a person to get a high off of being somebody else other than themselves. That’s why actors can be weird. Do you know what I mean? So kudos to you for being healthy. Thank your therapist. You are healthy and well. We are not. We are not. But no, who he is as a young man, Dominic, he’s an old soul. He’s lived this life. It is art imitating life.

Villarreal: He looks like he’s straight out of 1970.

Randolph: And that is his real haircut. They didn’t do his hair for the [role]. If you look, he’s here now in town. That’s how he’s rocking his hair right now. But that’s beautiful. Then that means, like, “Of course you’re doing the part. You’re meant to do this part.”

Villarreal: With each project that you do, the recognition of your talent continues to grow. And with this performance, you’re getting so much praise and awards buzz, you’re picking up top critics prizes. I’m curious, like, what does that do for you in terms of how you view yourself as a performer?


Randolph: It is an affirmation. To keep going. If the little voice inside, that’s like whispering, “Keep going. It matters.”.

Villarreal: It does. I want a movie starring Da’Vine. And I want you to lead it. I want a rom-com starring Da’Vine. Are those things that you want?

Randolph: I want to give voice to the voiceless. As a minority and as a female. Because with “Dolemite” it really tripped me up that I couldn’t search that woman [I portrayed]. And that’s a real person that made a big impact on someone’s life. There was not tons but a good amount on Rudy Ray Moore. And I literally had to dive and find a party album to just hear the woman speak and I had to base my entire performance on that. And that shook me: “This is crazy.” That for female narratives, we don’t have it. And so I just want to tell these stories. And so I try to position myself, maintain my craft, maintain my skill set so that I can be afforded these opportunities to be in these kind of spaces with the Alexander Paynes of the industry. It’s one thing to [make films] with your people and that’s cool. But I think you can also make a quite a bigger splash, potentially, to be in spaces where you aren’t [usually] there and to do said job and to do it well. It’s twofold for me. It’s me wanting to make a difference within the industry at large. But my devotion is always to the viewer and with every character and decisions and choices that I make, I’m always thinking, “Who is it that will be watching this and what can I do?”

I’m into sports and I remember growing up, Jason Kidd, when he used to go to the free throw line, he would do this little thing. And when I watched an interview and they said that was him saying hi to his kids, I thought that was so cool. And I remember as a kid being like, “I don’t care what I’ll be when I grow up. I want my little [imitates shooting a ball].” That’s what I do. I think of the viewer. I think what could be relatable or allow them to feel seen or aligned internally. Like with “High Fidelity,” it was all about pop culture in the here and now. I’m asking friends, my younger cousins, my younger sister, “What’s the dance moves right now? Where they do it?” I had to have her be relatable to a certain demographic. With this, I’m pulling back to my ancestors, the people who are in my personal life, the women who have been trailblazers in my industry. For me to be in this position, I pay homage to them. I mean, I’m paying homage in the hairstyles that I choose and the clothes that I’m wearing and the accessories or the coat that I [wear]. All these little details are my subliminal message because it’s a love letter.

Villarreal: Thinking back to your time at Yale, and maybe I’m projecting a little bit, but I would imagine that this is how I would feel. Maybe that I don’t always belong. And as you’re navigating your way through that, of discovering who you want to be as a performer, when you think back to that time, have you become the actor that you sought out to be?

Randolph: You’re a very good interviewer. I just want you to know that.

Villarreal: Thank you.

Randolph: You’re a very good interviewer. When I applied for graduate school, because of how I looked — now, you have to keep in mind, I’m classically trained opera singer. And when I began to refocus my energy to this new art form, I knew nothing of it. But one thing I did know is that I never want to be a stereotype, and I did not want to be limited by how I looked to whomever was looking at me at that moment. And so I was getting callbacks to these different schools. And when it came down to the interview and they asked, “What do you want to get at the school?” I said, “I want to be able to learn through you and gain a skill. Something like a toolbox of skills and resources so that essentially I could play Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and be in the body and the skin that I am in, and you believe it. And that in some way I can disappear and that character can show instead.” Every school but one said, “No” or “That’s impossible,” or “That’s not what we’re interested in.” And Yale School of Drama was the only one that was like, “But of course, that is what our entire curriculum is based upon.” So I knew that was a place for me. If I was going to do this acting thing, this would be where I need to do it.


As I was getting my training, I was the only Black female in my class. There were two African American men and one woman from Puerto Rico. It will allowed me to have this incubated space. What was so beautiful, I felt like a child almost is colorblind, truly. Because I didn’t have any outside influences. And then we were like in a lab, so to speak. They really allowed me just to create as many characters as possible. But as we were getting ready to get close to graduating, I was in search of my identity. And I remember I used to go to my teacher, his name is Ron Van Lieu. He’s very well known, probably one of the last few living acting gurus. But I’m talking about way back when. And he said, “Who is it that you look up to?” And I rattled off names to him and he just laughed in a kind way. And I said, “What’s so funny?” And he was like, “Because whom you look up to looks nothing like you. Therefore you have to understand an essential truth, and that is you are forging your own path.” And that the likes of Meryl Streep as an example, Al Pacino, [Robert] De Niro, there wasn’t a them before they arrived. And so he said to me, “I have no question that you will become exactly what you need to do. However, you are going to have a hard road. Because you’re not going to have a blueprint set before you. But you have to invest and believe in yourself. And in believing yourself, you can never go wrong.” ...

What’s crazy is, as I’m getting to know these people personally, now, I’m getting more insight. Some things that I thought were true [are] true. Some things I thought were true [are] not true at all, in the best way possible. And so it’s just bizarre to list those people and then be like — last week I got advice from Al Pacino with my personal life. You know what I mean? There’s nothing new under the sun, but the best and only thing you can truly offer is your authentic self. Because nobody can copy. As much as that’s what they taught us in kindergarten, it’s actually true. I actually think that a lot of stuff that we tell children in the first years of their life, there needs to be like a little book to be like, “Hey, remember these things. Get back to that because it’s true.” There’s essential, fundamental, full, whole-life truths and there’s truly nothing better than being yourself. We got to love on ourselves more. We have to explore more, travel more. In between gigs I like to go away if I can afford to do so. Because how am I going to be a good actor and I haven’t left my house? We have to have experiences, and we need to get out of America to explore other places, to get inside of how other people function and live.

Villarreal: I just want to congratulate you on your success. I can’t wait to see what role you tackle next and continue making that blueprint.

Randolph: I really appreciate it.

Olsen: And that’ll do it for another episode of “The Envelope.” Thank you for watching and listening. Please subscribe wherever you may watch or listen, and we’ll be back with a new episode on Feb. 15. That’ll be coming after the Oscar nominations, so we’ll have a whole new round of guests. Please watch and listen along then.