Da'Vine Joy Randolph doesn't want anyone finishing her sentences
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Da'Vine Joy Randolph doesn't want anyone finishing her sentences
Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Oda Mae Brown in “Ghost the Musical,” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York, March 14, 2012. Randolph, 36, has been on a relentless professional pace for more than a decade now, playing a range of memorable roles in theater, film and television. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Dave Itzkoff



NEW YORK, NY.- Please forgive Da’Vine Joy Randolph if she needs to stifle the occasional yawn. When she hopped on a video interview in late September, the omnipresent, extremely busy and still slightly jet-lagged actress had only just returned from Colombia, where she was filming “Shadow Force,” an action movie for director Joe Carnahan.

Despite the exotic locale and a fulfilling work experience, the otherwise upbeat Randolph emphasized that she was happy to be back on her home turf in Los Angeles. “Even on a vacation,” she said, “after the two-week mark, no matter how amazing the vacation is, you’re like, I’m ready.”

Randolph, 36, has been on a relentless professional pace for more than a decade now, playing a range of memorable roles in theater, film and television. She recently co-starred in the drama “On the Come Up,” the directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan, playing Pooh, the supportive but no-nonsense aunt of an aspiring teenage rapper (Jamila C. Gray).

Yet Randolph is probably better known for her work in several comedies, including the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building” and films like “Dolemite Is My Name.”

Why Randolph keeps turning up alongside the likes of Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Martin Short, she said, is anyone’s guess. “It’s actually quite a conundrum,” she said. “I think I have a good sense of humor, but I don’t consider myself funny.”

Whatever type of story she is telling, Randolph said, she often takes a similar approach to her roles: “I really just focus on their dedication — everyone wants something.”

She explained, “When people get into extreme situations or they want something bad enough, hilarity can ensue because the stakes are just that high. To the viewer, it can be comical. To me, I’m like in a Greek tragedy over here.”

Rather than be remembered as a comedic or a dramatic performer, Randolph said she wants to be called “a transformational actor”: “I never want to get pigeonholed or known for one thing. I don’t want people to be able to finish my sentences.”

Randolph shared the stories behind a few of her most memorable roles. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

‘Ghost the Musical’

In the stage adaptation of the 1990 movie, which ran on Broadway in 2012, Randolph was cast as Oda Mae Brown, the psychic played in the film by Whoopi Goldberg.

That was my first job ever, and it started very quickly. Like, roller coaster plunging down — there was no windup. You booked it (whooshing sound). Now my life is fortunately and unfortunately like that — that can be the nature of what it is. But to be thrown in, in that way, was a lot of getting used to. When we found out that “Ghost” was closing, I remember saying to my agents, “I want to do a movie and a TV show and a straight play.” And I booked one of Robin Williams’ last movies (“The Angriest Man in Brooklyn”), an episode of “The Good Wife” and an original play at Atlantic Theater Company (“What Rhymes With America”). I was like, whoa. Good manifesting.

‘Selfie’

Randolph played Charmonique, a co-worker of the pharmaceutical firm staffers played by Karen Gillan and John Cho, on this short-lived ABC cult sitcom from 2014.

I got to learn all the ins and outs of network television. After an episode was released, I remember the producers being like: “The numbers, the numbers, what are the numbers? What are the ratings?” I was like, whoa, that’s a whole thing. You did the pilot, then after you get 13 (episodes), then you find out if you get the back nine. Which we didn’t on that show. And — because people ask me all the time — I genuinely don’t know why. Our co-workers don’t know why. I have spent time with Karen Gillan. We don’t know why. I promise you there’s no secret I’m withholding.

‘Empire’

On the Fox hip-hop soap opera that ended in 2020, Randolph played Poundcake, a onetime fellow prison inmate of Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson).

They built a whole soundstage and turned it into a prison, and it was just a two-hander with Taraji and me. It felt like getting back to the fundamentals, where I really got to dig in and play a different type of character. We were almost a whole other show within that show. Even the other actors were like, “How come you get to do all this stuff?” Craig (Brewer), the director of “Dolemite,” was directing me in one of the episodes for “Empire.” I was like, “You’re really cool to work with. Do you have any interesting stuff down the pike?” He said nothing. And then I go to the (“Dolemite”) audition, and I’m like, “Craig!” He was like, (sheepishly) “Oh, I didn’t know.”

‘Dolemite Is My Name’

This 2019 comedic biopic starred Eddie Murphy as the stand-up and Blaxploitation actor Rudy Ray Moore and Randolph as Moore’s “Dolemite” screen partner Lady Reed.

“Dolemite” changed the trajectory of my career. On my end, the work is never changing. My process, my way in — I don’t save myself for the big roles and phone it in for everything else. But the collaborative energy allowed my character to have a space to be seen and heard. Eddie is very meticulous with his work and this was a passion project for him, but he was so generous. Interestingly enough, I had booked it — deal signed and everything — and then they were like, uh, we don’t know. They made me re-audition, which was intense. But the gift in it was, if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have felt as confident and forthright. I was able to come to work being like, This is what I have to offer. Before I would have been like, (mousy voice) “What do you think, Mr. Murphy?” Now I was like, I know who she is and what they want from her.

‘The Lost City’

In this year’s hit comedy, Sandra Bullock starred as a romance novelist caught up in an unexpected jungle adventure and Randolph as her intrepid publisher.

That was like my first true work-cation. It was wild. The last scene of the movie, where we were all on the beach, that’s where we lived. If the camera turned back, you would see the hotel we were staying at. The travel bans were just starting to come up from COVID, so for a lot of us, we were also very excited to be working. When you’re literally on the beach, it’s pretty hard to be a jerk. A lot of it had to do with Sandra Bullock and how she just took care of the actors.

Sandra never got diva-ish or distanced herself, like, I’m over here and you’re down here. We were all in it together. I was having fun with the hair department. The moment I go into the jungle, I knew my hair was going to get more and more frizzy. It became like a game — each scene would be like, OK, so how frizzy is it?

‘Only Murders in the Building’

As the resourceful Detective Williams on this Hulu comedy series, Randolph often crosses paths with the amateur sleuths played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez.

That job, 1,000%, was because of “Dolemite.” Steve Martin told me he saw “Dolemite,” was very impressed — “You held your own,” that whole thing — and that was a straight offer from him and the showrunner. It’s such a wonderful working environment. Lovely hours. You’re out by like 6, 7 o’clock. You go have dinner, a life. And just to be around Steve Martin and Martin Short — they still have this childlike anticipation and excitement, like it was their first project. That blows me away, every single time.

Williams is damn good at her job and has a crazy case that she’s trying to crack. She’s aggressive and that has made her successful. Then these three civilians get in the middle of things, trying to solve it for her, alongside her, in spite of her. That makes her job more difficult. But in the process, she learns maybe it is OK to not work by yourself all the time. She’s coming to terms with it and it’s awkward and uncomfortable. That’s where the comedy comes in.

‘On the Come Up’

Randolph’s character, Aunt Pooh, is the streetwise sister to Jay, an absentee mother played by Lathan, the film’s director, and the mentor to her niece, an aspiring rapper played by Gray.

When I found out about that job, I was filming Netflix’s “Rustin,” playing Mahalia Jackson, so I’m giving full Christian, Southern Baptist auntie. To then go to that kind of auntie really intrigued me. But especially in telling Black-specific narratives from Black voices, there always has to be a message. Even with “Empire,” I don’t care if I’m an inmate, but there has to be a positive message that we grow and learn from. You see throughout the movie all the roles that Aunt Pooh was to her: I was her parent, and she was my niece and my best friend, if not a little sister. Which I think keeps their relationship very complex. As tough as Aunt Pooh is, she has this gushing heart for her family and for her niece, which was really quite special.

The physical transformation was quite significant, and in a short amount of time. When I got to set, the costume just wasn’t quite hitting it. But the costume designer was really cool — I was like, “Do you trust me? I know who this person is and I can show you better than I can explain it to you.” She was like, “Sure, no problem.” And so, for two days, I went shopping here in LA and got all the costumes. Literally everything that I wear, that is what we pulled and bought. The moment I put it on, I was like, oh, OK. When you’re going from movie to movie, a lot of times, actors are wigged. But Sanaa Lathan, who had done a movie all about hair (“Nappily Ever After”), was like, “I think you really should rock your own hair.” I was like, no, no, I don’t want to do it. But the moment that we did the look, I was like, damn it, that’s it. Being that it was my own hair, I had to rock my hair like that on and off the set. The attention you get from that — I couldn’t be more different from it. I’m not method and I don’t usually subscribe to that. But it allowed me to stay in it and understand her.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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