- By Colin Paterson
- Entertainment correspondent
I am sitting in a corridor at the Corinthia Hotel in London, waiting to interview actress Da’vine Joy Randolph about her new film The Holdovers, in which she stars alongside Paul Giamatti.
At this exact moment she wins an award.
Up it pops on social media, that 3,500 miles away, the New York Film Critics Circle have named her best supporting actress for this very role. She plays Mary Lamb, a grieving cook who works at a New England boarding school.
Set over Christmas in 1970, Lamb is sharing the mistletoe with a misanthrope. The school’s history teacher (Giamatti) has been tasked with looking after the holdovers – the pupils who are staying at school over the holidays instead of going home to their families.
As her previous interview ends, I can hear Randolph (best known as Detective Williams in Only Murders in the Building and Lady Reed in Dolemite Is My Name) being informed by her assistant about the breaking news of her win. I enter the room to see her beaming a huge smile.
“They just told me,” she laughs. “I literally just found out as you walked in. My brain is not computing it. I don’t even know what that means.”
Even better for Randolph is the fact that the award will be presented at a gala dinner on the 3 January, so she has not even missed her big moment by having to meet me.
Next door, 20 minutes later, I am able to share an update about Randolph’s win with her co-star Paul Giamatti. His response? “That’s fantastic. Awesome.”
Over the next few months, it seems likely that Giamatti will also be in the running for awards, thanks to this film.
The film has broadly gone down well with critics. The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Farber said while the movie “is not without its flaws, it is an engaging and often touching comic drama that builds power as it moves toward its immensely satisfying conclusion”.
Variety’s Peter Debruge added: “Peer beyond the perfectly satisfying Christmas-movie surface, and The Holdovers is a film about class and race, grief and resentment, opportunity and entitlement. It’s that rare exception to the oft-heard complaint that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”.
Interestingly, despite being set at Christmas time, The Holdovers is not being released in the UK until late January, hoping to capitalise on awards success, rather than festive feelings.
The Holdovers sees Giamatti reunited with the director Alexander Payne for the first time since 2004’s Sideways – the hugely successful movie which took wine tasting and threw in a mid-life crisis and a hatred of Merlot. In real life this had economic consequences for the drink industry.
“A year or so after it came out, Tom Church [his co-star] and I were asked to do ads for the Merlot growers of America to try to rescue the sales,” he reminisces, “but we didn’t do it.
“Apparently only now have they recovered.”
The Holdovers continues a trend which has been a huge part of Giamatti’s career in films such as Sideways, American Splendor and Barney’s Version – bringing humanity to people who on a first look are not that easy to like. His character, Paul Hunham, certainly falls into that category.
“I do end up playing a lot of these not terribly nice, complicated people,” he agrees. “I do wonder why that is? Whether it’s something somebody saw me do early on and then they’d like to see you do it again. Or whether it’s something I bring to the parts, I don’t know.”
He continues: “The interesting thing about a lot of them and with this guy too, is that he’s not wrong about a lot of the things he says, it’s just the way he goes about it.”
One aspect that makes the character particularly memorable is his startlingly realistic lazy eye.
“It’s hard to tell which one it is, isn’t it?” replies Giamatti with a degree of mischief, when I put the theory to him that the afflicted eye changes side during the film.
“It’s movie magic and acting prowess. That’s what I’d like to think it is.”
Indeed, the end credits feature a contact lens technician – Zach Ripps.
Earlier, Randolph gave me her theory as to why The Holdovers is generating so much awards buzz. “Something that Alexander Payne does so beautifully is that he can take ordinary people and make them so special,” she says. “There is something about how he makes these people feel so real and tangible.”
She explains that she was offered the part without an audition as Payne had seen her opposite Eddie Murphy in Dolemite. “His theory is that he prefers to work with people with comedic chops, because he feels more comfortable that they can pull out the dramatics, but not necessarily, in his opinion, the other way around.”
The only problem? She did not recognise the director’s name. “I asked him to please share the titles of some of the movies he had done, so I could watch them and get to know him better.
“He was very humble and said, ‘I did this thing called Sideways’ and I went ‘When that guy’s drunk the whole time and running around the vineyard. Wait, you did The Descendants? Where George Clooney is running around in flip-flops screaming?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah that’s me.’ And I went, ‘Oh I like your stuff.'”
Laughing, I suggest that her “one sentence movie reviews” should become a regular thing.
Randolph felt so protective of her role as mother whose son has just been killed in Vietnam, that she insisted that she was not called a school cook, but “a head chef running a culinary department”. She also asked to do as much of the cooking in the film herself, even going as far as choosing the Christmas menu that is served on screen.
It would seem likely that she is the only actor in the running for this year’s big awards who “pre-chopped all the vegetables”. But it is this authenticity which shines through in a performance which is already being rewarded.
Finally, I ask her how ready she is for the campaigning ahead? She already has a plan in place: “Lots of naps. Vitamins, staying healthy and sleeping on planes. That’s all you can do. Save your energy, because at this point it’s a marathon.”
The Christmas canon
Paul Giamatti believes that The Holdovers could also receive a different type of award all together, one without any trophy, by becoming a Christmas classic.
“I think it is precisely the king of film that people will watch at Christmas over and over again. Alexander [Payne} makes movies that I think will stand the test of time.”
And Giamatti’s favourite films in the Christmas canon?
“It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie. Elf is a great movie. And there’s a more obscure one that I like and wish it was better known. It’s a musical from the 70s called Scrooge with Albert Finney. I would urge people to watch that.”
Tellingly, Scrooge’s stand out song has the refrain: “I hate people”.
Paul Giamatti, a true believer in the joy of a grumpy Christmas.
The Holdovers opens in the UK on 19 January.