Photo:Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images
In another universe, actress Da'Vine Joy Randolph and I are neighborhood friends. She and I are just about the same age, and her hometown is my dad's hometown. If he hadn't moved away from Philadelphia before I was born, I might have grown up around the corner from her in Mount Airy, where my grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins all live now. In the world as we know it, though, Randolph and I haven't ever met; in fact, we've only ever had one phone call. She was driving around a parking garage in Los Angeles, and I was tucked away in a phone booth in my office in New York, but it was a call bursting at the seams with her enthusiasm for her craft; her relatable, down-to-earth perspective on Hollywood and fame; and how she wants to use her art for good. We crammed so much into that phone call that I felt as though I’d somehow found myself seated front-row in the Da’Vine Joy Randolph Master Class on Life. (She can talk, let me tell you.) Obviously, I took notes.
Before we get into the juicy bits, a little background: Randolph is a Tony-nominated singer and actress who trained in opera and musical theater in undergrad and graduated with her masters from the Yale School of Drama in 2011. This year she was part of a hilarious ensemble cast in the Eddie Murphy–helmed Netflix remake of Dolemite Is My Name, the 1975 Rudy Ray Moore blaxploitation film, alongside Wesley Snipes, Keegan Michael-Key, Tituss Burgess, Snoop Dogg, and other stars.
The film chronicles Moore’s unlikely story, a lesson in perseverance. A wannabe musician who worked in a record store but couldn’t even get his own albums on the radio, he eventually became a Billboard-charting recording artist whose films were popular and influential in the black community. Some say he's the godfather of rap. Dolemite, the crime-fighting, kung fu pimp is the most well-known of Moore’s characters and has the best catchphrase I’ve ever heard in my life: “Dolemite is my name, and fucking motherfuckers up is my game.” Okay then, sir!
Photo:François Duhamel for Netflix
Randolph, meanwhile, plays Lady Reed, a comedian and singer welcomed into Moore’s inner circle, who eventually became a close confidant to him and went on to star in more of his films. According to Randolph, Lady Reed was a “woman’s woman,” and she was initially drawn to the character because of Reed’s love for fashion and her feminist bent. Reed was prone to “instructing women, in the early ’70s, of how to be independent and not be marginalized under the thumb of a man, especially in the bedroom,” Randolph says. Sounds like so many Instagram accounts these days, but back then it was nothing short of revolutionary. “That gave me a huge way in [to her character],” Randolph shares, “knowing this woman was larger than life in every sense of the word and really lived life out loud unapologetically.”
Lady Reed’s bold personality was matched in the film by the lush color palette Costume Director Ruth Carter chose for the character—standout yellow and green and purple, vibrant colors that bolster the character as she grows into her own from a jilted housewife to a strong black showstopper draped in jewel tones and not dulling her shine for anydamnbody. It’s enough to make you do a double take, and the critics are certainly taking note. Dolemite Is My Name is already raking in the award buzz: So far, nominations have come in for best comedy at the Golden Globes and the Critics' Choice Awards, and both the Costume Designers Guild Award and the Critics' Choice Awards have nominated Carter for her costume design work.
If you’ve somehow missed out on Da’Vine Joy Randolph in Ghost the Musical, Selfie, This Is Us, or Empire, among other projects, look out for her next in Hulu’s High Fidelity (alongside Zoë Kravitz) and Lee Daniels’s The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. But for now, read all about this inspiring actress and her role in Dolemite Is My Name below.
How did you come to be involved with the project?
It was just an untitled, no-script audition. I had some sides. [Ed. note: Sides are script sections actors get for auditions.] I knew Craig Brewer was involved, and I had the breakdown of the character—that was it. That was my entry point. I didn’t know anything about Rudy Ray Moore and Lady Reed. I had been speaking with my father and confused it, and said, “Dad, I’m going in for Madame Red or Lady Red and Domino… What’s the name of that sugar company?” And my dad was like, “Dolemite and Lady Reed?!” And then he put me on the game. On Amazon Prime Video, they have a channel called Brown Sugar, a collection of vintage black cinema, and that was my resource. They had all of Rudy Ray Moore’s filmography, and I watched them all. There wasn’t any information, sadly enough, on Lady Reed.
Playing a real-life character is going to come with its own set of pressures. How did you tackle coming to Lady Reed and making your portrayal authentic but also your own?
Once I realized that there wasn’t any info on her, I was extremely dedicated to being authentic with what I did have. Her voice was really my way in. I would put her on surround sound all throughout the house and really just absorb her. You can tell a lot from a voice.
When Eddie Murphy’s character first meets Lady Reed in the film, he says he noticed her star potential because “some people walk around with their own little personal spotlight.” Have you ever felt that you had a spotlight on you?
Isn’t that beautiful? I really liked that. At a young age, I knew that I had the ability to sing, to communicate with people in a way that it caused and affected change. I knew that I was connecting with my voice to people, and that was unique. From there, I didn’t know. I knew I had a gift, but I can’t say my gift was always constantly fostered. It wasn’t. From my parents it was, but from my teachers and stuff like that it wasn’t—I mean, I was kicked out of opera school. Yes, I knew I had talent, but I did not coast in this world.
Photo:François Duhamel for Netflix
I really enjoyed how the film showcased going after your dreams—Rudy Roy Moore was not taking no for an answer, and I find that kind of self-assuredness very admirable. Can you relate to that focus?
Yes, absolutely. I really relate to this story. There have been a lot of nos and a lot of rejection in my life, so it is very meta, if you will. Now [due to Eddie Murphy's and Dolemite's success], I have the opportunity to have access. It’s a beautiful thing that in this situation, it’s one of few, if not the only, situations where I don’t have to fight my way through. It’s a really beautiful experience to just be welcomed with open arms and for people to be so kind and recognize my gifts and my talents.
To be in this business, you have to believe enough to cut through all the drama and BS and the nos, everything. You’re too big, you’re too small, you’re too pretty, you’re too short—all of these things. To keep it up every day and take it up again in the face of constant rejection, it takes extreme laser focus in order to do something like that. That is not easy at all to do.
Confidence was a big theme in the film—confidence in your dream and in yourself. I saw that in Lady Reed’s glow-up. When did you start feeling more confident in yourself as an actor and a singer? Did education play a part in imbuing you with a certain confidence in your craft?
Yes and no. I suffer from imposter syndrome. Even now as this film is getting the buzz it’s getting and myself getting the recognition that I’m getting… It’s quite overwhelming, and it’s a lot to take in. To me, this really is a job, and I absolutely put my all in it, but I’m not doing it in order to receive certain accolades or recognition or awards that are now being put into the conversation. I didn’t wake up wanting to be an actor. I know so many people who are as talented, if not more talented, than me who, due to the nature of the beast, people don’t even know about and some people will never know about. That’s just tragic. There’s a mix of luck and opportunity and talent and chance—all these things—that, in some sense, it’s not fair.
I’ve grown confident due to having [certain] teachers instilling in me that I have a gift. Hearing the affirmations definitely helped to a certain point where I was like, Okay, all of these people can’t be wrong. The confidence grows with each role. [I went to Yale beacuse] I always wanted to have the tools to be able to play any role at all. For me it’s very important to be a transformative actor; the people I look up to and admire are transformative actors, so I keep the focus on the craft.
In my work, I am confident that I am a talented actor, absolutely. Whether that will then manifest into more jobs or more recognition or awards… I don’t even think about that. The trick of the actor is creating balance and self-worth and continuing to dive in when you do not know if there is going to be a safety net to catch you.
Photo:François Duhamel for Netflix
I read that you went to camp at Interlochen! (I also went to a performing arts camp—shout-out to French Woods Festival.) Has anything from your time there stuck with you to this day?
Interlochen made me aware of my gift and the connections that you make in this art community and how important it is to have that in your life throughout your career, the ups and downs of a group of people who get it and support you earnestly without motives.
Actually, ironically enough, when I graduated from Yale, I was broke and couldn’t afford to have a place, and I did not know what I was going to do. I was in New York, and I just so happened to run into a camper and fellow student and friend from Interlochen who I hadn’t seen since—almost 10 years. I told him of my situation, and he said, “I don’t have much, but you can sleep in my closet.” He was a costume designer for Broadway shows and tours as well as RuPaul’s Drag Race. So for several months until I ended up booking Ghost the Musical, I was sleeping in a closet with wigs and butt pads and fake boobs. I made that closet and that La-Z-Boy my sanctuary. It wasn’t much, but I was so grateful. I am incredibly indebted to him as well as Interlochen for letting me have those connections because you just never know.
The legendary Ruth Carter did the wardrobe for the film. What was it like working with her?
She changed my life. I love her to pieces. When I first met her, I cried because I knew that I was going to be more than taken care of. She’s a game changer. She made me feel confident and feel like a woman and sexy in my own body and that I’m enough. Most of the things I wore were custom-made head to toe. I loved that purple outfit with the fur. I love the green outfit (above); the yellow outfit just makes you feel so sexy and effortless, and it’s super comfortable.
Honestly, this was the first production where I got excited when I could come to work and wonder What I am wearing today? I literally had a different outfit in every scene. I’ve never been in a situation like that. As a curvy girl, it is a struggle to find pieces and even to find people who are willing to work with you. To find someone who is creative and willing and loves fashion for fashion’s sake… She honestly gave me hope. I got super spoiled.
Photo:Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for AT&T
Some of the best comedians ever were on set here. How did the cast develop its rapport and bond? Could you guys get through a take without laughing?
Everyone was so excited to do this project. We knew as we were developing and creating this movie that it was something special. Of course, there was laughter everywhere constantly; we were enjoying ourselves and exploring these characters and seeing how and what we could pull out of them. It was a very positive breeding site for creativity and fun. We would be upset when we had days off, so we would often come to work and sit in Video Village and watch our peers work and learn and enjoy them and support them.
Something that was so cool is that Eddie is known for being very loyal, so you had gaffers and the lighting guy and the sound guy who have been with him since the beginning of his career, and he brought them back and employed them. There was so much history [there], and it felt like home.
Photo:Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images
You’re filming a new film right now, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. What else is on the horizon? What would be a dream project?
I am in Montreal filming the Billie Holiday biopic. I play Rosalyn who is a real-life person and was Billie’s best friend—her longest childhood friend who stayed in her life. Outside of that, I’m starting to focus my attention on the right projects. I’m looking into doing passion pieces and putting them in progress. I’ve always been a historian and had a love for history, especially within the culture of people of color, in particular African Americans, so it’s crucial to me to illuminate these stories because, especially for kids now, it’s not being taught in schools. Unless someone tells them or shows them, how will they ever know?
I think my prayer and my wish is that my talent be the thing that breaks the borders, breaks the boundaries, switches the rules up. I am very aware that I am an African American female who is curvy, who is over size 10, so it is imperative to me that our television and our movies reflect the reality of our world—that’s what I’m desperately in pursuit of. For me, an action movie—a genuine action movie that is not comical or commenting on the actor’s size but where she is really kicking butt as a curvy girl—is so cool. I want to make history. I’m trying to use this exposure for good. It’s a very exciting time.
Dolemite Is My Name is now streaming on Netflix.