If there’s one thing Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s going to do, it’s command a room! Her presence is felt as soon as she graces the screen or stage, and that’s been evident from the list of passionate, complex female roles she gravitates to — from her Tony-nominated performance as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost: The Musical to her award-winning portrayal of Lady Reed in Dolemite Is My Name. And her latest project is no different. Da’Vine stars as Roslyn in the Lee Daniels–directed biographical drama The United States vs. Billie Holiday, alongside Andra Day (Billie Holiday) and Trevante Rhodes (Jimmy Fletcher).
To celebrate the premiere of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, we sat down with Da’Vine and talked about a little bit of everything — like what surprising thing she learned about the late singer, what it was like reuniting with Lee Daniels, and what fans would have seen from Cherise if High Fidelity didn’t get canceled. Here’s what we learned:
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1. What was the audition process like for The United States vs. Billie Holiday?
I had already worked with Lee Daniels on Empire, so I was already a part of the “Lee family,” so to speak. They brought the role to my attention. I read the script with Lee’s sister, Leah Daniels, and then I got it. So it wasn’t a strenuous process, but I knew if I were to get this role, it would be special. This will be special for sure.
2. What was it like reuniting with Lee Daniels again?
What was so special about this was he was very personally invested. This wasn’t just another one of his amazing movies or projects. He has an innate ability of knowing the culture and the pulse. He knows what we want and need — Empire was a phenomenon! We needed it. So that and bringing the ensemble together is one of his many very special and unique gifts, as well as pushing his actors to “go there.” So I knew it wasn’t gonna be a joke, like we were gonna go there.
3. Did you take away anything from the experience that really stuck with you?
I think the biggest thing that I learned from him is to not back down, stand firm in exemplifying Black excellence and quality, take the time to have quality, because we need people to know and see just how great we are, and that it’s unapologetic. To see the many choices that he made, from our wardrobe to being like, “Listen, then you need to open up the budget because I need them to be looking like X, Y, and Z.” I hope when people watch it, when our people watch it, I hope they get tingles inside, because it’s Black. It is unapologetically Black and it’s beautiful. What I’m seeing and learning from him is you don’t apologize for that — instead, you lean into that truth. It means so much to me. For it to be getting nominated for Critics’ Choice Awards and receiving mainstream recognition, it means a lot, because we’re not being silenced. Watching Lee lead that ship in knowing we’re not gonna apologize, we’re not gonna back down, and they will see us — that’s the biggest thing that I saw and learned from him.
4. What was one of your favorite behind-the-scenes moments with the cast?
I just loved and was so grateful that we actually really liked each other, like authentically and truthfully. I think those who are in the industry, if they’re honest, they know what I mean. If you think about it, like let’s just be real, we are all strangers, right? I don’t know you from Jack, most times. It’s rare. Sometimes you’ll start doing multiple projects with people you know, but it doesn’t usually work out that way. So you’re expected to be like lovers or best friends, or have all this kind of history — whatever it may be — and that’s a very unnatural thing to try to sell.
5. What did you love most about working with the cast?
What was so amazing [about the Billie Holiday cast] is we just clicked. I think it has a lot to do with Lee and how well he can read people and know their potential. He knows how to put together an ensemble. In particular, with Miss Lawrence and Andra Day, we clicked immediately. We had so many things in common. We love vintage things, music, art, Black culture, fashion, makeup, hair, all of it. At that point, we were just enjoying the opportunity. I really can’t say that enough.
6. What did it mean to you to help bring this story to life?
You know, there have only been a few biopics made about Black individuals and our Black heroes in our history — there’s 1,000 gajillion more to tell — but we’ve only told a couple so far. While reading this script, I was like, “Wow, this will live on to be like a Ray or Lady Sings the Blues, or What’s Love Got to Do with It.” I just felt so grateful throughout the process. It was just fun to be lost in that time. We filmed in Montreal, and Montreal is very vintage. It’s very weird in a beautiful way. That city is etched in stone or lost in time, if you will, in a really beautiful way. So, it was very dreamy and just a really beautiful process. It was just so much fun, because everyone was on board, that was another huge thing. Everyone was on board and dedicated, from the top of the call sheet to the bottom.
7. I love hearing about people forming natural connections. Did you learn anything new about Billie Holiday while working on the set?
Yeah! I didn’t know about all that activism. I mean, growing up, we knew they told us what “Strange Fruit” was about, but I didn’t know that that was one of the first protest songs. But this is the thing that’s interesting, in history, they’re going to tell you what they want you to know and hide what they don’t, right? So, what I was so tripped out about, even in reading the script, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea she was such an activist and so selfless.”
8. Did learning those things make you discover new things about yourself?
I’m aware that creative art is my form of ministry, my form of activism, my gifts, and with that comes great responsibility. We all have gifts, and I encourage everyone to take the time to tap in and discover what their many gifts are. I think when you tap into that, that’s your true activism. Billie Holiday used her phenomenal voice to do more than what people think. We just thought she was this wild, fancy, free woman who could sing down and had a drug addiction, but no, it was way more than that. Way more.
9. That is so powerful! I’ve noticed that you have a knack for providing comedic relief during serious situations, like during the dog funeral and then just in your other projects as well. So I just want to know: What does comedy mean to you?
I mean, to be really honest with you, I think coming from Black households, laughter was used to sometimes forget, to escape, to not focus on the trials and tribulations of our situation. Laughter, to me, was the currency. It gave me agency within my home, as well as out in the world at a young age. I’ve always said I think I have a good sense of humor, but I don’t think I’m funny. I think I have a good sense of humor, but I’m just glad that people connect with it and identify with it.
10. How has that translated into your work?
Like with every character, there’s someone in my community or my family that I identify with, and it’s always an homage to them, as well as the person that I’m playing. Even if you think of things like memes and TikToks, why do we crack up laughing at them or why do you think they go viral? A lot of times, it’s merely because we relate to them. So we’re cracking up, because we’re like, “Yo, my mom does the same thing” or, “You know what, my sister does that, too!” So, I think it’s just about being honest and knowing that even in hard times, there are moments of laughter. I never aim to be funny. I’m always just focused on telling the story authentically, and if that affects people sometimes through laughter, then I’m cool with it.
11. Now, I want to know who makes you laugh. Who are some of your favorite comedians?
Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and Bernie Mac. Oh, and I think Mike Epps is hilarious! He’s just naturally funny.
TheNews.Top: Speaking of comedy, I couldn’t help but laugh at your character Cherise in High Fidelity. I’m still feeling some type of way that it got canceled. That was my show!
DJR: Girl, thank you! Thank you.
12. Season 2 was actually supposed to focus on you. What were you hoping to share with fans about Cherise’s life?
The humanity. I wanted to show that she’s not a stereotype and show her world outside of the record store. I wanted people to see how she navigates the world and her relationships. I don’t think Cherise gets too caught up with men. There might be one person that might get her, but I think Cherise is the type to go, “Girl, go on and live your life. You’re fly and you’re sexy, so on to the next one!”
13. Do you still talk to anyone from the cast?
Absolutely! We all keep in contact still. That was another cast where it really felt like, “Oh, this is special. We’re creating something special.” It was very hands-on and we were all very motivated to make it the best thing it could be.
14. Was there a certain TV show or movie that inspired you to become an actor?
No, only because I wasn’t on track to be an actor. I’m a classically trained singer, but even before that, I was a singer. I got into classical singing off of a dare. So then, when a whole career change happened, it was a little different for me. But I did watch lots of stuff when I was growing up.
15. Was there anything you watched during your childhood that you’d still watch today?
I will say, the standard for me, especially when I do comedy, is the Martin show. The level of dedication and drive? Bar none! So I’ve always been like, “If I ever did something similar or had the opportunity to, I would try as best as I could to come at it at that level.” BET still plays reruns all day long. I go to bed to that, cracking up laughing. It truly stands the test of time, but good quality does that.
16. You mentioned being a classically trained singer. Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Leontyne Price, for sure. Maria Callas, Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson.
17. Which TV shows are you currently binge-watching right now?
I’m out of the country right now, so Netflix is different in different countries. Where I’m at, for some reason, it’s a ton of Bollywood, so I’m watching all the Bollywood fabulousness, and they’re amazing!
18. Have you picked up any new hobbies or returned to any old hobbies during the pandemic?
I got back into self-care, and by that, I mean all the things that we went to go get done before COVID — like our nails, makeup, and hair. I’ve been DIY’ing it this whole time. At this point, I probably could have gone somewhere to get those things done, but I’ve really been enjoying doing different protective and braiding styles with my hair, and becoming my own little aesthetician and giving myself facials. After watching a couple of YouTube videos, I was like, “I got this!” I mean, listen, I leave the serious stuff up to the professionals, but I’ve been impressed by what I’ve done so far.
19. What’s the last book that you read?
I’ve been reading a lot of scripts, but the last book that I read was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was doing an animation gig and they wanted the character to sound similar to Maya Angelou, and I was just like, “I’m gonna read the book.” So yeah, that was the last one that I read.
20. What have you been listening to lately?
21. Yes! I’m assuming you’ve listened to Heaux Tales?
Yes! I’m telling you — thank you, Jazmine. We need it for that quarantine, especially because some people want a second and third quarantine. That has been the one that has gotten me through. It’s so fierce. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s just an EP. I don’t even think it’s, like, a full album. She gave us a cute tease. It will definitely hold us over until the next one. I’m waitin’!
22. Have you ever been starstruck?
The one person that I was the most starstruck by is the recently passed Cicely Tyson. I met her years ago, when she was doing the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful. I was about to make the big move to LA and it was my last night in New York. I knew a friend in the show, so I saw it and then I went backstage to congratulate my friend, and that’s when Cicely called me over. We ended up having a three-hour conversation and it was everything my soul needed as a new actress coming in the business. It was one of those things I was like that was all God because I wasn’t seeking that. I was truly awestruck by her presence.
23. In that moment you were the fan, but do you have a wild fan story that sticks out to you?
Last year, when we were on the press tour for Dolemite Is My Name, there was one group of people that always seemed to be where I was, whether it was a restaurant, at a hotel, or even doing press at 30 Rock. They just always knew my comings and goings. I was like, “Who’s leaking this?” So that was a little like, “Oh, I don’t do well with stalkers.”
24. Have you ever slid into another celeb’s DMs or vice versa?
I’ve thought about it before, but I haven’t done it. If I really was feeling you, I could probably find somebody that knows you, like six degrees of separation. I could be wrong, but I just feel like, if I did slide in someone’s DMs, maybe they wouldn’t take me seriously or they might think that I was just a fan.
25. That’s understandable. What about on a friendship level?
I’ve definitely had people slide into my DMS platonically, just to be sweet and kind like, “Oh, I thought your performance was great.” But yeah, nothing scandalous.
26. Have you ever been surprised to hear that someone you admire in the business has seen your work?
I remember when I met Quentin Tarantino, I was very surprised to find out he knew my work. I mean, later I found out he was actually really a fan of Rudy Ray Moore [the original Dolemite, portrayed by Eddie Murphy in the movie], but I was very surprised that he had watched Dolemite and knew who I even was.
27. And lastly, do you like to watch your own work?
I really don’t like to watch my work. It’s funny, because technically when you do these press junkets, you’re supposed to have already watched the project, but I don’t. My reason for doing that is, when I enter into a character, I lose myself in that character. So I’m not myself. So, if I were to watch my work, I’d begin to judge it, and the magic that took place with me just getting lost in a character is now removed. I’d start thinking like, “Why don’t you do that?” or “Oh, they could have put more makeup on you” or “Why your hair look like that?” It would be difficult to separate myself from the character. So for me, it allows me to stay in my process of non-judgment and fully be able to dive in. I’m very hard on myself and I think if I watched my work, I would be too in my head, judging it, and I wouldn’t be able to be free.
Be sure to catch Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, streaming now on Hulu.