As the breakout star of last year’s terrific Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name, Da’Vine Joy Randolph all but stole the movie out from under Eddie Murphy. After making such a strong impression in a pivotal role of a high profile film, one had to wonder what she might do for a follow up. Well, it didn’t take long to find out.
As Cherise, the brash and brassy record store maven with dreams of stardom, Da’Vine once again threatens to walk away with every scene in Hulu’s excellent revival of High Fidelity, starring a perfectly cast Zoe Kravitz.
In our conversation, we talk about her unique audition experience, her desire to put her own stamp on the “Jack Black” role, and the sweet vulnerability she brings to her performance.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the show?
Da’Vine Joy Randolph: I was finishing up filming On Becoming a God with Kirsten Dunst for Showtime, and I went to my team and said, when’s the next job? I love to work, so, usually after a month off, I’m ready to go. I’ve been very fortunate to be in great quality work, but in general I like to keep the momentum going. I really do believe that work begets work. With High Fidelity, they had already been through a series of auditions for almost a year prior, but that was before Zoe was involved–we have the same reps at Paragon. I came in straight from New Orleans and they told me I was going to have to put myself on tape–there wasn’t enough time for me to go in.
I don’t think I do well with taped auditions because I’m more of an in-the-room person, and a lot of the time you get a little to virtually no feedback or notes like you would when you’re interacting in person. There’s no director to say, “Can we try it this way?” So, I really didn’t want to do that. Also, I was doing an audition for I Know This Much Is True, and that was a 20 pager. So, I was thinking of all the strategies I could use for High Fidelity because I was putting all my focus into the 20 pager. When you have two auditions like that, you’ve got to be realistic. But there were things about Cherise that I really liked. Like I love Lauryn Hill. I decided I was going to be a bit more of an amped up version of myself.
AD: Amped up makes sense as you are – at least to a degree – playing a version of Jack Black.
DJR: Right, and I love and respect Jack Black. I felt like I got it. I was going to be the female version of him. I had seen High Fidelity once, and it’s so iconic–you don’t forget it. But when I had my audition, I was like I’m not going to watch it again because I don’t want to do an imitation. So, I put myself on tape and then my team came back and said, they really liked it. Then they wanted to do a chemistry test. I went to ABC and there was no one else there. Usually when you test there’s always at least three people there. Every time I ever tested for a pilot, there was always a minimum of two other girls there for that role.
I’m used to the mind game of looking at your competition sitting in the room. (Laughs). Anyway, this guy came up to me and told me, I’m going to be reading with you. I went into the room, did the audition, met Zoe–who I had never met before–the guy I read with was great. It’s always weird when you are auditioning. It’s like, Hey! These are your two best friends! Now, go! (Laughs). And you have to turn it on. I remember being like, Oh my God this reader is great. So, I got the part, met with the producers, who revealed to me there was no one else they were auditioning for the part. And then they told;d me the guy that Zoe and I did the scene with–the reader–got the part he was playing too. I was so excited for him! What were the odds that the reader killed it so much that they offer him the role?
AD: The reader was David Holmes?
DJR: Yes! Then they told me he wasn’t the reader, he was auditioning for Simon. I had no idea. (Laughs). I was like, no, no, no, no…he told me, he said, “Hi, my name is David and I’m going to be reading with you.” It ended up being an ongoing joke for basically every day of the first week. In audition lingo, “I’ll be reading with you” means you are just reading for me who’s really auditioning.
AD: You just thought he was crew! (Laughs).
DJR: During the audition, I was just like, this guy is so good! It’s so disappointing when they have an assistant read with you and they have a whole other job–you’re not working with an actor.
AD: In a situation like that, with a reader, you have to supply so much of the energy yourself.
DJR: Exactly. Sometimes I just have to pretend they are giving me what I need. But David was so good, it was such a relief. And then he got the part! It came together kind of quick. I could feel it in the room. I may not have known what they were looking for, but chemistry-wise, our unique voices and vibes came together.
AD: To go back to what you were saying about doing a gender-flip of the Jack Black character, and avoiding being a copy, can you talk more about how you dodged that potential pitfall?
DJR: It was important not to. But people who watch his work in the movie, I think they will get what they need. I mean that high-octane, creative on the fly energy, that’s also grounded in truth. That’s the tricky part. There’s this childlike innocence that’s all based on passion that’s necessary for the part.
AD: As a person who ran a record store in the ’90s, I can say from personal experience, none of us ever really grow up.
DJR: We’re all self-proclaimed geniuses, and experts on everything–not just music. It’s almost like this home (the record store) of philosophy–the hours of pontificating on things. Ultimately, it’s this sacred place in which these people have come together and have very similar interests but also very different tastes. That’s the fun part of watching the clash. It’ll be the most bizarre things that get them really riled up where they’re like, I’m not talking to you for a week. (Laughs). When we were interviewing and meeting other record store owners and workers there is this interesting vibe that they have where it is low-key I’m a genius and an expert in many things. I don’t know if it’s the amount of time that they have on their hands–I don’t know what it is but they all shared this very passionate banter, and would go on rants about something that they have taken an interest in–it could be the most random things.
AD: I thought there was a bit of a connection between the role you played as Lady Reed in Dolemite Is My Name and High Fidelity, in that both characters have this brassy exterior, but there’s a real tenderness underneath that. I loved the scene when Cherise and Simon are looking at her list of inspirations she’s posted in her ad for a band at the store, and a guy who is curious, looks at her, and decides he’s no longer interested, because she doesn’t fit what he has in mind.
DJR: That’s a nice moment for her and Simon to bond. What I like about it is that it shows this really is an artist. Even though you’ve never really heard her perform at that point or sing for real, she’s an artist. In the words of Erykah Badu, “I’m an artist, and I’m thinking about my shit.” (Laughs). It’s also very scary for Cherise, because she’s consistently in a very vulnerable place. She can come off as very brash, but these are her people. If they don’t believe in her, it’s terrifying. She knows she’s different, and this is a group of people who understand and accept her, so in the moments when they don’t she’s confused–this is scary to her. She’s figuring out who she is and who she wants to be as an artist. That is a very big deal. Even committing to a genre as an artist–that’s overwhelming. I can only play that type of music, always? The industry puts people in a box. Cherise does not want to be in a box. It is a very vulnerable and lonely road to be an artist, and you’re putting yourself out there for criticism for something you’ve spent a lot of time creating. One review can really hurt you, and then you have get back up and keep going. You have to love the art for the art. Because if you do it for anything else, it’s not going to last.
AD: I do love when we finally get to hear Cherise sing in the season finale. It’s a great double homage to the film. In the movie, we get to hear Jack sing “Let’s Get It On,” and our jaws drop because he’s so good. But at the end of the movie, John Cusack’s “Rob” plays the Stevie Wonder song, “I Believe When I Fall In Love (It Will Be Forever).” In the show, we hear you sing, our jaws drop, but you are also singing that particular Stevie song, all bye yourself with the guitar Zoe’s “Rob” has bought for you. It’s just lovely.
DJR: What was interesting is we didn’t really know how we wanted to end it from the beginning of filming. We were consistently going back and forth as to whether we wanted the finale to end with her doing a gig and have this “Star is Born” moment with Rob in the audience being shocked by her gift. The biggest thing was where can we possibly go from there? Because if she’s that good, what’s she going to be doing? Face-timing from a tour? She’s one of three core characters–how do we keep the storyline going? I’ll never forget, we were filming episode six and we were in hair and make up and the Stevie Wonder song came on–I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan.
AD: As everyone should be.
DJR: If you’re not, I don’t trust you. (Laughs). I was just singing the song to myself, and I was saying how this chord progression is crazy, and Zoe and I just had a chat about how wonderful Stevie is and maybe you should sing this Stevie song during the show. I was like, “That’s dope. Whatever you think will be cool.” Then as the season was going along, we agreed to have more of a long play-out and not hear her vocalize until the end. What was nice about it was that I feel like Rob, Simon, and Cherise have a very authentic friendship. I liked how real and complicated that was.
It was also important for me to have two black woman being supportive of each other as opposed to being jealous of one another, or trying to tear each other down–Which we too often see. It’s the idea of someone not only believing in you, but monetarily supporting your dream.That just hits her on such a deep level. And we intentionally did the scene with my character having long nails. I knew it wasn’t going to sound great when I played the guitar because my fingernails are going to hit the wrong strings, and they were like, it’s actually perfect if it’s like that. The fact that it wasn’t perfect and that it was this very private moment, it made it more about discovering her possibilities as an artist. Keeping it private like that also gives her somewhere to go. So, I think in season two, you will see things about her home life as well as her journey as an artist. You’ll get to see the character exploring her artistic expression and figuring it out and having it change. I was glad we made that adjustment.