When Philly native and Temple grad Da’Vine Joy Randolph found herself on set for her first big screen role in Dolemite Is My Name, it wasn’t the idea of costarring with Eddie Murphy that brought her to tears: It was the dress.
Designed by Oscar-winner Ruth E. Carter, it was tailored especially for Randolph — a self-described “curvy” woman unaccustomed to having such a beautifully made, perfectly fitting, soul-stirring garment to wear.
“Meeting Ruth. THAT was my star struck moment," Randolph said. "(Meeting) Eddie was like, ‘Hi. How are you,’ but when she walked in I was like YOU’RE RUTH CARTER!”
Randolph’s admiration for the Black Panther costume designer only intensified as Carter explained the importance of the clothes her character would be wearing in Dolemite Is My Name, a lively fact-based account of stand-up Rudy Ray Moore’s (Murphy) all-out effort to make a low-budget blaxploitation picture (called Dolemite).
Moore’s costar in that 1975 movie was protégé and fellow stand-up Lady Reed, played by Randolph. She said Carter saw the role and costuming of Lady Reed as special, and made sure Randolph felt special in front of the camera.
“I’m a curvy girl in an industry — and this is true in everyday life as well — that usually offers us a limited inventory most of the time. We have to settle on looks and options, and here, this was the best-dressed moment of my life. The way it made me feel to put (the costumes) on, and listening to Ruth talk about the level of care and detail that went into the design, I was overwhelmed,” Randolph said.
Dolemite is a male-dominated affair — Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg — so the clothes Randolph wore became a visual forum for Carter to balance the scales by presenting several years’ worth (the movie runs from the late 1960s to the 1970s) of period fashion for African American women.
“I’m the only female main character, and as Lady Reed I have to carry a lot of women with me — the wardrobe and the hair and everything, that’s meant to represent a generation,” said Randolph, 33.
The showpiece was a green dress that Carter designed for Randolph, one that ties together style motifs that Carter had assigned to individual characters — the ruffle, for instance, that Craig Robinson’s character always wore turns up on Lady Reed’s glistening jade gown to suggest the successful collaboration that made Moore’s dream possible. Randolph felt lucky to be wearing that dress, lucky to be part of the Dolemite cast, and has been feeling lucky throughout her journey to movie headliner — a journey that started here in Philadelphia.
Randolph grew up in Germantown and Mount Airy, mostly on Fayette Street, before moving in middle school to Hershey, Pa. She was a city girl out of her element there, and couldn’t wait to get back “home” to attend Temple, where she studied classical voice. That was tough for her, and she found she needed to switch majors. Her mother urged her to consider theater.
"My first reaction was no, I don’t want to do theater. The people are weird, I’m not interested, and I don’t know anything,” said Randolph with a characteristic laugh. "That’s how it was with acting. I was completely out of my comfort zone. I’m very grateful [to have made the change], but it was a happy accident. I got into acting out of rejection.”
She was mainly trying to meet course credit requirements and finish her degree — she never felt as talented as other students.
“To this day, I feel like I have impostor’s syndrome,” she said.
Professors did not share Randolph’s self assessment, and kept giving her plum roles in school productions (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Into the Woods). Those same professors suggested grad school, and Randolph went through the motions just to see what the process was like. She got into the first school to which she applied — Yale.
Even that failed to inspire confidence in Randolph, who was paying the rent by working happily as a nanny on the Upper West Side (“I loved taking care of that baby!”) when her agents (“You’re not as available as we’d wish you to be”) pestered her to attend more auditions. To humor them, she tried out for third understudy in the Broadway production of Ghost The Musical.
When told she was hired, she was actually bummed about leaving her nanny job. Bummed, then a bit frightened when informed she’d been hired not as a third understudy, but as a lead -- Oda Mae Brown, the character Whoopi Goldberg played in the movie. Also that she’d be flown immediately to London, to take over the role in a production underway in the West End.
“That was my first professional job. On the West End,” Randolph said, still sounding as though she’s in disbelief.
Randolph was nominated for a Tony in 2012, leading to work on the TV series Empire, in the role of Poundcake, where she worked often for director Craig Brewer. When she heard about auditions for Dolemite Is My Name, she also heard Brewer would be directing, and figured he’d already laid the groundwork.
“And I thought, ‘OK, that’s my in.’ Then I get there, and I see Craig, and he’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’ He had no idea."
Meanwhile, actresses streamed in to audition for the sought-after role.
“You have all these women coming in, and I was seeing a pattern. There were these groups of either straight-up female comedians, or the so-called ‘actor actors.’ So I quickly developed a strategy — I gotta give 'em both,” said Randolph (who had a little research help from her dad, a Dolemite fan who brought her up to speed on the blaxploitation movies with a couple of boxed sets).
Randolph listened to and memorized stretches of Lady Reed’s raunchy albums and brought her Broadway dramatic chops to the audition as well, and it obviously worked.
The way things usually do for Randolph.
“Throughout my career, things have fallen in my lap,” Randolph said. "At this point, I just go with the flow.”
Right now the flow has taken her to Canada, where’s she’s costarring in Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, alongside Andra Day, who will play the title character.
“It’s not that I haven’t worked hard, I have. But things have happened to me that I wouldn’t have had the courage to even pray for.”