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“The Holdovers” : Exclusive Interview with Actor Dominic Sessa on Working with Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne for His Debut Film

@Photo by Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Synopsis : From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Rating: R (Some Drug Use|Language|Brief Sexual Material)

Genre: Holiday, Comedy, Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Alenander Payne

Producer: Mark Johnson, Bill Block, David Hemingson

Writer: David Hemingson

Release Date (Theaters):  Wide

Box Office (Gross USA): $8.4M

Runtime:

Distributor: Focus Features

Production Co: Miramax, Gran Via

@Photo by Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Exclusive Interview with Actor Dominic Sessa 

 

Q: I heard that you were discovered at the school where they were shooting? How did you land the role? Could you take me through the process?

Dominic Sessa: Yeah. So I was at Deerfield, one of the schools that they were using to create Barton, the fictitious school in the film, and I was a senior there. Because they were using the school, or considering the school as a location, at that point, they brought the casting team through to audition some students for background roles mainly. But there was still this lead role for this kid that was up in the air and they hadn’t really found someone that they were really excited about yet.

So they were open to maybe seeing someone that could do it and, I don’t know, I walked in and they liked something about me. I initially maybe thought I was too old for it, but there’s something that they liked and kept me in the circle for at that point. I didn’t ever expect to get it. It was just a couple months of talking and meeting with Alexander Payne, the director, and Susan Shopmaker, the casting director, and ultimately getting to read with Paul a couple times to where they really felt that I was prepped and ready to do the real thing.

Q: This film takes place in the 70s, but when you watch it and you focus on the characters, some people might realize that until they said happy new year, or from TV programs, or some of the things in the background. It’s hard to notice. Is it pretty obvious in the script or did you try to make it very subtle so that people barely recognized it?

Dominic Sessa: I think a lot of the dialogue maybe alludes to an older time, but I think what was interesting about it, especially when reading the conversation between Angus and the other holdover kids was, with my experience at boarding school, it did remind me a lot of how I talked to my friends and how we would interact in a lot of ways. So, in that way, I didn’t feel like I was really having to stretch myself to understand this time period or how these kids acted because it reminded me a lot of myself and the kids that I’d hung out with.

Q: Alexander Payne said that this script was written with Paul Giamatti in his mind, but your case is different, you got this role at the very last minute. How did he direct you on the set. Did he stick to the script or allow some wiggle room to come up with your own idea to perform?

Dominic Sessa: We would do some readthroughs before we actually started shooting in the production office or whatever. At that point, he gave us all an opportunity that if we had thoughts or ideas about some of the lines and wanted to change things up, then we could do that. He was open to that for the most part.

Once we got shooting, not only me as a new person, but also Paul and Da’Vine as well, we really stuck to the script. That’s not only out of respect for the really incredible writing, but it just makes it easy as an actor, because you don’t want to have to mess with things or feel compelled to throw things out there. You want to be able to trust the dialogue and the words on the page. That was really easy to do with this.

@Photo by Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q: When you watch the film Sideways, there’s something between Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti that really clicks. What was it like working with them on set, seeing them together crafting their skills? What surprised you about watching them together?

Dominic Sessa: Watching them was one of the bigger highlights for me because they’ve had this history before on the set of “Sideways and now they’re together again after twenty years. They obviously both probably feel that they’ve grown and developed and just become better at their craft.

So to see them reunite and really just kind of hit the ground running immediately was really inspiring and cool to see, and to be able to be in the middle of that too. I was worried, these guys communicate so well and are able to work so quickly. Am I going to mess things up as soon as I come in and then start talking? But no, Alexander, with not only Paul, he takes the time with every actor and crew member to develop a language and a communication style with each person that that works.

Q: The location of Massachusetts adds some flare to the storyline. The entire film was shot in real, practical locations. No sets or soundstages were used. Since you were coming from this location, was it an advantage or disadvantage that it’s so freezing cold?

Dominic Sessa: It’s funny. We had a lot of crew members who were Boston-based and then there was a large portion who was also LA-based. And you could see the difference between those who were from the area, especially when we were outside all day in the middle of February and it’s just 5 degree outside. But I was totally used to it. I mean, I’m from that area, I’ve dealt with Massachusetts winters very often, so I was right at home and comfortable. Thankfully, I was used to it. I don’t know if I would have been able to perform as well if I wasn’t.

Q: Did your family or friends come and visit you on set when you were shooting?

Dominic Sessa: My mom did come to set once. One day, she did come visit me and see what was going on. But she’s a nervous person in general. She’s very quiet and reserved, so she just didn’t want to get involved and be a distraction or anything, because she’s a sweetheart. But it was really nice to be able to see her see me doing that and share that with her. It was really cool.

@Photo by Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q: Besides what was in the script, did you research prep school? I heard Paul Giamatti also went to prep school, and his parents and family are also in academia. Did you share any experiences and use those in the film? 

Dominic Sessa: The interesting thing about Paul is that he went to a school called Choate Rosemary Hall. I went to Deerfield, and those are big rival schools. Every year, Choate and Deerfield have a big competition day in the fall and in the spring. I remember talking to him about that, and he remembers those events.

I was talking to him about how that’s still going on today. We’re very much from the same exact world and we were able to communicate about that and understand that pretty well. In the script originally, and this is an example of something that was adapted, the teachers were called professors originally. Paul made a point to say, well, no, I went to these schools. I know they’re called teachers, or even instructors, but never, never professors. So there are just little things that his and my experience, we were able to draw on to add.

Q: This film is about a certain solitude that is shared between three people. What do you think is the key ingredient or key element for those three to connect with each other?

Dominic Sessa: I really attribute it to Alexander, mainly because the way he was able to create an environment on set that really allowed myself and the other actors to create this familial bond really contributed to what we were doing on screen. Being able to just feel comfortable going over to talk to Paul and talk to Da’Vine and ask some questions and confide in them and just talk about even real stuff going on in the world.

I’m in the middle of applying to college and trying to figure out all that stuff, and they were just really open. They opened up their arms to me and helped me through whatever is going on, whether it would have to do with the movie or just life. I think that really helped us once we were in our characters, in the scenes, just feel comfortable with one another and capitalize on those more emotional nuance moments that I think really helped the movie shine.

Q: Could you talk about working with Da’Vine? She’s phenomenal in this film, and also that song!

Dominic Sessa: Da’Vine, first of all, she was saying something other day about how she almost felt like a lot of the movie she was performing in a silent film, which is a really interesting observation, because you see that in a lot of the moments, especially at the party. There’s this beautiful moment where the camera just captures this monologue within her face and her eyes, and it’s really something to behold.

The Cat Stevens song, when we’re doing the ice skating, that’s one of my favorite moments. One of the most fun days we had on set just because you have all these people coming. It was literally just people coming to ice skate. Alexander was just documenting it. It wasn’t really a matter of acting, just enjoying that moment. So yeah, that’s cool.

@Photo by Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q: Since this is your first film, I’m completely amazed by how great you are in this film. What challenges did you face with this film?

Dominic Sessa: I think the biggest challenge was, like Paul and like Da’Vine, I started out on stage doing theater and live performances. It’s a very, very different process than film acting in pretty much every single way. The most challenging thing about it is just that you don’t have a ton of time to think about notes and internalize them. You have to receive and deliver pretty instantaneously.

That was something that there was a bit of a learning curve for me. But yeah, I was able to make that adjustment I think quickly and seamlessly with the help of everybody there especially. When you’re doing theater, you have days to think about one note even and rehearse that. It was very different just showing up and having to throw a bunch of stuff out there and hoping something sticks or lands.

Q: Paul and Da’Vine have really praised your performance. What acting tips did you take away from them?

Dominic Sessa: That’s such a hard question, honestly, because they’re so good. When everybody asks that question, they’re so talented that it’s hard to even observe what they’re doing that makes them accomplish what they’re able to show in front of the camera.

Something I love about Paul as a performer is that he obviously has these emotional, sad moments, but there’s no self-pity in any of his performances, even beyond this one. He always just understands his place in the world, and there’s this level of acceptance that he has with where he stands with these characters. I think that’s something that’s really powerful, and just being able to sit five feet away from him and watch him do that was incredibly impactful.

Q: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

Dominic Sessa: I hope after watching this, they just have a willingness to empathize with other human beings, to be pretty general about it. I think that’s what’s nice about this movie. It appeals to basically anyone and doesn’t deal with anything super challenging or whatever. It just shows people getting to know each other and then form a bond and learn to love each other. I hope people are willing to find that in real life maybe if they see this.

  • November 10, 2023.

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles. 

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Nobuhiro Hosoki
Nobuhiro Hosokihttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Nobuhiro Hosoki grew up watching American films since he was a kid; he decided to go to the United States thanks to seeing the artistry of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange.” After graduating from film school, he worked as an assistant director on TV Tokyo’s program called "Morning Satellite" at the New York branch office but he didn’t give up on his interest in cinema. He became a film reporter for via Yahoo Japan News. In that role, he writes news articles, picks out headliners for Yahoo News, as well as interviewing Hollywood film directors, actors, and producers working in the domestic circuit in the USA. He also does production interviews for Japanese distributors of American films and for in-theater on-sale programs. He is now the editor-in-chief of Cinemadailyus.com while continuing his work for Japan.

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