Dominic Sessa on His Big Breakthrough With The Holdovers

When it comes to casting his films, director Alexander Payne has a knack for seeing potential. He finds extraordinary talent in what seems like the ordinary, and shows young actors what they’re capable of before they see it in themselves. Take Reese Witherspoon in Election. Shailene Woodley in The Descendants. Hong Chau in Downsizing.

Payne’s latest film, last year’s The Holdovers, is no exception. Working with casting director Susan Shopmaker, the Oscar-winning writer and director of Sideways plucked drama student Dominic Sessa from complete obscurity for the role of Angus Tully. His casting was crucial: The film, which takes place at fictional New England boarding school Barton Academy, relies heavily on the dynamic between Sessa and seasoned actors Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Over the two-week winter break in 1970, Sessa’s character is forced to “hold over”—or in other words, to live at school during vacation while his peers escape for ski vacations or other greener pastures. What ensues is an unlikely camaraderie between Angus and two other holdovers: curmudgeonly history professor Paul Hunham (Giamatti), and head cook Mary Lamb (Randolph), who is grieving the untimely loss of her son. (Earlier this month, both Giamatti and Randolph won Golden Globe Awards for their performances.)

It’s a beautiful friendship that seems as though it could exist only in this particular period of time, under these particular circumstances, with all three actors bringing humanity to characters the world has otherwise forgotten. Sessa, the newcomer among the three, sat down with Bazaar in the midst of award season to discuss his path to The Holdovers, holding his own alongside Hollywood veterans in his first-ever big-screen appearance, and of course, what happens next.

This is your first role in a major film—which Alexander Payne directed, with Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph costarring. They are all incredible people. How did this come to you?

I was a senior at [Massachusetts boarding school] Deerfield [Academy], so it was one of the schools that they ultimately ended up filming at for a little bit. I finished my fall play in high school.

What was the play?

It was Rumors by Neil Simon, and I played this character called Lenny, that’s very eccentric. I finished that, and our head of school had a cast party for us and told us that there was a production company coming to look at our school for some movie. In my mind I was like, “Well, it can’t be that big of a deal if they’re looking at Deerfield for it. If they’re coming to our school, it can’t be that big of a movie.”

That was the first initial time I heard about it. Then a week later, I got a call from our director, our theater director at the school, saying that these casting people were going to come and look for background kids for this movie. And for me, I was like, “That’s sick.” I was applying to drama school, so to get some sort of experience auditioning for something that wasn’t a high school play was really, really attractive for me.

So I did that, and met the casting director, Susan Shopmaker, that day. They had us reading these sides for this character, Angus. None of us really knew anything. We hadn’t read the script. We didn’t know what the movie was about. We didn’t know who was directing it, who was in it. Then she told me that I was interesting for this character, but [that I was] probably too old to do it, and that was that. She was like, “I’ll send your tapes to the director. I’ll do that much, at least.” A couple weeks passed, and obviously at that point when you don’t hear anything, you don’t expect to hear anything.

Then I got a call from Alexander. He was like, “I’m Alexander Payne, and I’m directing this movie that you auditioned for. I’m going to come to your school to meet you and read with you.” I met him a couple weeks later when he came to Deerfield, and it was just a month more of Zoom calls, until ultimately, I was on a call with him and Paul, and that’s when he gave me the role.

dominic sessa the holdovers

Courtesy of Focus Features

Dominic Sessa alongside Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

What was your reaction, and what was that first meeting with Alexander like? Were you a fan of his work?

I really didn’t know anything about him, or honestly who he was. The first thing that someone mentioned was The Descendants, because I read that book in school and watched the movie in school. And I was like, “Oh, really? That guy did that?” Then they mentioned Election, and I was like, “Oh, that guy did that?” And I was like, “Oh, shit. This guy, he’s actually the real deal.”

You’re a senior in high school, a drama student plucked from absolute obscurity, and now you’re in an Alexander Payne movie with Paul Giamatti. What did you do to prepare? How were you feeling in those initial days?

I was very nervous and didn’t know what to expect at all. I’d met Alexander and I met Paul through Zoom, but the first thing I was really curious about was what they were going to be like in a work environment. I had gotten to know them, but I didn’t know how much they would change, or if they were going to be really serious [once on set]. That was the initial thing I was concerned about: How am I going to exist in their work environment?

Paul and I in particular would read our scenes together, and I’d ask him, “Is there anything I can do differently? I know you’re a respectful guy. You don’t want to infringe on my process. But respectfully, I don’t know what I’m doing, so please tell me if something is not working or not feeling right.” He told me early on, “I think you, in a lot of ways, are interesting enough when you’re not saying things. And you’re interesting enough on camera, and physically just existing in this space. You’re interesting enough.”

Him saying that, I think he gave me this sense of confidence, where I was able to go into it from day one and do whatever I wanted, and trust that it would work out.

This movie really relies on the chemistry between you, Paul, and Da’Vine. What do you think it was that made this trio work so beautifully?

I think Alexander is really proud of the casting in his movies. It’s not just what’s going to be working on the screen and what we’re doing on camera, but how we’re going to be together as people on set. Alexander thought it very important, especially for Paul and I, to have a relationship off set and get to know each other on that personal level.

So, going in knowing that it was up to us to make the time for each other, Paul was really great from the first day, having me over for dinner; and he likes to go on drives, and he would take me with him. A lot of those days, it was just the three of us. If I wasn’t filming with Paul, then I’d be hanging out with Da’Vine for three or four hours, exploring these empty schools—like we were doing in the movie, in a lot of ways. Before knowing if anybody was going to see this or enjoy it, what was special was that energy that was there every day. That camaraderie that was so genuine and authentic to the experience on set.

dominic sessa the holdovers

Seacia Pavao

Sessa with Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

When you’re with people off camera, are you talking about films and getting advice on acting? Or is it really just talking about life, and getting to know each other as people outside of this industry, or both?

I mean, especially with Da’Vine, she was very invested in my college process, and me applying to college, and what I’m doing. Making sure I’m keeping my education in line. Both her and Paul were Yale grads. They went to Yale drama school, so they’re very academic. And with Paul, it was like I found myself asking him a lot about, “What do I do after this? What happens after this? What’s going to happen when the movie comes out? Are we going to have to do interviews? Are we going to have to talk to people? Is there going to be a premiere or something?” That’s the stuff I was asking. I was like, “What happens when the movie is done? What do we do?” I think he got a kick out of it, but he was totally willing, and always answering those questions for me.

You mentioned thinking about what’s next. So what is next for you? Maybe a few years ago, you couldn’t have imagined your life or career would be here. Maybe you did. What does life look like now, or in the near future, for you?

I’d love to keep acting, honestly. If I have the opportunity to keep doing films and doing them at this level, that’s just even more special. As a young person, especially having this moment that people wait super long to have … I definitely am not taking that for granted. The best thing to come out of it would just be the ability to keep doing it.

Has doing something on this scale allowed you to dream bigger than maybe you previously had about whom you could work alongside in the future?

Totally. I think obviously working with Paul and Da’Vine, it’s given me that assurance that I can go toe to toe with the best of them. That’s not to say that in an arrogant way. Beyond just what we were able to accomplish together with the performances, I found my ability to create relationships with them, find similarities, and connect with them as people. That’s another thing that gives me the confidence to work with some really cool people, hopefully, in the future.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Headshot of Andrea Cuttler

Andrea Cuttler is the Entertainment Director of Harper’s BAZAAR , where she oversees all things film, television, and celebrity. When she’s not watching her DVD of Indian Summer for the 27th time, you can likely find her at one of the same three restaurants in the West Village.