NEW YORK -- Last year around this time, Da'Vine Joy Randolph was an aspiring actress who paid the bills by being a nanny. This summer, she's a Broadway star with her own dressing room and a Tony Award nomination.
"It's surreal," says the 25-year-old Philadelphia native who is making her Broadway debut playing sassy psychic Oda Mae Brown in "Ghost: The Musical." In a recent interview at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after Randolph had just gone dress shopping for the Tonys, she admits it has only now started to hit her: "It's really happening."
It almost didn't: The last year has been a wild one for the Yale School of Drama graduate, one that includes a misunderstanding about what role she was auditioning for, a sudden detour to London and a crisis over a missing passport.
There was also the small matter of a kiss with Jamie Foxx.
"It's been an amazing, amazing ride," she says with a huge smile.
THE FIRST AUDITION
Randolph graduated from Yale in the summer of 2011, moved to New York and was a nanny for two boys in Harlem, using her off-hours to hunt for acting jobs. One day, her roommate told her about auditions for "Ghost: The Musical."
Randolph remembered the Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze film and some funny scenes with Whoopi Goldberg, who played a shady but hysterical psychic shocked to be able to speak to the dead.
But the job listing for Goldberg's part didn't match. "They wanted someone older. They wanted someone who had star pull," she recalls. "I was like, `I'm none of these things.'"
That night, the actress was restless. At 3 a.m. she went on her computer and emailed her agent. "I was like, `Look, I know this sounds crazy, I don't even know if I know what I'm talking about, but can I get seen for this?'"
Her agent said she'd try. Randolph, meanwhile, was getting psyched up for a small part in Quentin Tarantino's next film, "Django Unchained." The role called for her and Jamie Foxx to share a sizzling moment. "I was like, `Oh, please God!' It was going to be a make-out scene. I said, `That's the best way to come into the business – The Chick Who Made Out With Jamie Foxx.'"
Soon her agent came back with news about "Ghost." The two leads were coming with the show from London and it was likely the actress playing Oda Mae Brown was, too. But the agent persuaded Randolph to go to an open audition for an understudy role. It would be good to shake hands with the creative team and have steady work.
Randolph went and performed one of the songs from the show and did two scenes. She did well, her nerves in check because it was an understudy audition and "because I wanted a make-out scene with Jamie Foxx." She called her agent when it was over. "I was like, `It went OK. So can we call Tarantino and figure out what's going on?'"
The "Ghost" producers, it turned out, wanted to see her again in a few days. This time, she had to prepare two songs from the show – "Are You a Believer?" and "I'm Outta Here" – and perform about 75 percent of her scenes.
Randolph rushed to her TV and watched the 1990 movie over and over so she could memorize the part, which closely mirrored the film version. She enlisted the two boys she baby-sat for – one 6, the other 8 – in her quest.
"The kids who I nannied were like, `Do we have to watch it AGAIN?'" she says, laughing.
THE SECOND AUDITION
This time, Randolph was more nervous. A lot of other actresses were vying for the role and director Matthew Warchus was watching. "I just remember telling myself, `Be true to yourself and just play.'"
She was so rattled that she performed her scenes while peering through a window in the rehearsal room and into the next building, where a seamstress was working. "I was too nervous to be looking at people and connecting."
When she was finished, she thought she had failed. "I remember calling my agent and saying, `I didn't get it. I could tell.'" But she had a request. "So, can you call Tarantino and find out what's going on?"
Warchus recalls things differently. Her audition was short and she didn't talk very much, he says. But she sang both songs with "explosive energy" and read the scenes with "natural comic genius."
"It was a textbook lesson in the perfect audition. She's very prepared but very free and at ease. I think she's a great improviser and she's a great comic. And she's very fresh and she's extraordinarily at home onstage. She's the definition of a natural."
Warchus was finished looking for his Oda Mae Brown. "She left the room after about 15 minutes and I said, `That's it,'" he recalls. "Then people said, `It is her first show. Do you need to recall her? Do you need anything else?' I said, `No. She'll be fine.'"
Three days later, Randolph's agent called to say she landed the job. There was only one thing wrong.
"I thought I got the understudy job," says Randolph. "For about two days I thought that. She called me back and she was like, `Wait. Just checking. You know you're going to be on Broadway? Like, Broadway Broadway?' I went, `Yeah, understudying.' `No, Da'Vine, you're going to actually do it.' I was like, `For real?'"
Randolph was asked to keep her hiring a secret for two months. She was at a reading for a musical of "Betty Boop" with Dick Latessa, Rose Hemingway and Colman Domingo when official word emerged that she'd gotten the part.
"I was so excited because I was around Broadway actors," she recalls.
Her phone was also exploding with calls and Randolph excused herself.
"My agent was screaming, `Do you have a passport?'" Had one. "They were like, `You're going to London.' I was like, `For what?' They were like, `A miracle has happened,'" she says, laughing. "They were so dramatic."
Sharon D. Clarke, the actress who was playing Oda Mae Brown in London, was going on medical leave and producers wanted Randolph to cover for her. It was a Friday in late November and she was to be on an overnight flight to England on Sunday.
But first: She needed a passport. Hers had been lost. She found a commercial company in Rockefeller Plaza that would expedite travel documents but there was a catch: That day was the day of the holiday tree lighting ceremony and a visit to the city by President Barack Obama. Rockefeller Plaza was in lockdown and security guards wouldn't let her in.
"I'll never forget. I looked one of these guards straight in the eye and I was like, `Lookie here. I've got to get my passport. I am a Broadway actress. I need to go to London. So you can either escort me there or I'm jumping this gate.'"
She got an escort. And a passport.
The script for "Ghost" was waiting for her on the plane.
When she got to London, she immediately went to a fitting and got a wig. Then, despite the jet lag, she saw the show. The first rehearsal was the next morning, Monday. She learned she'd be in the show by that Friday.
"I learned the role in five days. And I was freaking out."
NO KISSING FOXX
The commitment of "Ghost" meant Randolph lost the chance to kiss Jamie Foxx. But she's OK with that. Even Tarantino advised her to stay with Broadway. It made sense: The movie part was a just few lines – mostly "being sassy for five minutes," she says. "Whereas with this, I feel as though I can really outstretch my arms."
Plus, there are other perks, like getting to rub shoulders with James Earl Jones, which she did with amazement at a recent theater awards show. And her mother cannot wait to see her on national TV at the Tony Awards.
"It's happened so fast and you don't have time to sit down and think about it."