Dominic Sessa did not have the film industry in mind as he began his senior year at Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts. His original goal was to play hockey, as he had received a scholarship to attend the prestigious New England prep school. However, a broken femur and the school’s requirement for a winter activity led him to discover his passion for theatre. Thus, his new plan was to pursue a career in drama. In the fall of 2021, Sessa was cast as the lead in a student production of Neil Simon’s Rumors. During this time, his drama teacher asked him to audition for a Hollywood casting director who was considering using Deerfield as a filming location.
The movie was titled The Holdovers and it was a heartwarming dramedy set in the 1970s. It followed the story of three unlikely individuals who were stuck at a boarding school during Christmas. The director of the film was Alexander Payne, known for his darkly comedic and emotionally impactful movies such as Election, Sideways, and The Descendants. Two weeks later, Sessa received a call from Payne. He was surprised that such an accomplished filmmaker was willing to meet him in the remote location of Massachusetts. Sessa reflected on the experience, saying that even if it had ended there, he would have been just as content as he is now.
The story didn’t end there. After several auditions, Sessa was chosen to play one of the main roles in his first film – although you wouldn’t be able to tell from his performance. As Angus Tully, a gloomy and lost teenager left alone for the holidays, Sessa more than matches up to Paul Giamatti, who plays the grumpy professor assigned to look after him, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the head chef at the fictional Barton Academy, who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War.
Sessa, a young man with a sharp-featured face, exudes both youth and maturity. His slender eyes effortlessly display adolescent disgust or disdain, while the bags beneath them hint at an old soul. (One user on X described him as “Joan Cusack as a twenty-something man.”) As Angus, he convincingly portrays a misanthropic character yearning for connection after being abandoned by his mother and new stepfather for their honeymoon. Reluctantly, he finds solace in the companionship of a cantankerous old man and a grieving mother. Sessa’s debut performance has been praised for its sharp timing, sarcastic wit, and just the right touch of vulnerability, making it one of the standout performances of this awards season.
When I encounter Sessa at a hotel in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he is currently in the midst of his first promotional month. He is staying at his mother’s house in Jersey and attending events as needed. At 21 years old, he is stylishly dressed in a T-shirt and black jacket, with his character’s signature mop of hair and subtle 70s-style sideburns. Sessa is more relaxed and quick to laugh or contemplate compared to Angus. He comes across as not only a good student, but also a good sport. The character he plays is not too different from himself, as they both have experience in the insulated world of New England boarding schools and are both outsiders in their own way. While Angus is a tough and solitary individual from a wealthy background, Sessa’s mother is a teacher and his father passed away when he was 14. As a student receiving financial aid at a prestigious school known for its Ivy League connections, Sessa says, “I made sure to do my best and excel in everything I possibly could.”
He didn’t feel like an outcast, per se. “My friends didn’t treat me differently because we were all high school kids. But it was definitely strange to see their parents arrive in a black SUV and a helicopter taking off,” (referring to the school where Taylor Swift once flew in to visit her then-boyfriend, Conor Kennedy, grandson of RFK).
Many of my peers from school had a predetermined plan for their future, with expectations of following in their family’s footsteps and attending prestigious universities. However, this was not the case for me or Angus. I could relate to Angus not having a set path, but I made a conscious effort to not impose my own experiences onto his story. I wanted to avoid any insincerity and instead focused on distancing myself from those similarities.
The guidance given to him on set was beneficial: don’t overanalyze it. Simply let your natural instincts shine, as Payne and casting director Susan Shopmaker saw in his initial audition. Payne further explains via email, “Despite his rawness, his depth as an actor and as an individual was apparent.” Once he grasped our vision, he shed his theatrical facade and revealed himself as a skilled film actor.
Sessa only has positive things to say about Payne, who had faith in him; Randolph, who demonstrated the importance of questioning her character on set and taking serious moments seriously but not too much; and Giamatti, who he considers to be the most down-to-earth and grounded person he has encountered in the industry.
According to Payne, Dominic showed his natural talent quickly. Paul Giamatti mentioned that his main role was to constantly remind Dominic of his abilities. Building and maintaining his confidence was crucial.
“I was constantly being told by everyone to stop pretending and just be myself,” he remembers. “Even in my personal life, people warned me not to become a celebrity and to stay true to who I am.” Unlike many in his generation, Sessa does not prioritize social media. He does not use TikTok and his Instagram account is unverified with only three posts and less than 9,000 followers at the time of writing. “I don’t really see it as something I need or want to do,” he explains. “The aspect I do enjoy is creating meaningful films that evoke emotion in people. If I do receive attention, I want it to be for my work and nothing else.”
Fortunately, the individuals I am collaborating with including managers, agents, Paul, Da’Vine, and Alexander have not pushed me to engage in any of those activities,” he states. However, he does acknowledge that if he desired a larger following, they would probably assist him with that. “Since the start, we have been cautioning him against falling into the trap of destructive Hollywood habits,” says Payne. “Dominic has shown no signs of succumbing to these temptations and has demonstrated that he is level-headed and will not allow them to affect him.”
Maybe due to Sessa’s observation that the Holdovers team was not fully immersed in Hollywood, their entry into the industry has been gradual. The experience was slightly different during their initial visit to Los Angeles for press, as everyone they encountered was involved in the business but it still felt similar. According to Sessa, not much has altered since then. He explains, “I’ve been busy with school, studying drama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.” During his first year of school, he kept quiet about his involvement in the movie, so it was a normal experience. Even now, things have remained relatively normal.
Sessa is refreshingly naive when it comes to Hollywood, acknowledging the nepotism discussions but not recognizing the specific individuals involved. He admits to not being well-versed in pop culture and appreciates his lack of knowledge. This allows him to approach each person he meets as a new individual, rather than being starstruck by their status.
To clarify, there have been some updates: he has received messages from previous coaches and teachers who have seen him on screen. He currently has a Wikipedia page, has been nominated for an Independent Spirit award for his outstanding performance, and has been selected for Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch list. He is now fully aware that beginning his acting career in high school on a Alexander Payne production is a unique and irreplaceable opportunity, and he is also aware that the possibilities for his future are endless.
He is uncertain about his future plans, considering options such as returning to drama school, working at a different theater, or pursuing another film project if the opportunity arises. He expresses a desire to try something new and reflects that the main lesson he has learned from his current experience is a strong desire to be involved in the film industry in any capacity. Whether it be acting, writing, or something else, he is open to exploring possibilities. However, for now, he is focused on living in the moment and not overanalyzing his choices.
The movie “The Holdovers” will be released in theaters on January 19th.