Dolemite Is My Name struts into theaters this weekend with Eddie Murphy in top form, making a long-awaited return to R-rated material and playing a real-life character for the first time. Set in 1970s Los Angeles, it tells the true story of Rudy Ray Moore, a pudgy, middle-aged wannabe comic and singer—a contemporary of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx—who strikes gold when he creates a foulmouthed, smack-talking alter ego: Dolemite.

What follows is a film within a film, as Moore self-funds a Dolemite movie with a ragtag group of cohorts (think The Disaster Artist or Ed Wood) that becomes a record-making success and a blaxploitation cult classic. It’s a rollicking good time, a salute to one man’s determination to make it in an industry that would not make room for him.

Eddie Murphy and his male co-stars, including Wesley Snipes (he plays the permanently sozzled D’Urville Martin), Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Keegan Michael-Key, might be the reason you scoot to see this film (streaming on Netflix beginning October 25), but Da’Vine Joy Randolph commands attention every second she’s on-screen. She plays Lady Reed, Moore’s right hand and comedic foil, a single mom with a mean right hook, an Olympic-level cuss range, and a voice that shakes the room.

In the 70s, Lady Reed made four movies with Moore, collaborated on his raunchy comedy albums, and also recorded her own. In the film, when Moore first spots Lady Reed, he tells her she’s one of those people who walk around with their own personal spotlight. The same could be said of the 33-year-old Randolph, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, who got her break playing Oda Mae Brown in Ghost the Musical, for which she received a Tony nomination. As Lady Reed, she is a powerhouse, all heart and hurt, hope and hustle.

A single mom with a mean right hook, an Olympic-level cuss range, and a voice that shakes the room.

From the minute Randolph read the character breakdown for Lady Reed, she knew the role was special. “It was almost as if a person was writing a love letter to someone,” says the actress. “As a woman of color and as a curvy woman, even how they described her body, I had never seen that. I’m used to seeing ‘obese black woman’ or ‘frumpy dowdy black woman,’ where you’re like, ‘Can’t wait to audition!’ Of course my job as the actor is that it never remains that way. Sometimes I tell my reps, ‘Don’t tell me about that part, just give me the script.’ Because sometimes that can be more of a hindrance than a help. Because then you’re judging yourself, like, ‘That’s how they see me?’ And it’s like, ‘No. Remove that narrative.’”

The competition for the part was stiff, and Randolph left nothing to chance as she prepared for her audition. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) instructed her to prepare a word-perfect two minutes from a Lady Reed album. “I put her party albums on throughout the whole house. Like a crazed maniac, I just played it over and over, immersing myself in her.”

Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Eddie Murphy, and Randolph in the film, directed by Craig Brewer.

The scenes between Randolph and Murphy are standouts, and the relationship between Lady Reed and Moore is depicted as a true partnership. “We didn’t want to cloud it up or make it predictable by adding a sex scene or romance, or obvious romance, I should say. Because I think the deepest moments of intimacy were shown when he confides in me. When he can let his guard down and speak to me in a way that he doesn’t feel comfortable doing with the other guys,” says Randolph. “That’s very empowering as a woman, when you have a team of people, and someone helming this project, that’s like, ‘Let her be a woman on her own, without having to exploit her body, or her sexuality.’”

Asked how it was to work with Murphy, Randolph recalls, “I remember immediately feeling very relaxed with him. Once I got over ‘O.K., that’s Eddie Murphy standing right there,’ it truly felt like the comedian is not here right now—he’s always present—but I felt like I was back at school doing a scene-study class together.”

“Let her be a woman on her own, without having to exploit her body, or her sexuality.”

Randolph’s other true partner on the project was costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who won an Academy Award last year for her stunning work on Black Panther. Lady Reed’s costumes are a festival of color, and Randolph calls Carter her co-pilot. “I started crying because I knew not only was I going to be taken care of, but it was going to be on another level,” recalls Randolph. “I was the only female of a major cast and I had to represent consistently the whole era, and, as a curvy woman, I know how difficult it is just shopping for the day to day.” Randolph’s gratitude for Carter goes far beyond their work on the film. “She changed my life,” she says. “It was the first time both on a personal level and a professional level where I was like, Oh, I really see myself as a woman. Like I really see my body and it’s something to be fully and genuinely celebrated, and for nothing or no one else but myself.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Randolph is the daughter of educators who made sure she received a private-school education. “I was bused from the city to wealthy suburbs, where I was always the only African-American student,” says Randolph. “I had to code-switch, because I would go from being around predominantly whites in school and then get bused home to my predominantly African-American community, so the duality of the two worlds was an interesting interplay.”

Remarkably, there are no singers or performers in Randolph’s family tree, but it was clear from the time she was a child that she had an instinct to entertain and the ability to move people. Her parents once found their toddler delivering an impromptu rendition of “On the Good Ship Lollipop” to a growing crowd on a family trip to an amusement park. Still, as an adult it took her a while to figure out that being an actor and a singer could be her professional path.

“I was bused from the city to wealthy suburbs, where I was always the only African-American student.”

“It wasn’t like, I’m going to do this. It was really like all of life’s circumstances kind of dragged me to this point. Even now I have impostor syndrome sometimes. I didn’t grow up like the kids I went to Yale with. My whole life, I have been searching for myself or a version of myself,” says Randolph. She remembers being at Yale and the advice she was given by Ron Van Lieu, her acting teacher. “I would go into the office all the time and say, ‘Where’s me? I don’t have anyone to look up to,’” recalls Randolph. “And he said, ‘Like the Meryl Streeps, like the Al Pacinos, like the Robert De Niros, you’re going to have to invent it yourself.’”

If you ask Randolph where she currently resides, she’ll tell you she has a storage unit in Los Angeles. Having left New York, her plans to find a fixed place in L.A. were put on hold as she booked one project after another. Following her success with Ghost the Musical, she’s worked steadily in film and television. But now, with Dolemite Is My Name, the new television show On Becoming a God in Central Florida, and a slew of upcoming projects, Randolph is on a roll. She’s headed to Montreal to work with Lee Daniels on a movie about Billie Holiday. Other projects include Kajillionaire, a feature from writer-director Miranda July; High Fidelity, Hulu’s adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel; and The Last Shift, a comedy with Richard Jenkins. But Randolph is keeping it all in perspective.

“I like how normal my life is when I’m not working, that I’m still rooted in my family, and I like not getting caught up in the hype,” she says. “This is an amazing privilege and an honor, and I take it very seriously.” —Emily Poenisch