Dominic Sessa’s road to his first film reads like the plot of High School Musical: A promising young athlete discovers that his heart is in the theater, and it turns out he’s incredible at it. Sessa applied to Deerfield, an elite Massachusetts boarding school, in hopes of pursuing a hockey career, but a leg injury led him to enroll in theater classes at the end of his freshman year instead. Three years later, after his fall production of Neil Simon’s Rumors, Sessa got the chance to audition for The Holdovers, and wound up with a lead role in one of last year’s most acclaimed films, alongside seasoned actors Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
When the Holdovers team scouted his high school for young talent, Sessa had no clue who the movie’s director Alexander Payne was. He just thought it would be a great experience to talk about in his drama school applications. Casting director Susan Shopmaker initially thought he was too old to play the disaffected teenager Angus Tully, but Payne was taken by the young man with sideburns and what many online have described as a ‘70s/80s face.
On the heels of his Critics Choice Awards win for Best Young Actor, Sessa called from his childhood home in New Jersey to speak to GQ about his breakthrough year, advice he got from his costars, and bringing back retro facial hair.
Was the film an accurate representation of your high school experience?
Very different from how I experienced school. Most [prep] schools were all boys back then, but by the time I was in school, all of them, or 90% of them, were co-ed. So that's just obviously a different experience. Better, I would argue—not for obvious reasons, but you get a better experience having other people around. There was always that belief in boys schools that boys can focus more when they're in class and all that stuff, but I just thought that was kind of bullshit. When you go into the real world, it's not going to be all boys.
You can just see how that kind of feeds into the setting, just the way the kids talk to each other in school. They're very unfiltered and rude to each other in a lot of instances. Also, I also had a lot more friends than this character.
It's still the same in the sense that it looks very similar. A lot of these places have updated buildings and 3D printers and that stuff that all these schools are getting now. But I mean, from the outside, aesthetically, it really does feel the same—the setting in New England, all the snow and that stuff.
When you were deciding what your character would sound like and act like, were there any actors that you were pulling from? You reminded me a lot of John Cusack in High Fidelity—and everything else that he's been in.
That's a good comparison. I mean, yeah, stuff like that maybe subconsciously worked its way into it, but no—I was just thinking of being annoying but charming in a sense. My natural speaking voice was not going to really pass since it was a little deep. I knew I would have to talk in a higher register.
How online are you? Do you spend a lot of time on the internet?
No. It’s probably for the best. I’ve never made a TikTok. I'm not on Twitter—or X, sorry, excuse me.
Yeah, I'll call it that. I use Instagram here and there. I'm super uncultured when it comes to the internet and all the applications, all that stuff. My friends will send me stuff and I'll get a kick out of it. But other than that I'm pretty ignorant of it.
What's the funniest thing that they've sent you?
Everybody's been sending me Paul [Giamatti] eating the In-N-Out burger after the Golden Globes.
There are also more than a few Dominic Sessa fan accounts already.
One of them dug up a video of your acapella group singing “Party in the U.S.A.”
Oh no, people are watching these? How did that get out there? That's hilarious. That was probably my junior year—maybe it was my senior year. I don't know. But yeah, I did do acapella in high school, and there was a period where our captain, so to speak, was out of commission, so I was taking the lead very boldly, trying to help the younger kids and stuff. I guess by default, since I was one of the few who could read the music, I had to take the lead in some of those things.
They’re super sleuths! There were a lot of really memorable outfits in the movie, and you've also worn some great looks on red carpets. How has your fashion evolved now that you’re navigating Hollywood?
I've never really been someone who explored that much. I would always just wear jeans and T-shirts, mainly. The only time I would dress up was in high school for my dress code. But yeah, I'm having fun just trying different stuff, just seeing what I like. I know that I like to wear a lot of black, so I'm incorporating that into a lot of the stuff I wear. I’m definitely, like, just keeping the classic look, keeping my hair the way it is with the sideburns, just being myself, I guess. I want to bring sideburns back, so if I can do that, that's a win.
How old were you when you first started growing them?
I guess I was probably in high school. Wait, I know exactly when it happened. It was my junior year and we did a radio play of Frankenstein, and I was playing Henry Clerval and there was nobody even watching it, but, trying to get into character or whatever, I grew out these giant muttonchops. I probably have a picture somewhere. And then I guess when I shaved those, I just trimmed it down, not as far up. I just kept little sideburns and that's when it started, and I just kept it.
What was the best piece of advice you've gotten from Paul Giamatti?
I guess just “Have fun.” He kind of trusted me when it came to all the acting stuff, and I think he just wanted to make sure that I was enjoying myself and having a good time. If you go through the whole thing stressed out and worried about what's going to happen, when people see it, it'll show, ultimately. And I think that's why he refrained from giving me too much advice. He wasn't always in my ear about things or telling me to do things differently. He was just kind of there to answer my questions, really just there supporting me.
Since this is a Christmas film, what was the best Christmas that you've ever had?
I mean, this is going to sound not super exciting, but we went to this place called Great Wolf Lodge. Have you ever heard of it?
Yes, I have!
Yeah. We would always complain to our parents about seeing those videos that people would post on Facebook like, "Oh, we're going to Disney World. We're going to Disney World." Our parents did it for us. They're like, "Oh, we're going to Great Wolf Lodge." That's what we were going to do. Which was so exciting at the time. And we went there and then we were in Virginia, I think it was, and we went to this place, Colonial Williamsburg, and everybody was dressed up in old-timey clothes and stuff. I don't know, I just remember that being a really nice holiday. That was probably the best Christmas I've ever had.
That’s so sweet! Did you end up reading Meditations, the book Giamatti’s character gives Angus for Christmas?
I never fully read Meditations, but there was always a copy wherever we were. So we would kind of flip through it and Paul would always be flipping through it and laughing to himself. He's the only person who could read something in Meditations and find humor in it, but that's what makes him a master. We would definitely read through it. I think I do still have that really retro copy that they used, like that really cool cover, the pink and blue.
Did you take anything from the set?
I have a few cool sweaters that I wore, like the Barton hoodie. I kept that watch that I wore throughout the film. That was pretty much it. Just a few mementos.
Which directors do you want to work with next?
I mean, obviously, there are the big directors like Scorsese and Tarantino. A lot of actors dream of working with guys like that. I would love to work with Sofia Coppola and Todd Haynes, who directed May December. I’m just name-dropping here [laughs] but I mean, there are so many people out there that I want to work with. I wasn't a big film person before this, so that's been a cool process right now: meeting many directors and just creating those relationships. I'm excited to just get on any set or any stage, really.
Originally Appeared on GQ