Davis Robinson Is a Full-time Theater Professor and Director—and a Part-time Movie Actor—Most Recently in ‘The Holdovers’

By Rebecca Goldfine
What would you do for the chance to act in a movie scene with Meryl Streep?
A still from Don't Look Up
A still from Don't Look Up. Robinson is sitting on the left side of the table, the third person from Meryl Streep.
In 2020, during the pandemic, Professor of Theater Davis Robinson was willing to hole up, completely alone, in a Boston hotel room for nine days.

About a month before the film crew was scheduled to shoot, the casting agency for the production called him to see whether he could join the presidential cabinet.

“I said, ‘Hmm, who's the president?’" Robinson said, recounting the story. "'And they said, ‘Meryl Streep.’ I said, ‘Oh! So, it's a scene with Meryl Streep?’ And they said, ‘Yup. You would be a cabinet member; they need people to be in the White House.’”

There was, however, a caveat. “But here's the thing,” they told him. “You have to isolate for nine days. We'll pay you $300 a day to sit in a hotel room. You'll have to order food in with non-touch delivery—there’s to be no contact with anyone.”

Robinson considered the proposition. The isolation period would take place during Bowdoin’s January break, when he had to develop his course syllabus anyway. “And I get to be an extra, I get to be a cabinet member and see Meryl Streep, so I said yes.”

The movie was Don’t Look Up, a star-studded comedy directed by Adam McKay about an encroaching comet threatening to annihilate earth. (It's really a satire on climate change.) Streep plays a narcissistic president not tethered to reality, Jonah Hill is her goofball son, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are two distressed astronomers trying to ward off the apocalypse.

What followed that day on the set in Boston was one of the most delightful, wacky, and inspiring experiences on a movie set that Robinson has had. Throughout his career as a theater director, actor, and professor, he has on occasion taken small film roles when his schedule allows it. His other film and TV credits include Mermaids, The Next Karate Kid, The Fighter, Julia (on episode four of the 2022 series), and most recently, The Holdovers.
Davis Robinson with the crew of The Holdovers
The Holdovers wrap shot with Robinson, far right, and cast members in the restaurant scene. Da'Vine Joy Randolph, next to Robinson, won numerous acting awards for her role, including the 2024 Oscar for best supporting actress.

He picks up this kind of work, he said, because it’s fun, it’s illuminating to see how movies are made, it usually only requires a day of well-paid work, and it helps him model professional acting for his students.

“We're in an academic field that is also connected to pop culture, so it's great for students to know that what we're studying in theory and practice in class has direct application to the real world,” he said. “And there is a certain amount of validation when they're home watching TV with their parents and they see their professor in a movie and say, ‘Hey that's my acting teacher!’”

Though Robinson has enjoyed every experience he’s had working on movies, it has never cast enough of a spell to make him desire a Hollywood career. To do that, he said, actors must move to major markets like Los Angeles or New York, hire an agent, and—for him—give up being a professor. “I like teaching, but I do like to dabble as things come up,” he said.

“We're in an academic field that is also connected to pop culture, so it is great for students to know that what we're studying in theory and practice in class has direct application to the real world.” 

But back to his COVID-era Don’t Look Up job. Robinson relishes the memory, telling the story with lots of detail and funny impersonations of assistant directors mumbling into their headsets and his own astonished reactions as extraordinary moments kept unfolding (or rather, ordinary moments, like when he helped Streep untangle a headset from her hair). 

Part of what was so special about that day, Robinson said, was watching a cast of talented actors at work. “It was like a master improvisation class,” he recalled. “They must have improvised for two or three hours, way beyond the script.” McKay, the director, has a background in improvisational comedy and kept encouraging his actors to riff. “No one was in a rush to go anywhere. They were just loose and at the same time, really good at what they do—really good at make-believe,” Robinson said.

(Check out this video of McKay talking about Meryl Streep’s improvising on Don't Look Up.)

The Holdovers restaurant scene with Robinson.

A couple of years later, Robinson was at it again, with a bit in The Holdovers, which was nominated for five Academy Awards this winter—including best picture.

When Robinson heard the casting agency for Holdovers was seeking Boston-area actors, he decided to audition. He liked the director, Alexander Payne, especially his films Sideways and Election. “I am not going to turn down an interesting story even if you don't know where it is going to go or how it will turn out,” he said. “The Holdovers sounded like a good story.” Plus, Paul Giamatti was in it.

He traveled to Boston, delivered his line in the restaurant as the maîtres’d and then, when he didn’t hear back, assumed he didn’t get the part.

But on New Year’s Eve, he received a voicemail message from Payne saying he hoped Robinson was still interested in the part and that he’d send him the script if it would help convince him.

“I couldn’t believe it, I have never had a director call me and leave their number,” Robinson said. “This is part of why he's such a good director, he pays close attention to details.”

Robsinon plays the pacifist garage station attendant in The Next Karate Kid.

Robinson first got his foot in the movie business by doing commercial work—both for television and print. He was Professor Plum for Milton Bradley's board game Clue, for instance, and he was the show host for the Channel 7 gameshow VidKids.

“Because I had done a fair amount of commecials, the casting agencies in Boston knew me,” Robinson said. “Once they know you, they're like, 'he's good for this or that character part,' or 'he's funny,' or 'he can do a dad.'”

The first film Robinson got a speaking part in was in the early 1990s, in The Next Karate Kid with Hilary Swank, the first female karate kid. Robinson played the gas station attendant who appears in a fighting scene close to the start of the movie. 

From the sidelines, he carefully observed the fight between Mr. Miyagi and some menacing dudes, taking mental notes for his classes. “I teach stage combat a little bit, as much as we need to in class, but to have a Hollywood stunt director on set and a couple of stunt guys taking hits in the fall, it was great seeing how they padded and rehearsed it,” he said.

Directing Credits

In 1982, Robinson founded Beau Jest Moving Theater, a Boston-based company with six to nine members that has toured nationwide. Their most recent show was Screwball!, an adaptation of Preston Sturges's classic 1941 film, Sullivan's Travels, and what the company called a "loving tribute to the screwball comedy genre."

The group is currently batting around the possibility of next working on a Chekhov play, either performing one of his five works or a mash-up, with characters jumping scripts. "Certain archetypes keep showing up," Robinson said.

Robinson has also directed many plays at The Shakespeare Theater at Monmouth, including The Illusion, Our Town, Blithe Spirit, and Arsenic and Old Lace. He directed Waiting for Godot at the Theater Project in Brunswick, and at Bowdoin, some of his recent shows include Our Town, Cole, Sweat, The Threepenny Opera, End of Summer, A Little Night Music, and The Cripple of Inishmaan

He also paid close attention to the boxing choreography in The Fighter when he was hired to be one of the photographers circling the ring. It turns out that the vintage camera handed to him as his prop actually contained a roll of film—so he happily followed the director's instructions, snapping pics of the dramatic action. He (of course!) later had the film developed, which came back with close-up shots of stars Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams.

Even before these roles, he was the guy who ogled Cher in Mermaids when she walked down the street. That was his first “featured extra” part, as they say in movie lingo, which is when “you don't have a line but you are visible and have a chance to interact in a scene in some interesting way,” Robinson said.

A featured extra is a step up from an extra, which is essentially just a body in a crowd. A big leap up from both is when you're cast as a day player, which means you have lines. You also get a dressing room with your name on it, wardrobe fittings, a named role in the credits, and royalties. Robinson still get checks for Next Karate Kid and Julia, and these days only auditions for day player roles.

But any work on a movie can be fun, even when you're just "atmosphere," he said.

Plus, when you're hanging around on set, you sometimes get the chance to interact in an interesting way even when the cameras aren't rolling. On other movie projects, Robinson recalls having pleasant conversations with Robert Duvall and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

He tells the story of seeing Hoffman sitting by himself during lunch on a movie filmed in Maine (State and Main), prompting Robinson to go over to keep him company.

“Philip saw I was reading Death of a Salesman for my class, and we talked about that because he had just played that role on Broadway or was about to,” Robinson said. ”That was sweet just to sit there and talk about acting.”