How Andra Day transformed into Billie Holiday for Lee Daniels’ new film
With Oscar buzz growing, the three-time Grammy-nominated singer discusses her breakout film role — in ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ — after finding her destiny as a San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts student
What did Andra Day do to prepare for her title role as the star of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” director Lee Daniels’ gripping new film about the transcendent jazz and blues singer’s soul-sapping battle against racism, addiction and relentless government persecution?
A more apt question would be: What didn’t the three-time Grammy Award nominee do to prepare to play Holiday in this Paramount Pictures production, which begins streaming Friday on Hulu?
The role, which marks Day’s film debut, has earned her growing Oscar buzz and a 2021 Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama. She threw herself into playing the famously gifted, troubled and tormented Holiday with so much focus and commitment, body and soul, that it seems as if Day’s life depended on it, not just her budding acting career.
“This was incredibly difficult and the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life,” she said, speaking by phone recently from her Los Angeles home. “It was transformative.”
For starters, this proud 2003 graduate of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts lost weight to play “Lady Day,” as Holiday was affectionately called by fellow musicians. A lot of weight.
Through a special diet, an exercise regimen that focused on aikido, and periodic bouts of not eating — both before and during filming in 2019 — Day dropped from 163 to 124 pounds.
“I wanted to do it healthily,” she noted. “But when it got closer to starting to film on set, there would be moments of starving myself. It’s not something I recommend; it’s not a healthy way to lose weight. But I was trying to get — this sounds gross — a period body, to show what Billie might have looked like when she was skinny and on drugs. It’s not particularly a pretty sight. I tried to look gaunt and have my skin as loose as possible.
“Those details really mattered. I couldn’t show up with a six-pack (body). On set, I was hungry — a lot.”
After being cast as Holiday by Daniels, Day also began drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. And, also like the real-life Holiday, she began swearing. A lot. And she took an even deeper dive into the enduring art created by Holiday, Day’s biggest and earliest singing influence, whose classics she performs and whose life she portrays throughout the film with a startling realism that is by turns poignant and horrifying.
To further prepare for her Holiday role, Day met a number of times with recovering heroin addicts at a Los Angeles area halfway house. This allowed her to study their behavior up close and ask them about their debilitating habits. They also taught her how to prepare a fix and how to realistically simulate injecting heroin.
“I wanted to show what makes an addictive personality manifest that way,” she explained.
“Understanding my own addictive personality and that sort of neurotic anxious energy, I needed to feel it with smoking and with alcohol. I watched a lot of recovering addicts who taught me how to tie up, shoot up and what it’s like, emotionally. We’re all addicts; it just manifests in different ways.
“I tell a story in the film. But I give special credit to a young man whose folks owned a ‘sober house.’ He was only a year into his sobriety and he was teaching me how to tie up and shoot up, how everything is (inside) you. I was concerned because I could see (the craving) in his eyes when he talked about it. His pupils dilated, these sweat beads started to form and you could barely drag his attention. His parents said he was a huge fan of my music so I shouldn’t worry. He gave me everything I needed to know, at that exact moment, about the need to shoot up, why you would steal and why you would lie to get heroin.”
Civil rights pioneer
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915, Holiday began singing in New York clubs when she was barely 15. By that point, sadly, she had already endured much trauma, including racism, poverty, sexual abuse and a stint in a facility for troubled Black girls that began when she was 9. Holiday’s mother was a prostitute and her father had almost no presence.
In her adult life, the singer was repeatedly exploited and sometimes beaten by men. One of them was James Monroe, to whom she was briefly married in 1941 and who introduced her to smoking opium. Following her divorce, Holiday’s second husband, trumpeter Joe Guy, introduced her to heroin use.
The subsequent death of her mother accelerated Holiday’s drinking and drug-taking. Her third husband, the thuggish Louis McKay, was no less manipulative or abusive than her previous two spouses. He set Holiday up for a drug bust that resulted in her being convicted and sentenced to a year in prison.
Yet, like few music legends before or since, Holiday channeled the pain and torment of her life into exquisitely moving music that has repeatedly transcended her time and place. She soared on stage, whether performing on her own or with such stellar collaborators as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
Singing in a sinuous voice that sounded both haunting and haunted, tender and tortured, Holiday transformed such songs as “God Bless the Child,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and, especially, the chilling “Strange Fruit” into intensely felt autobiographical portraits. The results, acclaimed around the world then and now, captured her unique sense of hope and loss, beauty and despair, fleeting pleasure, and a long string of shattered dreams.
Holiday was only 44 when she died in 1959 from drug and alcohol-related causes. An exceptionally expressive vocal artist, she remains one of the most influential singers in any genre.
But as an early civil rights pioneer who was also a soft and hard drugs user, Holiday was relentlessly persecuted by the U.S. government’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. One of its few Black agents, Jimmy Fletcher, became a confidante and then a lover of Holiday — the better to keep tabs on the doomed singer and set her up.
She served prison time on a drug-related conviction. Upon her release, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger directed the New York City Police Department to revoke Holiday’s cabaret card so that it was illegal for her to perform there.
The same punitive action was also taken against such fellow jazz greats as saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk. Like Holiday, they were among the prime targets of Anslinger, whose contempt for Black Americans and jazz was as palpable as it was abhorrent. The lives of jazz artists, Anslinger wrote in a memo, “reek of filth.”
Holiday was later taken back to court on trumped-up charges that were ultimately dismissed. The government, which was strenuously racializing its then-budding national war on drugs, then bore down on her even harder.
Through it all, Holiday bravely refused to capitulate to the government’s demands that she cease performing “Strange Fruit.” The harrowing 1937 song, written by a Jewish New York public school teacher named Abel Meeropol, is a chilling musical portrait of racial injustice and the lynching of Black Americans. Holiday’s singing of it in concert halls and nightclubs — compounded by the fact that she attracted integrated audiences and sold out two Carnegie Hall performances in 1956 — fueled the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ vendetta against her.
Performing “Strange Fruit,” like playing the often wrenching role of Holiday, required Day to reach deep inside of herself. Doing so was a formidable, and emotionally draining, achievement.
“I had to pull from personal pain, and I didn’t like that,” Day said. “Capturing the social pain and challenge wasn’t enough, because ‘Strange Fruit’ makes me realize there’s a familiarity in our community with this magnitude of pain and loss, and I had to reconcile that. Because I don’t want future generations to deal with this (reality), that we should be so familiar with something so awful.”
The screenplay for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the first Black American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The film is based largely on Johann Hari’s 2015 book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” His writing about the fabled singer was also featured in “The Haunting of Billie Holiday,” a 2015 Politico article subtitled: “How Lady Day was in the middle of a Federal Bureau of Narcotics fight for survival.”
Day immersed herself in her taxing film role, so much so that she did not break character between takes while filming in Montreal. She says she has still not fully recovered from depicting Holiday, a woman who was tormented by inner and outer demons alike, savagely beaten, and subjected to unspeakable depravations.
That degree of commitment — like her dramatic weight loss and taking up drinking and smoking to more accurately portray Holiday — comes as no surprise to Day’s longtime friend, Jessica Mays.
“It was a total 180-degree transformation, and she was very hard on herself,” said Mays, a Chula Vista resident, who has been a Day confidante since soon after they started sixth grade here together at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
“It was crazy, because I feel like she embodied Billie so much that she kind of turned into Billie,” Mays continued. “Normally, I talk to Andra two or three times a week. During filming, she cut off her connection with pretty much everybody because she wanted to stay in that space. It was a (dramatic) stretch, because she definitely wasn’t being herself, but she is so dedicated to her craft. And she was made for the role of Billie Holiday, 110 percent. Andra is all for social justice and standing up for what’s right.”
Day is quick to note that she went into the role with no film acting experience — “None!” She is just as quick to sing the praises of her director, crew and fellow cast members, who include Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Natasha Lyonne.
“I give a lot of the credit to Lee and my acting coach and dialect coach. They really gave me a space to manifest being Billie,” Day said.
Captivated at first listen
Day was only 12 when she heard an album of Holiday’s music for the first time. She was immediately captivated.
“I was thrown by the tone and texture of her voice, where it sat, how it moved and how she phrased things,” Day said. “I was like: ‘This isn’t anything like Whitney (Houston) or Aretha (Franklin)!’ I was disappointed by that at first, then not, because I was enamored. When I heard her do ‘Strange Fruit,’ I just knew. I didn’t know everything she was talking about, but I knew that it was important, her sacrifice, that something weighty was being given and that it directly related to me and to people like me. ...
“What was really the most difficult thing for me is singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ as Billie, and realizing that it’s so unfortunate it is still necessary to sing this song. That’s what hurts about it, that it still needs to be sung and (racism) is still happening at a systemic level, which is even more difficult because people act like it doesn’t happen now, but it does. We see it. Before I would perform the song as an homage to her. But doing it as her, there was a sense of urgency. ... It’s an ugly song, with an ugly message, and there was a need for her to sing it, because she was dying (from racism).”
Day grew up singing here in the choral ensemble and in stage musicals at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, where she attended high school and junior high, and in the First United Church of Chula Vista choir. She cites her faith for bolstering her decision to portray the complicated, often devastating life of Holiday. It’s a challenge she rises to with grit, grace and unflinching candor.
“I prayed heavily about going into this film,” Day said. “For sure, I needed to be persuaded And I needed to be persuaded from the perspective of my spiritual self. I needed to be persuaded by God.
"(Playing) Billie, you can’t fake it, especially smoking cigarettes. I wouldn’t want anyone who smokes to watch and think: ‘This is fake,’ especially with Billie. You are hard pressed to find a photo of her without a cigarette in her hand. And no, I am no longer smoking cigarettes.”
With a boldness and daring that would be rare for the most experienced of actors, Day brings painful new dimension and pathos to the life of Holiday, a woman who was beaten up and down — figuratively and literally — for much of her life.
“ ‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Business’ is not as wrenching as ‘Strange Fruit,’ but it is, actually,” Day noted. “Because ‘T’ain’t’ is such a casual conversation about the abuse Billie suffered at the hands of men. And that’s another thing in our community, our community of women, that we’re all too familiar with.
“Lee (Daniels) was so brave (to include the beating scenes). We don’t want to see women get beaten, but they do, so we can’t move on with that conversation by denying it. ‘Ain’t’ is heartbreaking. Billie was talking, in her mind, about what she dealt with. So I had to take being beat up a normal thing (that was) in the place Billie is coming from, which is so deep, and make sure the margins in my script were full with (handwritten) notes about every emotional cue.”
Day lights up the screen, even in the film’s darkest scenes, of which there are more than a few. That she accomplishes this in the first screen role of her career is doubly remarkable. Equally notable is the fact that neither she nor director Daniels, who earned a 2010 Oscar nomination for directing “Precious,” thought Day was remotely qualified to take on such a demanding role as Holiday.
“I was terrified,” Day admitted. “I thought: ‘I’m not an actress, and I’m going destroy Billie’s legacy!’ That’s the last thing I wanted to do. And Lee didn’t want me to do the film either. He thought: ‘She’s not an actress.’
“So, we bonded over that! It was like: ‘Great, we’ll meet, eat some hors d’oeuvres and get out of here.’ But we connected. It is definitely the role of a lifetime and one of those things that was meant to be.”
In a statement released by Hulu, Daniels said: “Whether you are new to the story and legacy of Billie Holiday or know every note she ever sang, I do hope our celebration of this complex woman does justice to a great musical legend and civil rights activist whose artistry resonates as well today, as it did 80 years ago.
“Hulu releasing this film and giving it a platform to be seen nationwide is a blessing, because as recent events reveal, our country has much work to do in fulfilling its promise of a more perfect union.”
Jessica Mays, Day’s longtime friend, vividly recalls the singer returning from her first script reading with director Daniels three years ago.
“Andra had this glow, this look, that was like: ‘I really hope this works out. I really think this is for me,” Mays said. “Once she was cast, she was very hard on herself because it was obviously a big undertaking but she was up for it. Before all this even happened, Andra had Billie Holiday memorabilia all throughout her house. Being cast as Billie was perfect for her. It was meant for her.”
The life of Holiday is not new on the big screen or on the Broadway stage. She was previously portrayed by Diana Ross (in the Oscar-nominated 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues”) and by Audra McDonald (in the Tony Award-winning 2014 production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a 1986 play that was also made into a 2016 HBO film that starred McDonald).
An admirer of both Ross and McDonald’s performances, Day let out a knowing laugh when asked if she thinks she was born to play Holiday.
“I realize now,” she said, “that the entire time I was on set, I thought: ‘Today is the day I’ll be fired. They’ll realize I’m terrible and I’ll be fired.’ I do believe God sets things up from early in our life. It’s funny you ask me that question. Because, just today, I was looking at a picture of me in high school at SDSCPA and my head is tilted like Billie’s and my shoulders are tilted like hers.
“After doing this film, I definitely see music and acting as equals. Music got me into this; Billie got me into this. I love her — a lot. And I now have a desire to tell Black stories. There’s a reason most people don’t know about this period of her life, or ‘Strange Fruit,’ or the early war on drugs. I have a real desire to tell stories that have been suppressed, or failed to be told, or lied about, that limit the scope of our struggle and contributions
“Let’s look at these truths. And let’s ask: ‘Why we haven’t been told these truths?’ ”
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Rating: Not rated
When: Begins streaming Friday on Hulu
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
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