Update: On February 28, Andra Day took home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her performance as Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Andra Day wasn’t an obvious choice to play Billie Holiday. Despite being an established singer herself, Day had to convince director Lee Daniels that she could handle the role, despite having no previous acting experience. But that hard work paid off: Her performance in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, which is available to watch on Sky Cinema, has earned Day two Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, and Best Song. Not bad for a first attempt.
Just as obtaining the part wasn’t a given, Day’s transformation into musical legend Billie Holiday, who rose to fame in the 1940s and died tragically in 1959 at the age of 44, also came at a huge cost. She cut her long hair to match Holiday’s shoulder-length style, and started smoking after picking up the habit during takes. She drank alcohol, which she’d given up years earlier. She lost almost 40 pounds. She even swore like Billie, a habit she’d never had before, and that her family remarked upon. Still, the most challenging moment came when Day realized she’d have to take her clothes off for certain scenes, dropping a vow of abstinence she’d made.
“I was terrified,” Day told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the film’s release. “[Sexuality]'s not been something that’s been a part of my life for quite some time. But it’s a part of [Billie Holiday’s] story and I didn’t want to sugarcoat it.”
The film, based on Johann Hari’s 2015 best-seller Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, recounts the FBI’s relentless pursuit of Holiday, which was framed as the inevitable consequence of her frequent heroin use. But the real reason was more nefarious: Holiday’s refusal to stop singing her hit controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” which describes a Southern lynching, threatened the established white supremacist order. In order to target Holiday, commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), tasks Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) with infiltrating her inner circle. In a raid on her apartment early in the film, Holiday strips down, defiantly challenging him to search her. It’s the first of a number of fairly graphic scenes, meant to shine a light on the injustice and trauma Holiday faced throughout her life. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday a gruelling film to watch for multiple reasons, but whatever thoughts you may have on whether or not all of this was worth it, Day stresses that she found strength through the pain.
Refinery29: Billie Holiday has often been referred to as a “jazz singer and drug addict,” which leaves out her significant role as leader in the history of civil rights. What do you think this says about the words the media has historically used to describe Black women?
Andra Day: “How intentional it is. That’s a big part of continuing the system of oppression and racial injustice — and on the flip side it’s also a big part of dismantling it. Understanding that narratives are intentionally suppressed and changed, particularly narratives like hers, of fractured heroes. If we’re going to actually dismantle these things, we need to continue to be told, and we need to be portrayed by us, and the way we want to be portrayed and celebrated for all the dynamics that make us human.”
Do you think Holiday was targeted in part because she was a woman, and therefore more vulnerable to the kind of smears she received in the media?
“It’s significant, and it’s painful because we’re still seeing that today. I’m glad to see the conversation being had about protecting Black women, but I also think that conversation is sort of piecemeal. It’s very telling that she as a woman was so much more vulnerable and more of a target. It’s also telling that she was still able to stand up despite that. Her level of strength was far beyond any man that she had ever encountered. And they went after her for singing ‘Strange Fruit’ — she’s got this voice, let’s silence her. That’s scary, because it threatens the system that they’re trying to keep in place to monetize and criminalize Black bodies. To me, it is tragic, but it speaks more than anything to the strength. Black women shouldn’t necessarily have to be that strong, but we are.”
Playing a real person is always tough because you need to take them off a pedestal in order to make them feel like a living breathing person rather than a hero. Was there one specific moment where you finally felt like you had found your version of Billie?
Andra Day: “It was a whole process — I started auditioning in late 2017 and landed the role at the top of 2018. We didn’t start filming until fall of the following year, so it was sort of a gradual slipping into her. There were definitely moments I felt like her, where my family would go ‘Whoa that’s weird.’ On set, I felt like it was my world. There was never really a moment where I felt confident — I was never not terrified — but I definitely felt like her in my mind and in my spirit. “
Billie Holiday is someone who carried a lot of trauma. Was it difficult to leave that behind at the end of the day?
“I was working with an acting coach, and we studied a certain practice, but she let me know that I was doing Method as well. IIn order for me to get it, I had to live her and breathe her. I couldn’t go in and out. I didn’t know who I was outside of Billie Holiday. I feel a little more clear now, but it takes a toll. But in such a beautiful way — I would not have changed a thing.”
There’s a certain amount of graphic nudity in this movie — as a first-time actress, were you hesitant about taking that on?
“I made a decision years ago for abstinence. So, to go from that to Hey, how about I just be completely naked in front of a bunch of people I don’t know on camera...I was nervous, and it was uncomfortable. I prayed heavily about it because I’m a spiritual person. But I knew from the beginning that it was going to be in the movie, and it’s a part of her story. I didn’t want to sugarcoat it. You can’t tell a G-rated or PG-13 version of Billie Holiday’s story. Lee was so careful and protective — it was obviously a closed set. And Trevante [Rhodes, who plays Jimmy] has such integrity as a person. I realized that with these two people, I’m safe, then it’s like Alright, let’s explore the space."
Did making this movie change your perception of Billie Holiday?
“She was a hero, and the early godmother of the Civil Rights Movement, and it deepened my respect for her, and what I believe our ability and strength is as Black women. She was singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in defiance of the government, and the entire government went after her under the guise of a war on drugs because she was talking about racial terror in America. And she was shouldering all of this on her own — she didn’t have a movement or even a family supporting her. It really gave me even deeper love and appreciation for how much she shouldered."
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.