Andra Day took on her first big role in a film with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Her transformative performance just brought her a Golden Globe Award win as a dramatic actress as well as a Critics Choice nomination.
Day spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery before the Golden Globes about the challenge of playing Billie Holiday, the intense amount of research she did for the film and the continued legacy of the legendary singer. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: It’s your first leading role in a film and you’ve spoken before about having doubts about tackling this particular role. So what ultimately made you want to take on the challenge?
Andra Day: Well, it’s actually my first role in a film. I guess, technically, I’ve been on set, but I just went on set before to sing a song, which is what I do, in my voice. But my hesitations were, I think, sort of obvious. I had never acted before in a movie, TV, just on camera, onscreen, and I didn’t want to be terrible. I love Billie Holiday. I’m a big fan. I really, really love this woman and I love Diana Ross and her performance in “Lady Sings the Blues” and I just think she’s sort of a monstrous talent and what she gave us culturally in that moment was amazing and necessary. Audra McDonald on Broadway was also incredible and I think that I just have this idea in my mind that I would be the one stain that everybody was like, “Oh, man, remember when Andra Day tried to be Billie Holiday?”
So I was nervous for that reason and also, I didn’t want to retell “Lady Sings the Blues,” but it was really prayer and it was just, as I say, devotion time or, I guess, a conversation with God and meditating on scripture that I realized I’m probably being caused to face my fears and to do an act of great faith. That’s how it read out to me and then Lee [Daniels]. Working with Lee, he’s one of the greatest directors, I think, of all time, and I think that the performances he’s able to pull out of people is incredible. But more than that, it was that he was committed to humanizing her, to her story, to telling the truth, to vindicating her legacy and the world would be able to finally say thank you to her and see her as this really great godmother of civil rights and she sang “Strange Fruit” in defiance of the government and they went after her for that, under the guise of a war on drugs. So people would be able to see her strength and to be grateful for her and grateful to her. It was incentivizing for me as a fan of hers.
GD: And playing such a well-known public figure, how did you go about researching her or just kind of getting her mannerisms, her singing style, presenting that?
AD: First of all, it was just talking to Lee and what he wanted for the character and then my sharing with him what I wanted to see for her as well, and who she was to me, loving her for as long as I have, since I was 11 years old. So it was obviously through the music as well, and knowing her entire catalog, just listening to that music. He introduced me to Tasha Smith, who really taught me, because she’d say, “You did a ton of research and that’s great. But now, this is a shell. You have to now inform Billie Holiday, the shell that you’ve built with a human being.” And that was a bit of a scary part for me because I have to bring up trauma and actually deal with it and face it in ways that I don’t think I would have done if it weren’t for this movie and if it weren’t for her working with me, and then how to inform a character, how to sort of fill the margins and how to visualize in my head who it is I’m speaking to or what I’m dealing with, and then on the other side of it, how to be present with the other actor in the film or the other character.
The huge thing she helped me with was just how to be fluid in Lee’s hands because she’s like, “You can build up all this work, but if he wants something different, you’ve got to be able to let it go on the drop of a dime and transform.” So she really taught me how to be flexible and how to be water, and then it was studying. I mean, so much research, reading every single book, even a book about her and her relationship with her dog, because it might seem trivial to people, but she had no children and she wanted kids more than anything, and she had no real family. So her dogs were actually her kids. She has a very special bond, particularly with her boxer, Mister, and reading a book called “With Billie,” which was other people’s experiences with her, which is really beautiful and eye-opening, seeing every documentary of all varying qualities, every conspiracy theory on her life and looking at official FBI documents, looking at even citation cards that she received sometimes from the NAACP for behavior, just knowing her story, knowing what she went through, listening to every audio recording of her interviews and rehearsals and the making of certain sides.
And then finding her voice with Thom Jones, my dialect coach, which was a bit of muscle training, and then it was also mental and it was also physical. I definitely had to sort of damage, I guess, my vocal cords to a degree with the cigarettes and with the yelling and the cold and lots of alcohol and I don’t drink. And then mannerisms. Losing the weight slowed me down drastically, starving slowed me down drastically, smoking cigarettes slowed me down, and seeing where she carried her tension was a huge thing for me as well, too. When I sing, it sucks, I hate this way because I always get horrible pictures of me when I’m singing but she carried a lot of her tension sort of in her shoulders and in this area of her body, so it was seeing that and feeling and feeling the similarities of how I do that and putting all of this together and making her a human being. Lee really had to make her a human being.
GD: Did being a singer and recording artist yourself help you connect with her with that side of who she was?
AD: Yeah, I mean, I think so. I think actually what was challenging about that was remembering that while I’m up there singing, I am a singer, but right now I am also, I won’t say an actress, but being Billie Holiday. So everything that you do onstage, you have to do as yourself, as Lady Day. So that actually was sort of like, “OK, you’re still here for this ultimate performance.” But yeah, I understand the sort of arc of emotions that happens before you get on stage. I understand what it’s like while you are on stage. I understand the need from the audience to love you, to feel you, to understand you, and your need to love and feel and understand them. I understand the mutual spiritual exchange that happens and all of the stuff that God does, I believe, between myself and them. I understand what it’s like after a show when you get offstage and you feel like it went pretty well and you’re receiving the love from people. I also understand what happens when it doesn’t go good at all (laughs). So I understand that need and that love and that washing that I believe happens when you’re on stage performing. So yeah, that’s going to be a commonality, I think, with any singer and any performer.
GD: “Strange Fruit” has such, of course, an important legacy as a protest song, and I feel like in this day and age, we’re still feeling that legacy, everything from Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” and “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. sort of expressing the continued struggle for Black lives. How do you feel like this film and that song connects to this present moment?
AD: I mean, the film, “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday herself, this was a woman that the entire government went after, not just the police force. The entire government went after her because she was raising awareness about lynching in America. She was letting the world know about racial terror and she was integrating audiences. One of the first artists, not the first, but one of the first to integrate Carnegie Hall. She was a change-maker. She was a wave-maker. And oftentimes, America does not like to look in the mirror and they do not like artists that hold a mirror up to them constantly because it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous if you’re trying to continue to develop this system of oppression to implement certain things and to continue growing and to be even more subtle and to continue to grow, then people like that are dangerous.
So I think they’re absolutely tied and one of the things that I love about this film is that I hope that it will, if artists who didn’t know her before, I can’t imagine that H.E.R. did not know who Billie Holiday was, but younger artists and people who maybe weren’t listening to this type of music, that they can really recognize her as the gangsta that she was. Everything that they’re doing with the backing of Black Lives Matter movement post-civil rights era, she was doing it by herself. Wearing fur coats and diamond earrings, that sounds normal to us now, but it was activism for Billie Holiday back then, a conscious activism because they didn’t want to see her wearing those things. “How dare a Black woman walk around looking like anything like our white women?” So I think hopefully people will see not only is she closely tied to it, she is the genesis of a lot of things that we say and we do now. That is our first protest song, truly, and she ultimately gave up her life for it. So yeah, I think she permeates everything that we do with regard to progressing and moving things forward in equality.
GD: Another important aspect of the character in this film is her relationship with Jimmy Fletcher, played by Trevante Rhodes, who is first an informant against her and falls in love with her. What did you think about that relationship and what kept drawing Billie to this man who had betrayed her but who also protected her?
AD: Yeah, I think, interestingly enough, first of all, the Jimmy Fletcher piece was revelatory for me. I knew that the government went after her. I just didn’t realize they infiltrated her heart in such a way and one of her deepest insecurities, which was to be heartbroken, one of her deepest fears because she was heartbroken so much, I mean, the trauma in that, the coping is really where the drugs come from. So I think what caused her to go back to Jimmy after he was sent to prison was sort of the same thing that repelled her. What drew her to him was what repelled her is, I think, a goodness, a desire to be good in him that she was not used to with the rest of the men in her life. So I think that same thing that drew her to him was also the same thing that repelled her. I don’t think in his light she saw herself as good enough or even saw herself as someone who could… I think she wanted a family, but I think really seeing herself in that space was probably more difficult than she would have wanted it to be and I also think that what drew her to him or what allowed her to go back to him after he betrayed her was empathy. Billie Holiday was not a judgmental person, which is also why people loved her. So she didn’t judge him. She didn’t hold it over his head and she had empathy for him.
I think she really had an ability to see people, to love people and to celebrate them for who they are and where they were at, to see behind just the actions to the intention in the heart of a person and a huge thing with Jimmy was that he was just a Black man living in America, that alone, and she’s a Black woman living in America. So she understands what goes along with those two things and she understands that this man was trying to do the right thing. He was trying to make a name for himself, to live a good life and he was being used and she recognized that. She recognized that even when he didn’t recognize it. She knew right away he was being used. It took him a while to realize he was being used. So I think she had an empathy and a patience and a need to almost protect him in the sense that he doesn’t know what he’s stepping into. He’s naive in that way, so I think it was the same things that drew her was that empathy, that non-judgment, but also, his purity of wanting to do that also made her go, “Oh, I’m used to men beating me. That’s familiar. I can handle that.” Heart damage is harder for her to recover from.
GD: And for this, your first acting role over the last week as we’re recording this, you were nominated for a Golden Globe for your performance and for the song “Tigress and Tweed,” Critics Choice nominations for Best Actress and Best Song. How was it, your first time out the gate and Best Actress nominations and possibly, fingers crossed, Oscar nomination to come, maybe?
AD: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah, I mean, it feels great. It’s definitely a blessing and I guess for me, it’s less like, “OK, wow, right out of the gate this is happening.” It was a lot of faith and a lot of work. It was so much work and it was sacrifice and I think in any realm of life, whether it’s your first time, whether it’s your last time, whether it’s just your 10th or your 11th time, if you’re willing to work hard and you’re willing to sacrifice and have faith and believe and work in accordance with that, then I think it doesn’t necessarily matter that it’s the first. I see where the story is in that. I totally understand, but it was so much work, and actually, when I was preparing for it, I was not looking ahead to an awards season. It was just, first of all, trying to get through because I was terrified and every single day I thought I was going to be fired. But it was just honoring her legacy and in anything you endeavor to do, it’s like something I say that, if I’m performing for an audience of five or 5,000, it has to be the same energy and the same commitment to it. So I don’t know. I’m really, really grateful. I think it’s amazing. It was a lot. It was definitely a lot of faith, a lot of trust and a shit-ton of work that went into it.
GD: And to have come into this first into the business primarily as a singer and now as an actress, how do they compare in terms of being able to express yourself as an artist, those two different mediums?
AD: I mean, they do compare, right? I mean, the performance of it is sort of, my acting coach used to tell me it’s the same anointing that you tap into for singing, and I didn’t realize it at first. And then I realized, “Oh, there’s a commitment there,” and there’s a bit of losing yourself, differently. Now, the way you lose yourself is different, but you do lose yourself when you’re doing music and you’re on stage and you’re lost in whatever it is that the spirit is sort of creating in that moment. And then with Billie, I mean, I lost myself to the degree where I could not find myself when we were done. And I’m still picking up little pieces of it. But it’s different because the burden is different. When I’m on stage, I lose myself, but I’m in myself, losing myself. With Billie Holiday, I have to be her. I can’t act like her. I have to be her. And then there’s another burden that’s sort of laid on you, a beautiful burden of having to honor her legacy and to accurately portray not just her characteristics and her mannerisms, but her personhood and her humanity and so there’s sort of that added burden of that, like, “I can’t just do me I have to do Billie.” But there is a bit of losing yourself in both of those things that’s very familiar, I think, to me.