Becoming Billie: How Andra Day found the soul (and voice) of Lady Day

For her first acting role, The United States vs. Billie Holiday's Andra Day is a Best Actress Oscar contender. She did the work to get here.

How do you recreate the voice of one of the greatest singers ever? For her transformation into jazz legend Billie Holiday, Andra Day threw out the rule book. She started smoking cigarettes. She glugged "cold water and gin." She yelled and screamed all the time, leaving her vocal cords no time to rest. "The gravel and the grit in [Holiday's] voice is so much a part of her character," she explains. "Anything I'd do to take care of my voice as a singer, I did the opposite." It's one thing to commit to such a regimen as a seasoned actor; it's another entirely if you're a Grammy-nominated artist stepping into her first acting role. The experience changed her. "There's still some residual Billie," Day says with a throaty laugh. "Parts of her will always be with me."

Starring debuts rarely come this big, and Day didn't entertain the opportunity at first. ("Hell no" was her initial reaction.) Director Lee Daniels (Empire) didn't see her in the movie either. Their managers thought they'd click, though, and persuaded them to get together. "We sat in the meeting like, 'Why are we here?'" Day recalls. "'I don't think you're going to be good.' 'I don't think I'm going to be good!'" But they connected, particularly over Daniels' vision to move beyond previous depictions of Holiday and focus on the federal government's effort to censor and frame her — hence the title, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. An avowed Holiday fan compelled by the bold approach, Day auditioned a little more than three years ago and quickly got the part.

Adapted from a section of Johann Hari's 2015 drug-criminalization book Chasing the Scream, the film is no ordinary biopic. Daniels and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks (F---ing A) have crafted a pointed, nuanced portrait of a magnetic presence whose light couldn't be dimmed — to fans, to friends, to history — even as addiction struggles mounted and powerful forces worked relentlessly to silence her.

It's a significant cultural reframing that would weigh heavily on any actor. For Day, best known for her multiplatinum-selling 2015 single "Rise Up," no element of character building was minor. She researched "every book, every interview, every song," picking up on the tiniest of details, from Holiday's talent for topic swerving ("She'll go from talking about a crazy story about discrimination to being like, 'You know, Lester just loved my mother's cooking!'") to her laugh — "a pinging, [like] it'd come back and hit against something." Getting it all right required years of intensive preparation — also "a lot of self-maiming" — though Day's turn as the blues singer doesn't quite show that. There's an effortless kind of melody to the performance (which was just nominated for a Golden Globe); it's deceptively precise, more interested in the human than the icon.

Still, the screen novice had to navigate an unfamiliar process. She vividly recalls the first time, after 18 or so months of buildup, she actually performed as Lady Day for the camera. The scene: a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert. The number: "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do." She sang her heart out. The crowd (and crew) roared. She'd done it. And then she had to do it again. "We did it, like, 800 million times," Day deadpans. "As a singer you're used to: You get on stage, you perform, and everybody's like, 'Yay!' It was all a lesson for me."

Not just technically. The film's most pivotal scenes tasked Day with the song "Strange Fruit," whose lyrics unflinchingly describe a lynching. It's a window into the movie's central conflict (the government tried to stop Holiday from singing it), as well as its subject's soul. "Performing it was traumatic and healing at the same time," Day says. "I'm a Black woman living in America, and that has its own set of traumas. [And] a lynching is a horrific, horrific sight. It is very much in the fabric of American culture."

Day gained clarity from facing that reality head-on. But this all being so new, she struggled to shake it off. She watched her costars — including Trevante Rhodes as her charming suitor and Natasha Lyonne as her secret lover — in awe. "They have that muscle that allows them to come out and then to drop back in as if they were never out of it," she explains. "[For me], coming off set felt impossible." So much so that she sometimes can't imagine doing anything like it again. But regardless of what she does on screen next, Day calls the movie one of the greatest experiences of her life — and Billie Holiday one of its greatest gifts. "I really love her," Day says. "I loved having her in me. And I loved being in her."

The United States vs. Billie Holiday begins streaming on Hulu this Friday.

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