The West Australian
In tune with soul of jazz & swing
Singer-songwriter and rookie actor Andra Day really enjoyed the idea of becoming another person on film, and earned herself an Oscar nomination along the way, playing Billie Holiday
Taking on musical titan Billie Holiday in a biopic would be no mean feat for any actor — let alone one who is just starting out.
But rookie actor Andra Day is not only up to the task of stepping into the shoes of the legendary jazz and swing singer — aka the Godmother of Soul — she’s already snagged a best actress Golden Globe for the lead role in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
In so doing, Day beat out stiff competition in the shape of two Oscar winners — Frances McDormand (Nomadland) and Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) — and acclaimed actors Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) and Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman).
She’s also up against the same group of women for the best actress Academy Award to be announced at this year’s ceremony taking place on Monday morning (WA time).
“I was terrified to take this on,” the 36-year-old Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter says of the role.
“I’ve never considered myself an actress. I was not planning on getting into acting, and I really, really respect the craft.
“I think the idea — ‘Oh, just come in and do it. Anyone can do it!’ — well, that’s absolutely not the case.
“The other hesitation was that I didn’t want to dishonour her (Holiday’s) story. I didn’t want to be terrible; that was like a huge thing for me. I thought ‘I don’t want to suck’.”
As risky as it was for Day, it was a huge financial risk for Hulu to get behind an unknown actor in the lead role. Likewise for director Lee Daniels, whose credibility was on the line. Daniels is known for his work on Precious, The Paperboy, and The Butler.
“It was down to the wire,” Daniels admits.
“Several famous black actresses had come in to meet with me, and then I finally met Andra and liked her,” he says.
“I sent her to an acting coach, and the acting coach, unbeknownst to Andra, videotaped her getting into character. I’d never seen anything like it. She’d never acted before, so it was the spirit of God that was really in her — I think Billie was in her. I knew in that moment that she was Billie Holiday.”
Still he admits there were challenges to working with a complete novice.
“There were, but I do well with first-time actors,” he says.
That’s quite an understatement. He directed first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe in the 2009 hit, Precious, in the titular role, which led to Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her.
“I have to say, I’ve worked with some great actors but I’ve never worked with anybody like this.
“Directing actors is almost like making love with someone. You are in sync and when that happens with an actor, magic happens. And that’s what happened with us.”
The movie is based on the novel, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari.
Set in 1940s New York City, it chronicles the government’s pursuit of Holiday for her heroin use, the targeting of her in an effort to escalate the war on drugs. They tried to stop her from singing her iconic controversial ballad, Strange Fruit, a song about the inhumanity of racism, and, more specifically, the horrors of lynching. The US government feared the song would exalt Black Americans.
Day says she wanted to honour Holiday and her spirit.
“I wanted to tell the story truthfully and vindicate her legacy,” she says. “Also, I love her music. I’m a singer, so there was that incentive, but also hesitation at the same time. Once I was able to get over the fear, I started to really enjoy this idea of becoming another person. Of course when I do music, I don’t get that transformation.”
Day had to transform inside and out. She lost 39 pounds (17.7kg), and took up smoking and drinking alcohol in an effort to embody Holiday’s voice.
“As a singer I had to put a lot of
‘She was not only the Godmother of Soul, but the Godmother of Civil Rights’
stress on my voice. Hopefully my full singing voice comes back someday, because smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol was something I never did,” she says. “Until then, I was wearing scarves and drinking warm tea. So this role was very, very unkind to my vocal cords, but I had to get the scratch and the tone.”
The film also stars Trevante Rhodes, who plays Jimmy Fletcher, with whom Holiday had a turbulent affair. Garret Hedlund plays commssioner Harry J. Anslinger, who led the FBI’s anti-drug efforts targeting Holiday. It also stars Natasha Lyonne, playing actress Tallulah Bankhead, with whom she also had an affair. Day says with so much going on in Holiday’s story, her bisexuality isn’t fully explored.
“Yes, she (Lyonne) plays her love in the film but we don’t really delve into it,” says Day.
In Day’s regular job as a musician, she earned a Grammy nomination in 2016 for best R & B album, Rise Up.
She also appeared alongside Stevie Wonder in an ad for Apple TV in 2015.
“Billie Holiday really inspired me,” she says. “I was 11 years old when I heard the song Sugar, which is still one of my favourites, and then, of course, Strange Fruit. She coloured and informed a lot of what I do today.”
Holiday is rarely credited for her civil rights activism, but Day thinks that will change once people see the film.
“She was not only the Godmother of Soul, but the Godmother of Civil Rights. It was very painful to visit those times and it’s still painful because there’s a lot of relevance still there unfortunately, some 70-odd years later. But to be honest with you, I did not get out of the pain. It’s been three years and I’m praying a lot,” she says.
“I’m a very spiritual person and I’m trying to remain grounded and grateful that we are telling her story. I’m a lot more comfortable lately, but it’s taken a lot of spiritual personal care and therapy to make my way out of that headspace but I’m getting there.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is in cinemas today. The 2021 Academy Awards air live on Monday on 7Plus from 8am.