During her career as a Grammy-nominated musician, Andra Day has sung many Billie Holiday songs. But to become the title jazz singer in the US against Billie Holiday, Day had to plunge headfirst into Holiday’s bad habits by smoking cigarettes, swearing and drinking liquor. It’s part of what makes their portrayal so fascinating. In W’s annual Best Performances, Day discusses losing nearly 40 pounds in order to achieve a “period body” and shake off the nerves of imposter syndrome on set.
What scenes did you do during your audition? The United States versus Billie Holiday?
I made a scene that isn’t actually in the movie, where she meets John Levy in a club. We didn’t actually shoot it, which was funny because it was the scene that made me the most nervous. But the scene that made it for my audition was the scene where she goes broke and first discovers that Jimmy Fletcher is a federal agent. And then I made the scene where she dies. So these were my prelude scenes, taken right out of the gate. They were really, really challenging, but I also think, as Lee Daniels taught me, the fear of going bad went a long way along with some personal trauma.
When you got the role, did you have a moment of celebration or were you a nervous wreck?
I was horrified. You can ask Lee. The first thing I said to him was, “Did you look at everyone? Are you sure you looked around and made sure …” I was still so hesitant and he said, “Yo, just come to the set.” But I had a moment of celebration with one of my coworkers and with my mother; She was with me at the time. And everyone said, “Whoa.” But then the fear immediately subsided and I said, “What the hell are you doing? Get out of here. That’s a terrible idea.” But Lee believed in me enough to take a risk even he was afraid of. And me too. But here we are …
Lee told me that you did some pretty radical things like teaching yourself to smoke?
Yeah, nothing I would like to have. This is my first film so I don’t know I could speak to young actors, but I don’t want to suggest that to them. There was also the drastic weight loss – I was originally 163 pounds when I started and I came up to 124. I started off by naturally just shrinking my caloric intake and then exercising as well. But to be honest, I starved myself a bit when I was on set. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but for my character, I didn’t want my body to look like a 2020 fitness body. It had to look like loose skin and parts. That was important to me: to have a body that stays true to this time. The other thing is, it made me very weak on the set and slowed me down in a way that really helped with the heroin scenes. Then I started smoking cigarettes, which I don’t. I don’t smoke because, first of all, I don’t have a frame of reference for myself. I feel like her. it slows me down. I’m very fast and it’s like molasses. And when I had to do scenes where I had a lot of heroin, it really helped my physical body to nod so I could focus on the emotions and my body would react the way I wanted it to. It helped me slow down, and it helped me get myself to these places when I needed to be high. I had to feel it in my body to believe it I guess.
Andra Day wears a dress by Alexander McQueen; Sergio Rossi sandals; Stylist’s own gloves.
And you don’t swear either.
Not me – it’s something I still want to let go of. So swearing is another thing that I picked up on. And I don’t drink alcohol, but I drank a lot of gin and bourbon and all that stuff when you’re not supposed to. But look, I was desperate. I didn’t mean to be terrible, so I said, “Whatever we have to do for this role right now. Cut all of my hair.”
You’ve sung Billie Holiday a lot in your music career, but was it more scary singing your songs in the context of this movie?
At first it was nerve-wracking because it’s one thing to do a one-off song here or there, or I’m just playfully emulating her voice, but staying in it and believing it and living the way it was definitely different. I will say once I got to this point the music and her voice helped me fall into it. Music was my gateway to her character. That and Billie’s laugh, honestly. She has such a pronounced smile. Your laugh is like a ping pong ball – it comes back and hits you. But it was also a challenge because I would get lost in the music the way I would sing it. And then Lee would bring me right back. “You are her, you actually have to become her and act. You can’t just do it the way you would.”
How old were you when you started singing?
I was very young, maybe 6 or so.
What was your favorite song to impress your family?
Whitney. I would butcher Whitney when I was 6 years old. I would do “I will always love you”, “Save all my love for you”, “I want to dance with someone (who loves me).” My parents always had music in the house: Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder. It wasn’t until I was about 11 years old that I discovered Billie Holiday. And I really discovered the great jazz singers of the time: Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and then Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and Donald Byrd.
Do you have a karaoke song?
What if I just said, “Rise Up” is my karaoke song? I sing my own songs to karaoke all the time! I’m just kidding, that would be awful. No, it would be either Roberta Flacks or Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. Give me one
Did you have a favorite movie as a kid?
Lady Sings the Blues is definitely one. Carmen Jones is also a big one. I love Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.
Where was your first kiss
My first kiss was actually outside of a theater in San Diego, in an area called Golden Hill. It was with my first friend. I was 16 years old and I remember it wasn’t great. No offense, I’m not saying he wasn’t a good kisser. I wouldn’t have known then. I just remember saying, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s my thing.” When I was 16, I definitely decided: “No, brother, I’m out.”
Day wears a Prada dress, pants and shoes. Cartier earrings.
Tony Medina’s hair; Porsche Cooper make-up for Chanel; Manicure by Jolene Brodeur for Dior Vernis.