During her career as a Grammy-nominated musician, Andra Day has sung plenty of Billie Holiday songs. But to fully become the titular jazz singer in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Day had to dive headfirst into Holiday’s bad habits by smoking cigarettes, cursing, and drinking hard liquor. It’s part of what makes her portrayal so mesmerizing. For W‘s annual Best Performances issue, Day discusses losing nearly 40 pounds to achieve a “period body” and shaking off imposter syndrome nerves on set.
What scenes did you do during your audition for The United States vs. Billie Holiday?
I did a scene that’s actually not in the movie, where she’s having a meeting with John Levy in a club; we didn’t really end up shooting it, which was funny, because it was the scene that made me the most nervous. But the scene that did make it in that I did for my audition was the scene where she gets busted and first discovers that Jimmy Fletcher is a federal agent. And then I did the scene where she’s dying. So those were my audition scenes, the ones done right out of the gate. They were really, really challenging, but I also think, as Lee Daniels taught me, the fear of doing poorly really fueled a lot of that, along with 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 told him was, “Did you look at everybody? Are you sure you checked around and made sure…” I was still so hesitant, and he was like, “Yo, just show up to set.” But I did have one moment of celebration with one of my staff and with my mother; she was with me at the time. And everybody was like, “Whoa.” But then the fear settled in immediately, and I was like, “What the fuck are you doing? Get out of here. This is a terrible idea.” But Lee believed in me enough to take a chance that even he was terrified about. And so was I. But here we are…
Lee told me you did some pretty radical things, like you taught yourself to smoke?
Yeah, not something I would like. This is my first movie, so I don’t know that 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 got down to 124. At first, I started by just shrinking my caloric intake, of course, and then exercising as well. But honestly, I did kind of starve 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 gym body of 2020. It had to look like loose skin and parts. That, for me, was important: having a body true to that period. The other thing is, it made me very weak on set and slowed me down in a way that really helped with the scenes with heroin. Then I started smoking cigarettes, which I don’t do. I don’t smoke anything because, first of all, I have no frame of reference for myself smoking. So it makes me feel like her; it slows me down. I’m very fast, and she’s like molasses. And when I had to do scenes where I was high on heroin, it really helped my physical body to nod in a way where I could focus on the emotion, and my body was reacting the way I wanted it to. It helped to slow me down, and it helped, when I did have to be high, to drop me into those places. I needed to feel it in my body to believe it, I guess.
And also, you don’t swear.
I don’t—it’s something I’m still trying to let go of. So cussing is another thing I picked up. And I don’t drink alcohol, but I did drink a lot of gin and bourbon and all of that stuff, even though you’re really not supposed to do that. But look, I was desperate. I didn’t want to be terrible, so I was like, “Whatever we have to do in this moment, for this role. Cut off all my hair.”
You’ve sung a lot of Billie Holiday in your career as a musician, but was it scarier to sing her songs in the context of this film?
At first it was nerve-racking because it’s one thing when you’re doing a one-off song here or there, or I’m just playfully emulating her voice, but to stay in it and to believe it and to live as her was definitely different. I will say once I was able to get to that point, the music and her voice helped me to drop into her. Music was my gateway into her character. That and Billie’s laugh, honestly. She has such a distinct laugh. Her laugh is like a Ping-Pong ball—it comes back and hits you. But it was also a bit of a challenge because I’d find myself getting lost in the music the way I would just singing it. And then Lee would bring me right back. “You’re being her, you have to actually become her and act. You can’t just do it the way you would do it.”
How old were you when you started singing?
I was really young, maybe around 6 or something like that.
What was your go-to song to sing to impress your family?
Whitney. I would just butcher Whitney at 6 years old. I would do “I Will Always Love You,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” My parents always had music on in the house: Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder. It wasn’t until I was around 11 that I discovered Billie Holiday. And I really discovered the great jazz singers of that time: Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, and then Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and Donald Byrd.
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
What if I was just like, “Rise Up” is my go-to karaoke song? I go sing my own songs to karaoke all the time! I’m just kidding, that would be horrible. No, it would be either Roberta Flack’s or Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Like, give me either one.
Did you have a favorite film when you were growing up?
Lady Sings the Blues is definitely one. Also, Carmen Jones is a huge 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 boyfriend. I was 16 years old, and I do remember it being not great. No offense to him, I’m not saying that he wasn’t a good kisser. I wouldn’t have known at the time. I just remember being like, “Yeah, I don’t feel like this is my thing.” I decided that definitively at 16 years old: “Nah, bro, I’m out.”