Late into Lee Daniels’ new Billie Holiday biopic, Andra Day, as the late singer, steps onto a stage, alone. In the hushed venue, Day walks up to a mic, donning the singer’s trademark gardenias in her hair.
The camera lingers on Day’s face as she sings the opening lines to “Strange Fruit,” a signature Holiday song that protests lynchings of Black people. The accompanying music doesn’t start until after Day sings, in a Holiday-like rasp, of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” The movie cuts away from Day’s performance only one time, to show an audience that’s either enthralled or horrified or both.
In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Andra Day’s performance reminds viewers of the power of the Holiday’s voice, more than 60 years after her death.
“Her songs were rooted in truth, in her experience and how she perceives things and how she felt and what was right at the time. And so it was beautiful,” said Day, whose stage name is culled from Lady Day, one of Holiday’s nicknames. “I think it’s what drew people to her, and what drew them to her music, is that she sang and spoke about all the things that women — or people — thought about but didn’t necessarily say.”
Andra Day, as Billie Holiday, performs “Strange Fruit” in the film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels. Video by Hulu
Day’s performance in the film earned the singer the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama. She is the second Black performer to ever win the award, following Whoopi Goldberg’s win in the category in 1985 for “The Color Purple.”
Filling Holiday’s shoes was “hard as hell,” Day said.
She credits a talented cast and Daniels’ direction for making the experience a fun one, even through the painful moments, either in her role — wrestling with Holiday’s traumatic history — or on set (she was once accidentally kicked in the face).
“It was a lesson in making art, a lesson in authenticity and bravery,” Day said of the moviemaking experience.
Day grew up watching “Lady Sings the Blues,” the 1972 take on Holiday’s life. That film was Diana Ross’ first acting role and netted the former Supremes frontwoman an Oscar nomination.
For her own role, Day said she did not just imitate Holiday’s nontraditional approach to performing, like singing offbeat or mimicking vocals flushed by prolonged use of drugs and alcohol. She also sought to build on the work done by performers who previously portrayed Holiday, like Ross and Audra McDonald.
Day said she also didn’t play the singer based on what others had done. Instead it was a “blending” with Holiday at the center.
“It was, ‘What was amazing about Diana’s performance? What was amazing about Audra McDonald’s performance?’” Day said. “‘Let me extract those elements, couple them with Billie and couple them with myself.’ My performance, I believe, truly is an amalgamation of myself, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross and Audra McDonald.”
Day spoke with the PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown before her Golden Globes win on how she transformed for the role, how Holiday taught her to love her natural voice, and why she wanted to record a song that updated “Strange Fruit” for modern times.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before all this, before the film, how important was Billie Holiday for you? How influential was she?
She was hugely influential. She’s kind of my namesake. That’s where I get the Day in Andra Day. It comes from the relationship between her and saxophonist Lester Young. He gave her the nickname “Lady Day,” and she gave him the nickname “The President,” or “Pres” for short, and her mother, the nickname “The Duchess.” And so, I love how Billie describes them as “the Royal family.” It just felt very regal because she is sort of the queen to me when it comes to music, and obviously, when it comes to jazz, and when it comes to the greater conversation, as we’re seeing, [with] civil rights as well.
What is it about her singing? What did you hear in the way that she made a song come alive?
It was emotion. It was truth, actually. I think the emotion sort of sits on top of what the underlying root of it is — it’s truth. Her songs were rooted in truth, in her experience and how she perceives things and how she felt and what was right at the time. And so it was beautiful. I think it’s what drew people to her, and what drew them to her music, is that she sang and spoke about all the things that women — or people — thought about but didn’t necessarily say. That’s what I think makes her music so powerful. It’s very raw, very emotional, very vulnerable and taboo.
Did you take from that for your own singing? I got to watch a video where you were talking about your own early singing life as a student. I think it was one of your early music teachers talking about you, listening to Billie Holiday, and her voice is not necessarily the most beautiful, but it has something, right?
Yes, absolutely. Bill Doyle was my musical theater instructor at school. I attended San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. I love you, Mr. Doyle. I still call him Mr. Doyle. I’m 36 years old. (laughs). But, I was looking for singers to study, and he suggested Billie Holiday, and I just remember thinking it was some man, and I was like, “I don’t want to listen to a man’s voice.” I want to listen to female singers, you know. But I listened. Obviously it was a woman, and I just remember being confused actually, first, by her voice. It was so different. And I’m like, “This is a great singer that everybody knows, that he’s talking about. She sounds nothing like Whitney Houston or Gladys Knight or Patti LaBelle or Aretha [Franklin], Etta [Fitzgerald].” But he was right. I could not take my ears off of what it was I was listening to in her voice. It was just her vocals, her musical intelligence, her instincts, the way she chose how to sing something, her phrasing, the way she would land on certain things or sort of pick up a note, and the emotion. It was so real. She changed my idea of what a great singer is, and I’m so grateful for that. She really helped me to own my own natural voice because for a long time, I did not like my voice, and I still struggle with it. But she actually helped me to own it and just say, “It is what it is,” you know, and I should love and celebrate it.
Really? You really didn’t like your own voice?
You know, still to this day, I will not listen to my performances back. I won’t listen to my record back, but I accept it, and I accept my contribution. I love the experience and being able to do music and create music, but I can’t indulge myself with the sound of my own voice. I don’t know why (laugh).
You’ve said a number of times that you almost refused to take on this role. Was it out of doubt whether you could live up to her stature or capture what she was?
Absolutely. It was doubt, honestly fear. Really just fear, and of the self-sabotaging kind. And that’s something that I’ve always kind of struggled with. I realized through this role, actually, that that’s something I thought I was working through — but I really believe I was brought to this role, she was brought to me, to help me kind of through those feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. The other reason is because Diana [Ross] was so amazing in “Lady Sings the Blues.” I had zero desire to remake that movie. I didn’t want to see anyone remake it, to be honest. But then I found out, obviously, that it wasn’t a remaking “Lady Sings the Blues,” but that it would be vindicating Billie’s legacy, which incentivized me.
But even after being incentivized by Lee [Daniels] and by Suzan-Lori Parks and Johann Hari, I still was like, “I’m not good.” Even when Lee told me I got the part, I was like, “Wow, are you sure you don’t want to, like, look at other people? Like, I’m still not sure this is a good idea.”
The New York Times had an interesting article recently. It was titled, “Billie Holiday’s Story Depends on Who’s Telling It.” And I wonder if you accept or believe that, that there were many Billie Holidays, there are different ways of telling her story.
I think you got to tell her story in truth. But I think she’s such a multifaceted person. We all are. But she touched people in different ways. There’s actually a wonderful book called “With Billie.” I love it so much. We actually get one of our first pictures of Jimmy Fletcher, the FBI agent who took her down, and you get the picture of him, but there are all of these people’s experiences with Billie Holiday. Even if their experience was more negative or more positive, they all loved her. I think the only way to tell Billie Holiday’s story is in its truth because her truth is so amazing. You really don’t need to add or take anything away from her truth for it to be a compelling story. I think the way to tell it is in truth, but I think there’s so many facets; it should be a series. You can go on for so long because every day was a day of just, as my co-star puts it, “epic s**t.” (laughs) and everyone’s encounter was different with her, depending on where she was in her head, in her mind.
This film, of course, focuses on the song “Strange Fruit” and on her role as a voice for Black people, and the FBI hounding her because of that. Did that part of the story resonate with you?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, people ask me, “What are the parallels between myself and Billie Holiday?” The reality is we’re both — I’m a Black woman in America, you know, so there’s this sort of inherent feeling or sense of almost invincibility and fright and resilience that comes with that. And that stems from really great leaders like her. I think this movie just exposes to people that the War on Drugs that we’ve actually experienced in our own families and in our own communities, it just shows you where it started and what it stems from and what it was actually, which was just a [term] created to take Billie Holiday down, and then continuously used as a tool to dismantle and destabilize Black influence, Black leadership, Black unity and progress.
I put it to you like this: The reason it resonates with me is because we’ve had multiple wars on drugs, we still have drugs, and we don’t have a lot of our Black leaders that you saw fighting for civil rights. You see it now, with the new opioid crisis. I saw an article a while ago and it really broke my heart because I still feel for people who are struggling with addiction because it is a mental illness and it is based on trauma. But it was the face of a young white girl, beautiful. And it said, the “new innocent face of addiction.” But I’m like, “Wow, I would have never seen my uncle’s face or my family’s face or cousin’s. They’re [portrayed as] criminals.” Hopefully [the movie] causes people to look at the War on Drugs in a new light and really look at drugs and addiction.
Was there a particular moment when you were first reading the script when you said to yourself, “Ah, I’ve got her, I see her, I see my way in.”
I never felt comfortable. Honestly, I was always nervous that that day would be my last day because they’d realize I was terrible, which was all pure adrenaline. But I will say when I was reading the script and I started to study, I think the thing that really, really locked me into her was her magnetism. It was how people loved Billie Holiday because I love her like that. I mean, I could spend hours and days and weeks and months on end just looking at photos and studying her and her music and her interviews, the way she spoke and how she laughed and the things that triggered her. I think it was her magnetism, how people experienced Billie Holiday that really made me go, “OK, I can understand their love for her.” That helped to lead me in as a door to her. And then I had a fantastic director, Lee Daniels. I had a great acting coach and a great dialect coach. They worked intensively with me to build the Billie that we wanted to see.
When you think of Diana Ross or more recently, Audra McDonald, who have both played Holiday, did you decide to play against them? How did you feel about taking on that kind of role that they’ve taken?
I love that you ask that. So I wanted to get Billie. Of course, it started with Billie. I saw a “Lady Sings the Blues” like 50 kajillion times because it’s one of my favorite movies. Once Trevante [Rhodes, as undercover federal agent Jimmy Fletcher] was cast, [Daniels] had him and I sit down at his house, and we had dinner, and we watched “Lady Sings the Blues” together. And it was that moment, just talking about what made that movie great, what made Diana’s performance great. So, it wasn’t against the two of them. It was actually a blending. It was Billie Holiday at the center. And then it was what was amazing about Diana’s performance, what was amazing about Audra McDonald’s performance, and let me extract those elements, couple them with Billie and couple them with myself. My performance, I believe, truly is an amalgamation of myself, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross and Audra McDonald. That was the goal because they were brilliant. I wanted to capture what was the brilliance of their performances as well as the brilliance of Billie herself.
I read you lost a lot of weight. You took up smoking. You took up drinking. But I don’t hear too many actors doing that.
Yeah. It’s probably one of the most unhealthy things I’ve done. Well, I’ll put it to you like this. It was very unhealthy for my body, it was healthy for my spirit. These are the areas where Billie’s very different from me. I never did smoke cigarettes. I drank a little bit in my life, but I’ve just never really been a heavy drinker. You know, I smoke weed more than anything, but I gave that up as well. But I don’t drink or cuss. I’ve also been abstinent for almost seven years now. She’s very different from me in that regard. But I felt like I had to earn it. I had to feel it in my body.
My dialect coach and I worked through the vocal cords, and worked about vocal cord practice and chasing her breath is what he would teach me. But I also felt like the gravel in Billie Holiday’s voice, the sound and the tone, is something that women earned over years of her life. I had to figure out how to earn it in a very short period of time. Interestingly enough, the cigarette smoking, drinking a lot of gin, really helped me to feel that gravel, you know what I mean? To feel where it came from, and it had to slow me down because I’m fast — (motions) and I do all this. And Billie Holiday is, like, easy. Everything is slow motion. The cigarettes — my brain is not used to them, my body’s not used to them, not used to drinking alcohol. And so it slowed me down in a way that allowed me to pay more attention to the emotional performance and being present with Lee and listening and being fluid with him and my cast. I don’t recommend it to everybody, but it did help me just for this project.
I think about your song “Rise Up” becoming an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think artists today have a responsibility to use their art toward social justice issues? Do you yourself feel that role?
Yes, I do think we have a responsibility, but it’s not because we’re artists. I just think we’re human, and I think — for me and my belief system — at the core of that is service. I do believe that we were designed, in particular, to serve each other. To each his own — if they decide they want to do that, great. But I don’t think we should do it because we’re an artist, because that sort of goes, “OK, I have a platform, and I have to say the right things and I need to.” Whereas doing it just because you’re human, I mean, I care and I want to serve and I want to, for instance, in this space, give you an engaging interview and make sure you get what you need because you’re human. I care about you. I respect what you do. I respect you. And it’s the same thing with service, and getting our hands dirty when people need our help. It’s not speaking about issues of racial inequality or telling Billie Holiday’s story. It’s just because it’s human. It’s the right thing to do, I believe. It’s beyond being an artist. It’s a duty to each other, you know?
I do want to ask you about the new song you wrote, “Tigress & Tweed.” It hits like an updated Billie Holiday song, like a “Strange Fruit.” Is that how you thought of it?
That’s the goal. That was my thinking going into the song. Raphael Saadiq produced this beautiful track with this, what he says, is a wrong piano chord in it, but it’s beautiful. The way he described it, I was like, “Oh, that’s Billie Holiday, it’s like a wrong piano chord, but beautiful. It’s perfect.” But I struggled to write the lyrics for a long time. Then, after a prayer, they kind of all poured out. The big question was: If she were alive, if she were with us today, how would she have wanted to see “Strange Fruit” evolve? That’s what I kept thinking. The first thing that came to mind when I thought about that, answering that question, is take them off the tree. Coming down off the tree and not being hung on the tree is central to my faith, essential to our ancestors. It’s essential to progress in moving forward. So that’s why the line says, “Strange fruit come down off the tree / Cut it down under your feet.” I wanted there to be a sense of strength, of power, of destroying these sort of imbalanced scales, and these systems of inequality — and a sense of ownership. I wanted the song to be more militant. I wanted it to have a tone of “This is more of an intimidating fruit. You’re not just a sad, poor — a fruit to be pitied, you know, a fruit to be respected and loved and to be honored.” And if you’re not a friend to progress, then probably a fruit to be intimidated by. Then I thought about the scent of victory. That was the other thing. When people say “the scent of victory is in the air,” you know? OK, well, what is that for us? I thought about the scent of our ancestors, and Billie Holiday later in her life — two of her favorite perfumes were tweed and tigress. That’s where I got the name for the song. I just wanted to change it. I didn’t want “Strange Fruit” to be sad. I wanted it to be fertilizer.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Etta James through an editing error. It has since been updated.