Andra Day on Why She Considered Quitting Acting After Making ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

Jazz Tangcay
·4-min read

Andra Day was just 11 years old when she first heard Billie Holiday’s iconic anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” She recalls “prostrating before the speaker, just listening. It was scary and I just felt overwhelming sadness.”

Even at that young age, Day says she wanted to help Holiday and “whatever it was she was singing about.” As she got older, the truth behind the lyrics took the deeper meaning, resonating with her. “She was holding a mirror up to the nation,” Day says.

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Now, the singer and actress is earning rave reviews for her performance as Holiday in the Lee Daniels-helmed film “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.” The movie follows Holiday as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics, who wanted her to stop singing “Strange Fruit.” The defiant Holiday refused and under the guise of drug abuse, the FBN continued to pursue her.

Day recently won the best actress in a motion picture, drama at the Golden Globe Awards, followed by best actress Oscar nomination, for the role. She can’t help but laugh at all the recent accolades surrounding her debut big screen performance.

“I laugh because it just seems so unreal,” she tells Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast. “I feel like only God could have put something like this together. It reminds me of how much care and dedication people put into this story.”

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When Day first met with Daniels at the Soho House to discuss the movie, she admits she was reluctant to take it on. But after hearing how much he cared about telling Holiday’s story, her mind changed. “I got to see that it wasn’t a remake of ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’” Day says, “I found out that the script, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, vindicated her legacy.”

For the film, Day transformed into Holiday by taking the method approach. She went from being a non-smoker and non-drinker to smoking and drinking. She also lost 39 pounds for the role and cut her hair off. She credits acting coach Tasha Smith, who guided her in preparing for the role.

Day’s research pulled up images of the singing legend with either a drink or cigarette. “You’re hard-pressed to find a picture of Billie Holiday without a cigarette or some drink in her hand. She also woke up and she drinks a pint of gin the way you might drink coffee to refresh yourself in the morning. She was definitely a sexual person and she loved lingerie. She loved really pretty sexy things, and I’m like big giant cotton underwear. We’re not the same.”

The process of immersing herself in the role made Day toy with the idea of quitting. “I thought I was gonna retire after this movie from acting because I thought, ‘This shit is too deep.’ I’ve always loved actors and always had respect for them, but now I have a whole new respect for them and how deep they have to go,” Day says. “If I had to do something like this again: not eating, not sleeping, just drinking and smoking, I don’t know if I could survive that shit.”

Now with more time to reflect, Day adds, “It’s difficult to get these stories funded and to get off the ground. A lot of our narratives have been surprised, so I want to tell stories in movies and music.”

Day, who studied musical theater, says she would eventually like to develop a stage show, but not act in it. She also talks about what it was like to be directed by Spike Lee, who shot her first music video “Forever Mine,” and who she’d like to work with next.

Amid all the interviews and press for the movie, Day has been putting the finishing touches to her new album, due June 4, with a new single arriving next month.

Also on this episode, Variety’s Jenelle Riley speaks to Kenny and Keith Lucas, known as The Lucas Brothers, the identical twin comedians who just earned Oscar nominations for their work on the original screenplay of “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The duo talk about the joys of being twins, working together and how they went about pitching the story of Chairman Fred Hampton and William O’Neal when they were best known for their comedic work.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.

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