For acclaimed singer Andra Day, playing 20th-century jazz legend Billie Holiday in Lee Daniel's biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday was a laborious experience that she's still processing. "It was rough," she says. "But, it was also the most rewarding experience of my life. It was an all-encompassing thing. There's not one part of me that was not transformed." Though Day has long admired Holiday for her activism and artistry, she never envisioned portraying her on-screen. In fact, this movie marks her acting debut. But once Day stepped into the role, she knew that it was her duty to depict the intricate layers of Holiday's story vividly. That meant immersing herself in the realities of Holiday's status as the "godmother of Civil Rights" and the complexities of her drug addiction. In the film, viewers are taken back to the 1940s as the federal government targets Holiday for boldy protesting lynching and racism with her rendition of the song, "Strange Fruit." Unsurprisingly, Day's captivating performance as Holiday has garnered two Golden Globe Awards nominations and two Critics' Choice Movie Award nominations. Ahead, Day unpacks what it took to channel the essence of Holiday, the beauty tips she picked up on set, and how she practiced self-care amidst the demands of filming.
Can you talk about how you got into character for this role and what the experience was like?
Interestingly enough, prayer was a huge part of it. Even on set, I made it a point to pray with whichever actors wanted to just to remember [Billie Holiday's] spirit that we're representing, and our spirit that we're representing because she represents the things that we struggle against now and that we triumph in now. So when it comes to getting into character, I have to figure out a way to condense how to describe it because it was a really all-encompassing experience. Lee [Daniels] obviously had a huge part in that, and our conversations were very rich and daily about her. Tasha Smith was my wonderful acting coach who helped me because she knows I'm a researcher. I do a ton of research. I need to know every detail of everything. It was even more obsessive and crazy when it came to Billie [Holiday]. I had already known so much about her because I loved her so much. So I enjoyed it. It wasn't like labored study.
But, [Tasha] had to teach me. She was like, 'This is all beautiful and really great, but you have to inform her with you. You have to talk about these issues that you've gone through or even your familial breakdown. In this space, say everything you've ever wanted to say to anybody who contributed to that.' So, I had to live in my own personal trauma and mix it with Billie Holiday's trauma. I had to just put on the surface the pain that really comes inherently with being a Black woman or woman of color and the victory and the triumph in owning that.
There was the physical transformation as well. I was not treating my voice very kindly. I don't really drink or smoke. I don't do any of those things, actually. I did pick up cigarettes, and I did pick up a lot of drinking. And I also stopped taking care of my voice. There were no scarves or no tea. It was just cold liquids and yelling, not sleeping, starving myself, and losing a bunch of weight. It sounds so torturous. I sometimes hate listing it off like that because it comes across as so tragic. It was rough. But, it was also the most rewarding experience of my life. So, it was an all-encompassing thing. There's not one part of me that was not transformed.
When people see the film, what do you hope they take away from it? How do you want Billie Holiday's legacy to be remembered after this film debuts?
She should be remembered as the godmother of civil rights. She was not just somebody who was a great civil rights leader. She was the genesis of it as we know it today. It was her singing Strange Fruit in defiance of the government that caused them to go after her. Billie Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver, but she did not die because she was a drug addict. She died because they wanted her to die. They found whatever weakness that she had and exploited that. She would try to get clean, and they would plant drugs on her. So, she was a warrior. She was a fighter, and she was the godmother of civil rights. She was talking about lynching in America and integrating audiences at a time when it was dangerous.
Everybody owes her a debt of gratitude. I want them to know that. I want them to know that Billie Holiday is not the only Black narrative that has been suppressed and altered to limit the scope of our struggle and our contribution. I want it to inspire people to say what else don't I know about? Who else are amazing leaders and contributed incredible things to the fabric of the nation and the world that I need to know about? Whose stories have been hidden to continue a system of oppression?
A key component of this film was nailing Billie Holiday's beauty and fashion looks. Do you have a favorite look from the film? How do you think she and other notable Black women from that time have influenced culture today?
They completely influenced it. I'm not going to really parse words here. That's what we do. I love that one of the things that Lee shows in the film, especially with Jimmy Fletcher's character and his mother, is black affluence. It's something we don't get to see often on-screen, or we're not rewarded it for on-screen. I realized that when I was thinking about movies where we've been awarded or acknowledged. It's always as long as it feels ghetto, messy, or like a position white folks are comfortable seeing us play. But, to speak to that, there is also something about the struggle and coming from a place of not having much money that makes us wildly creative when it comes to how we put an outfit together. I always joke, and this is a hell of a crude way to say it, but people always ask me where my style comes from. I'm like, 'This is broke bitch fashion, honey.' And [Billie Holiday] was like that. Now we say fashion can be politicized. It can be activism and a form of expression. But for Billie, it was truly activism. Every time she put on a fur coat, that was in defiance of what the government wanted her to look like. They wanted her to look lowly. They wanted her to look like a maid or a whore. And so instead, she would be this regal, beautiful character in fur with a gorgeous dress and diamonds. They hated that she dressed like that. So her fashion was deeply rooted in her statement. It was her saying I can have these things. I can live like this. They didn't want to see that, so that's also part of why they went after her.
Did you have a favorite beauty look from the film?
First of all, the look where she's dying. I love it because it's just fun. It's so different. She has these jaundiced eyes and messed-up teeth. But, I think the real look was when she was going to score, she was kind of feening, and she was calling Joe Guy. Her gold dress and that hair was one of my favorite looks.
Were there any beauty or skincare tips that you picked up on set?
I've always been skincare obsessed. I have to be because I don't sleep. So basically, I need a regimen that makes me look like I did get some hours. The makeup lady on set would put eye patches on me in the morning. I don't sleep, and I also genetically have dark circles under my eyes and around them. And, of course, they get worse when I don't sleep. So, I've been trying to put [eye patches] on every day. I haven't been great at it. Stacie Merriman—the woman who did my hair on set— made me this special butter concoction. It was made of shea butter, Florida Water, peppermint oil, and all these different great ingredients. So, I still have that. She has actually turned it into a business now, and I still order it from her. I use that on my hair and my skin.
With this role, there were many wigs worn to recreate Billie Holiday's different hair looks. How did you handle caring for your curls underneath the wigs?
That was a little rough in the beginning. I'm not going to lie. Charles Gregory—god rest his soul— put these amazing wigs together. Stacie Merriman worked on my hair. It was difficult because I didn't necessarily have a regimen other than conditioning my hair at night, detangling, and putting some moisturizing oil on my scalp. But you don't have a ton of time on set. You have to do whatever is going to get you to the next scene. But, I cannot say enough about Stacie Merriman. She went home, and she would take time to make me special growth oils and protective butters. She would give me scalp massages. She cared for my hair like it was her own. This woman was such a blessing to me. She made sure to do what she could to rehabilitate my hair and keep it protected as much as she could.
You mentioned earlier that this role was very straining on your well-being. Were there any self-care rituals that helped you get through filming and the rigors of this role?
One thing was devotion because I do that every morning. Spiritually, I try to stay grounded. So, praying, reading my word, meditating on what I'm reading, and understanding my purpose for that day is always going to be something I do. But I was also crazy about skincare like I said. I had an entire bag of skincare shit. That was the one thing I was not going to let go of. So even if I did not sleep, was drunk, smoked 18 million cigarettes, screamed, or was up working all night, I still made sure I washed, exfoliated, toned, and applied my serums, moisturizer, and SPF.
Did playing Billie Holiday ignite a new passion for acting for you? What are your thoughts on taking on more acting roles in the future?
At first, it definitely deterred me. It was so much. This role took everything, and it scared me too. So I didn't know if there was stuff left for another role. But having been away from it for a year and some change, I do think I want to do a little more acting and work on things that really speak to me and grab me. I've told my cast whatever they do, I'm going to do. But, I do have a passion for telling our stories. So, I definitely want to co-write and co-direct and co-produce to get more of our truths out there. I think that's what I'm most looking forward to.