When Andra Day was initially approached about auditioning for the title role in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, director Lee Daniels’s new film about the revolutionary jazz singer, she balked. “First of all, (a) I’m not an actress, and (b) just no,” says the 35-year-old singer and songwriter, who credits Holiday, nicknamed “Lady Day” by jazz saxophonist Lester Young, with influencing her own musical style. For a first-ever acting gig, playing a figure of that magnitude felt daunting. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to remake Lady Sings the Blues,’ ” Day says, referring to the 1972 Holiday biopic that earned Diana Ross an Oscar nomination. “I love Diana’s performance. She murdered it. I’m good.”
In the music world, Day has amassed her own laundry list of accomplishments. She’s toured with Lenny Kravitz, been nominated for two Grammys, and even sung at the White House. But her powerful performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which hits theaters this month, is set to launch her into a new stratosphere. Based on Johann Hari’s 2015 book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, the film tells the story of commissioner Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s anti-drug agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and his pursuit of Holiday, whose outspokenness about racism and controversial 1939 recording of the Abel Meeropol protest song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in the South, made her the target of a pressure campaign by conservative authorities for two decades.
Anslinger had previously attempted to take down other high-profile members of the jazz community on drug charges, including Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. But the tight crews around them always proved impenetrable. So he shifted his focus to a more vulnerable mark: Holiday, who struggled with both alcoholism and heroin addiction. The government couldn’t stop Holiday from singing “Strange Fruit,” but Anslinger’s bureau offered another way to silence her, repeatedly levying drug charges against her and subjecting her to numerous arrests. “She would leave clubs, and cops would chase her, shooting into her car trying to kill her, just for singing that song, just for who she was,” Day says.
In many ways, Holiday’s entire life—one filled with both triumphs and misfortunes—was an act of protest. In preparing to play her, Day studied diligently. Holiday’s godson, Bevan Dufty, whose father, William Dufty, co-wrote Holiday’s 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, generously gave Day access to interviews conducted with people who knew Holiday. Day also spent time with current and recovering addicts, delving into the rituals and ravages of heroin addiction. As Day immersed herself further into Holiday’s life, she says she unintentionally went Method; she even started smoking cigarettes and swearing, as Holiday famously did. “It was just allowing myself to be more reckless—not reckless, but sort of self-damaging in my behaviors,” she says. Day also understood the importance of bringing herself to the role. “Do not shed yourself,” her acting coaches told her. “You have to have Billie and bring Andra through Billie.” Day says the process was not that different from the one she goes through when she’s singing. “I’m losing myself in myself,” she says. “But when I’m in movies, I’m losing myself in another person, and you have a responsibility to that person.”
Daniels initially had his own doubts about casting Day in the role. “It’s hard working with a first-time actor,” he says. But they had dinner and, as both tell it, clicked instantly. Daniels says it was how he “saw the soul of Billie Holiday” in Day that clinched it for him. “I don’t think she was aware of it,” he says.
Daniels’s confidence helped boost Day’s own. “I got to a point where I realized, ‘Okay, I’m saying no to this because I’m scared,’ ” she says.
Day, who was born near Seattle, was raised with her three siblings in the diverse community of Southeast San Diego, California. She attended the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, which focused heavily on musical theater. She says she always knew she could sing, but it wasn’t until she starred as Ti Moune in the school’s production of Once on This Island that those around her took note too. “Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, this is where it’s going to be at for you.’ ”
Soon Day began writing and recording on her own. But it was a chance encounter with Stevie Wonder’s then wife, Kai Millard Morris, that eventually led to Day landing a record deal with Warner Music Group.
Day’s own song “Rise Up,” off her 2015 debut, Cheers to the Fall, has become an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the lessons of Holiday’s willingness to speak out and use music as a vehicle for activism are not lost on her. “For me, it was [about] vindicating her legacy,” she says of The United States vs. Billie Holiday. “I want the younger generation to say, ‘Thank you, Billie Holiday.’ This is the mother of civil rights, and you need to know that, [and] what she sacrificed for that.”