Andra Day fully committed herself to the role of Billie Holiday. The 36-year-old musician’s first major movie part is portraying the late jazz singer in the upcoming Hulu film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and the role led to her making some major lifestyle changes.
Andra Day underwent an intense transformation into jazz singer Billie Holiday for the upcoming biographical drama, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
The Lee Daniels-directed film, which arrives on Hulu next month, follows Holiday’s Civil Rights activism before the movement became mainstream in the United States.
Day, 36, who makes her feature film debut in the movie, said that she prepared for the role of Holiday by smoking and drinking alcohol — which she doesn’t recommend to others for health concerns.
“I basically abused my body for a long time,” the actress and singer said during Variety’s Actors on Actors with Leslie Odom Jr. “I’m joking and not really joking,” she added.
“I got the role at the very top of 2018,” she recalled. “Reading everything I could get my hands on. Listening to every interview. Apparently, I exhausted the internet of Billie Holiday photos. Apparently, the internet will tell you that you’ve reached the end.”
Day continued: “I put my family through it; I put myself through it. I went from 163 pounds to 124 pounds. I would talk like her and I don’t drink or smoke, but I started smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Not that I recommend people do this; I just was desperate because this is my first role. I just asked God to give me all of the pain and trauma. I asked him to give me her pain and give me her trauma.”
Day said that she also had to change her voice to sound like Holiday while performing some of the late jazz legend’s greatest hits, including 1939’s “Strange Fruit,” which details the lynching of African Americans in the United States.
“That was an early decision that we made right away to do the singing,” said Day in the Variety interview. “Every time I would sing a song I’d go, ‘Okay, Lee’s going to hear this and he’s going to fire me.’ But I wouldn’t have done it if they’d been, ‘Do it in your voice.’ That for me would have probably been a no. There’s victory and there is pain in her voice. So to me it was just like we’ve got to get it, we have to get it, you know what I mean?”
The film also stars Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher, Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, Garrett Hedlund as Harry J. Anslinger, Rob Morgan as Louis McKay, and Evan Ross as Sam Williams.
Earlier this month, Daniels, 61, told The Hollywood Reporter that he wanted the biopic to highlight Holiday’s less-covered role in the Civil Rights movement.
“When you think of Civil Rights leaders, you think of men,” the Oscar-nominated director said. “When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of this brilliant tortured jazz singer that happened to have been a drug addict. I didn’t know that she kicked off the Civil Rights movement. Before there was a Civil Rights movement, there was Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit.’ The government saw that song as a threat and she was a target. That’s history and they keep it from us.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday drops Feb. 26 on Hulu.