Andra Day recently achieved the rare honour of earning an Academy Award nomination for her first movie role. I had the chance to speak to Andra about her wonderful leading performance in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.
Matt: Many people will know Andra Day as an acclaimed singer-songwriter but this is the first chance we get to see Andra Day the movie star. Were you a film buff growing up?
Andra: Yeah, I’ve always loved movies. I didn’t know I was going to be in one though! Up until now, I’ve been a happy consumer of film and TV. I’ve become a big action person in the last few years of my life because it allows me to disappear into whatever crazy explosions are happening on screen as opposed to the explosions that are happening in my life.
Matt: If that’s the case, we’ll have to see you a James Bond film or similar at some point?
Andra: Listen… you speak it, I receive it (laughs).
Matt: It can take a long time for some people to find their feet in Hollywood but here you are breaking through and receiving huge acclaim for your first acting role. Take us back. How did you first learn about the project and what made you decide to become involved?
Andra: At first, I didn’t want to be involved because I wasn’t an actor. I also love Billie Holiday and I didn’t watch to be a part of botching her legacy. I thought I would ruin everything. Further, I didn’t want to remake Lady Sings the Blues because I thought Diana Ross was amazing even though I know that movie didn’t provide the full accurate picture of who Billie was.
Ultimately, I met with Lee Daniels and fell in love with him. He’s a visionary and there’s no other way to describe him. He’s supported and stood for black stories for so long. We shared insecurities and we shared how we felt about this movie. I learned from him this wasn’t a retelling of Lady Sings the Blues but that we would be talking about the government going after her and crafting the war on drugs to stop her from singing Strange Fruit, a song about lynching black people in America. It felt the film would be vindicating of her legacy and as a fan of hers, that pushed me into the audition.
Matt: What was the preparation like in terms of rehearsal? I believe you were working with both an acting coach and a dialect coach?
Andra: It’s funny because I’m a researcher. I did tonnes of reading and listened to her music. I’ve been a big fan of her since I was 11 years old. Lee and my acting coach, Tasha Smith, had to teach me how to act in a very short period of time. They were like “Andra, we love the research but acting is about more than that – we have to inform that research with a real human being.” They taught me how to be extremely vulnerable and bring certain emotions to the surface. They also taught me how change “at the drop of a dime” for the director. She prepared me great in that way.
With my vocal coach, Tom Jones, it was about finding Billie’s voice. What muscles do we train? Where does she speak from? I found her though her laugh. Tom would always say to me that Billie chases her breath when she speaks.
There was also the physical transformation. I lost a bunch of weight, I cut off my hair, I started smoking cigarettes and drinking. Lee didn’t have me do that. I did that. I didn’t want to “half way” do Billie Holiday. That’s part of who she is and you’d be hard pressed to find a photo of her without a cigarette or drink in her hand. I needed to feel that in my own body.
Matt: Did any of that take a toll of you?
Andra: Yes. I think I look 10 years older than what I did before the movie (laughs). It has taken a toll on my vocal cords that my ENT doctor isn’t happy about. Those things can be nursed though. I understood the advice others gave to me about taking care of my voice because I’m a singer. It was totally sensible and logical.
However, I realised that God had brought me to this role and I remembered something my dad had taught me – “you’re either in or you’re out.” I can’t save myself for a long-term singing career that might not be there. I’ve got to be here and give everything I can right now. That’s all that really matters.
Matt: You already have background knowledge of Billie Holliday having sung a cover of Strange Fruit back in 2017. How did you see Billie Holiday growing up and did that opinion change much in making this movie?
Andra: Growing up, I saw her as a deeply emotional person who had experienced a lot of pain and then sung about it. In my late teens, I did more research and my appreciation for her got even deeper. It also got me thinking about her fight. She was singing Strange Fruit prior to the civil rights movement and it was like a solo mission for her. She was wiling to give up her life for it. It made me want to take a page out of her book and understand that’s what it takes when you really want to see lasting change.
Matt: Tell us about director Lee Daniels. How did he help you in creating such a memorable performance?
Andra: Lee is the genius at the centre of it all. Coming into the film, I was like “if I can cry on screen then it’ll be believable and realistic” but I learned through Lee that just being sad doesn’t make people want to root for you. He wanted people to be strengthened by my performance and to fall in love with Billie as we had.
He was so specific. He said he didn’t want her to be a victim. It was so much so that we had to put crime scenes back into the film because we were like “she’s too hard now”. Lee is collaborative and a visionary. He’s totally in service to the moment and that is invaluable. He’s not going to move on unless he “gets it”. He’ll also spontaneous and will do whatever it takes to get the right emotion and the accuracy of a scene. He’s not afraid to toss something in at the last minute. It’s like the scene where the dog runs in – that was random and unplanned. He’s committed to getting an honest reaction.
Matt: It’s a shame the film will be skipping cinemas and going directly to streaming in some countries due to the impact of COVID-19. How has the pandemic been from your perspective and how big an impact has it been on your own professional career?
Andra: The movie theatre thing is really challenging. It’s amazing that Hulu picked it up and we were able to get it out there on so many more screens but at the same time, the movie was intended for theatres. Lee shot it on film which is expensive to do. From my perspective, I missed him and the rest of the cast after the end of the shoot. The pandemic has made me much more grateful. It made me realise the things I hold on to that aren’t that important and vice-versa. At the end of the day though, I’m not choosing between food and shelter like many other people are. I’m trying to stay grounded throughout all of it.
Matt: What was it like showing the film to friends and family for the first time? What sort of reaction did you receive?
Andra: My dad was the funniest. He watched the film and when it came to the sex scenes, he goes “hey you know when something is burned into someone’s memory forever… well it’s not burned into mine because I didn’t watch it.” I was like “I’m glad you didn’t!” They loved it and were really proud. My family is an interestingly grounding force. Others are like “this is amazing” and my family are like “hey, that was great… can you pass me a bottle of water?” I love my family. They’re so nonchalant about life.
Matt: I’m not sure how closely you follow it but you’re part of one of the most interesting Oscars race in recent years. Carey Mulligan won the Critics’ Choice Award, Viola Davis won the SAG Award, Frances McDormand won the BAFTA, and you won the Golden Globe Award. What are your thoughts going into the upcoming ceremony?
Andra: People ask me what it’s like to be competing against these women and I don’t see it that way. We’re just representing different women in different communities. Two black women are nominated in this category for the first time since Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were nominated back in 1973. There are other historic nominations this year with women directors. I feel nothing but love for all the incredible women in my category and I’ve been moved by their performances.