There are moments in the new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, that are very hard to watch. They’re socially gruesome. But at the center of each is the acclaimed musician (and now actor!), Andra Day, who portrays Holiday in the way any naturally great actor might. She—Day—is lost completely in the roll. Holiday then emerges, bright, brittle voice and all. Cigarette smoke swirl and scary-beautiful eyes. Then, on stage, Day as Holiday becomes the thick, buoyant beam of light that can form only when two other beams merge. That’s when Day’s singing prowess meets her newfound acting talent. Those eyes look up into the camera. Are they Day’s eyes? Holiday’s? And her voice finds you, pulls at your earlobes. You succumb note by note. It’s magic. But it’s also tragic. Holiday’s story is the stuff of tears and tissues. But it’s also much more than that. It’s the stuff of inspiration. Just ask Day.
“Playing her made me braver,” says Day. “In a way I didn’t have before.”
It’s actually impossible to tell Day’s story without Holiday. Way before the idea of playing her in a new feature film was an option, Day looked to Holiday as a way to find herself. Like someone who had never seen her own reflection, Day had to stare into Holiday’s work to see her own visage in the glass. Growing up, music was everywhere in Day’s household. So much so that when she began to show promise, it was taken almost as a given. Yet, Day never felt all that talented.
“I never thought I was good enough,” Day says. “I never liked my voice, to be completely honest. I still struggle with liking the sound and tone of my voice.”
But Day, who grew up in San Diego, says encountering Holiday changed her life. She found her courageous music around 11 years old. Despite a lack of confidence, Day says she always wanted to be an entertainer. She didn’t have any plan B, she says, though for short stints she pondered the possibility of working as a lawyer or paleontologist. She certainly didn’t have any acting aspirations. But it wasn’t until hearing Holiday—especially the song “Sugar”—that Day thought she had any chance of being a professional singer.
“Billie Holiday helped me own my voice,” Day says. “Helped me to be confident and pursue music as I am. She changed my idea of what a great singer was and could be. I can’t hit notes like Mariah or Whitney. That was my only thought of what a great singer was. But she helped me realize a great singer is your identity, being true to yourself.”
To those who can’t sing particularly well, it might seem odd that those who can don’t believe they can. But it’s a lot like hearing yourself on a telephone answering machine. The sound of your own voice can seem warbly, off. It can be something to work at, both improving one’s own singing voice and adequately ignoring the nasty voices of doubt running around in the sordid psyche.
“I told this to Brandy when I first met her,” Day says. “I used to listen to her to work on all of my runs, on being able to maneuver through certain notes, riffs and things. It all felt really unnatural, but I wanted it. I had to work at it.”
Despite Day’s close emotional relationship with Holiday, when the initial possibility arose to audition to play her, she wasn’t interested. Her manager approached her with the idea, but she shook her head. She told him that she wasn’t an actress and that past portrayals of Holiday- including Diana Ross’ in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues—were already enough. But, on third and fourth glances, it was clear there was a great deal to say and now made the perfect opportunity. The film is largely centered on Holiday’s infamous song, “Strange Fruit,” which was as much protest as it was artful expression.
“‘Strange Fruit’ was a defiance of the government,” Day says. “It reinvigorated the Civil Rights movement as we know it today and gave life to the awareness of lynching.”
Truly, the Holiday movie is heavy. There are dehumanizing moments, depressing moments. There is stark nudity and hopelessness. There are also bits of joy and celebration. But, in total, the role would for anyone, fan of Holiday or not. Day had to look at Holiday’s life with clear eyes, which, as it would happen, forced her to examine her own with the same perspective.
“I had to face things in my own life,” Day says. “It was a mind, body and spiritual transformation. I lost a bunch of weight and had to take up habits I don’t typically have. But it was worth it.”
In her day to day, Day doesn’t smoke or drink, but she had to at least temporarily pick up both habits for the role. She had to curse and oversexualize herself (Holiday had an affinity for sensuality). This, though, alienated some in her life. For a time, she was unrecognizable to her family. It wasn’t bad per se, but it was burdensome. The role damaged her vocal chords.
“It definitely aged me,” Day laughs. “The reality is, playing the role of Billie Holiday, how could it not take?”
If given the choice, Day says, she would still do it all over again. Through this role, Day evolved and began to see herself more clearly. It also earned her praise far and wide. The versatile Day recently won a Golden Globe, the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Globe in 35 years. She is also nominated for an Oscar for the role (perhaps she will have won the award by the time of this printing.)
Looking ahead, Day says she has a new record set for release on June 4, which includes a recent single with the prolific musician and producer, Anderson .Paak. But more than anything, Day says that she hopes the film will shed hot light on important societal issues like the current anti-lynching bill still sitting in front of the U.S Senate. To be Black in America often requires great swells of patience. It’s as true today as it was when Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.” But that’s the beauty of music, at least. No matter the strife around you, it still exists powerfully within you, for you. Day takes solace in that as the future continues to unfurl before her. Yet, music remains her tourniquet when it seems like nothing else can stave the wound. That, it would seem, she shares with Holiday.
“I know very clearly what I love most about it,” Day says. “I love that music is healing. I know all music, in its truest form, is healing.”