It was less than a week into filming The United States vs. Billie Holiday when Andra Day found herself on set singing “Strange Fruit” in front of an audience filled with extras. They were playing police waiting to arrest the singer for uttering even a word of her politically charged and, at the time, banned song.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would they set me up like this?’” she laughs. “It’s like they don’t want me to be successful, because this should be the last week. I think the nerves helped to affect me because I’m sure [Holiday] would have been nervous singing ‘Strange Fruit’, knowing that all those police were back there. I just had a brand-new respect for actors, marinating in all that trauma and familial pain. Honestly, I was really transformed by it.”
It’s a performance that we almost didn’t get the chance to see. When director Lee Daniels met up with the two-time Grammy nominated Day, the two actually bonded over the fact that neither of them thought she would be a good fit for this role of a lifetime.
“He’s like, ‘I don’t want to work with her, she’s not an actress,’” recalls Day. “And I had a horrible idea that I would be a stain on her legacy. So, I was trying to convince him, like, ‘I’m so glad to meet you, but make sure you just get the right person and do what you need to do.’”
But that conversation was preceded, on Day’s part, by a deep dive into Billie Holiday’s life, leading the director to realize the extremely knowledgeable talent he had on his hands. For Day, it was the angle of this story that really made her reconsider her desire to take on the role of Holiday. “Once I realized that the film would be talking about the government going after her for singing ‘Strange Fruit’, it was very incentivizing that we would have an opportunity to vindicate her legacy, and the world would have an opportunity get to know her as the godmother of civil rights. So, it was a powerful moment and revelation for me.”
Day, born Cassandra Monique Batie, has lived with the music of Billie Holiday for a very long time. When she was 11, she was introduced to the songs “Sugar” and “Strange Fruit”. Upon first listening to “Sugar”, Day’s immediate reaction was, “Her voice sounds nothing like Whitney. What is this?” But it was the second song that left a deeper impression with the young girl. “All I knew was that whatever I was listening to was extremely powerful and I could hear the sacrifice. I was like, ‘Wow, she’s giving up something.’ It wasn’t until I was about 18 when I started to dive into who she is.”
She was so influenced by the jazz legend that, when it was time to choose a stage name, Andra added ‘Day’ as a tribute to Holiday’s nickname Lady Day. And as Andra Day, the singer quickly rose to fame with her distinct, soulful, bluesy voice, highlighted in the smash Grammy nominated single “Rise Up”, which has garnered many millions of streams since its 2015 release.
Having already established herself as a distinct voice of the 21st century, Andra was faced with the challenge of how to approach an artist that is not only one of a kind, but someone whom she idolized deeply. “I did not want to do this movie without doing her voice,” admits Day, “because I look at her voice as a scroll and on it is written all of her experiences, every hit from a man, every time she slammed heroin, every time she stood up against the government when they came after her for singing ‘Strange Fruit’, every drag from a cigarette. Her voice is just as much her personality and character as she is, and so singing the songs was not just about emulating her, it was interpreting her, to tune in on where her voice comes from.”
Achieving this took a slightly off-kilter effort for Day. “Vocally, she sits in a higher place than mine,” she explains. “But it sort of has to travel through all of this gravel in order to get out. I tried to pay attention to every single subtle cue about her voice, and also just stopped taking care of my vocal chords the way I would as a singer. No drinking tea, just drinking cold gin and being out in the cold and smoking cigarettes and laughing and yelling. I do not recommend it.”
But as the vocal cues of Lady Day seeped into her performance, further research into the tumultuous history of the singer would make its way to the surface, too.
“I think Billie Holiday wanted to be loved,” she says. “I think she also wanted to be loved a certain way and it had a lot to do with familiarity. It was this idea of her getting beat up, or her husband punching her in the face or knocking her out cold as more familiar and more comfortable than her being vulnerable completely with a man. I feel like in her mind, she reasons, ‘Great, I’ll get hit in the eye, but that’ll heal in whatever time it’ll heal. Heartbreak, that could last what feels like forever.’”
The experience also brought to the surface some personal memories that Day had to confront. “Singing her, it was remembering all of that feeling in my body as a Black woman, with the pain of lynching, or knowing my own family members have had crosses burned in their yards, how I’ve been turned away from being served at a gas station, and this need to prove a point or to be defiant to this kind of system. It was the breakdown of my own family unit, my addiction to men in my early twenties and then my shortcomings that I inflicted on other people, as well as on me. That shell of everything that was her reminded me of my own experiences with trauma. It was informing all of that stuff, allowing our spirits to sort of co-mingle. Honestly, I was just praying my way through it.”
Some days on set, the performances led to private conversations with her idol. “I had been in her headspace for so long,” says Day. “I felt so inhabited by her, by the spirit of God just bringing me into this place. And it was so many moments where even in my own head, I’d have to stop and be like, ‘OK, Lady Day, where the f–k are we at? What’s going on?’ I’d have to talk to her. It was honestly a total out-of-body experience to the point where I still feel a little bit like I am trying to establish who I am in this season.”
The intense immersion has paid off in droves. Day sits in the space of Billie Holiday with such ease that there is a lot of Academy talk in the Best Actress category. Though that seems to be the last thing on her mind. “I’ll tell you, there was an ending scene when we were singing ‘All of Me’ and Lee says, ‘I need you to get rid of Billie. I want this to be Andra Day giving an homage to Billie.’ And I say OK. But when I start trying it, I start crying. It was an emotional moment. And I realized in that moment I had no idea who I f—ing was.”
Taking a quiet moment, Day opens up on how the whole experience has changed her life. “There are things that I’m still trying to recover from, but I would never have done it any other way. I would do it exactly the same. It was three years of being in her headspace. It feels so fulfilling and gratifying to be a part of the conversation… especially for me to tell the story of a woman I love so deeply. People can finally say, ‘Oh, wow, she was actually the godmother of Civil Rights. She wasn’t just a tragic drug addict or a troubled singer; she was fighting for us.”
As Day looks forward to returning to the studio to record a new album, Billie Holiday continues to inspire the artist in her songwriting. “Her DNA definitely made it onto the new record,” says Day. “It definitely is a little more of, ‘OK, I’m tired of y’all s–t,’ but it’s also very honest and it’s vulnerable and just a little edgier. A little less apologetic.”
So much so that her new single, “Tigress & Tweed”, namechecks “Strange Fruit” and is featured as the end track to the movie. “I am so grateful for that song. It’s literally my favorite thing I’ve ever written in my life,” Day says. “It feels very, very full circle because a huge part of what I am this season is Billie Holiday. I’m grateful to be able to sit here and say that.”