BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Playing Billie was no Holiday for the new Lady Day

BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Playing Billie was no Holiday for the new Lady Day

Andra Day didn’t want to work with Lee Daniels. Which is understandable, given that the film-maker was adamant she wasn’t right to portray cultural icon Billie Holiday, the singer who helped give birth to the blues.

‘He was going around saying ‘She’s not an actress!’ and ‘Why are you forcing her on me?’,’ Day recalled.

Their passionate rows reached scorched-earth levels, but, in the end, Lee capitulated and gifted her the role of a lifetime, portraying the legend in a new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Even then, the pair still had some issues to overcome. ‘To be honest with you,’ she admitted, ‘I actively tried to self-sabotage — to get out of it! — as many times as possible. I was like: ‘Why are we doing this?’

It’s true, she’d never acted before, but her vocal style, she told me, was inspired by years of listening to Holiday’s matchless interpretations of God Bless The Child and Strange Fruit, the harrowing number about black men lynched in the Deep South and left hanging from trees.

True grit: Day reveals Holiday’s raw vulnerability

And the 36-year-old recording star had won Grammy nominations for her music, including the haunting R&B anthem Rise Up.

Like Holiday, Andra has an affecting rasp when she sings; so that even before the film, her friends referred to her as Lady Day — a pun on her last name but also Billie’s sobriquet.

The creative process is often brutal, but Day said she and Daniels finally found their groove — and she was eventually won over by his obvious love for Holiday.

The result is an electrifying portrait of a broken artist, often strung out on heroin, fighting back against an FBI that persecuted her relentlessly. And it powers the film that will screen on Sky Cinema next month.

Her singing’s pretty remarkable, too. I tell her this ain’t no A to B performance. It’s the full alphabet. She admitted she was terrified when she finally did get the part. ‘I did not want to dishonour Holiday’s legacy,’ she told me, ‘nor that of Diana Ross [who played Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues]’.

On song: Andra Day as the blues legend in the film The United States vs Billie Holiday

Target: The real Billie Holiday pictured around 1970

Day (pictured above as the famed singer) stars in The United States vs Billie Holiday

Daniels hired Day an acting coach, and made her shed more than 30lb before filming began. ‘I don’t usually smoke or drink much,’ she said, ‘but I picked up cigarettes — and I picked up drinking.’

Chatting to me on Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, she said she began frequenting bars . . . and ordering gin. ‘They’d go: ‘How do you want it?’ And I’d say: ‘Listen, I don’t know. Just give me some gin; like how Billie Holiday would drink it.’

She read a number of biographies of the singer, and studied a photo album of her with her dog, Mister. Mentioning the pet’s name causes her to tear up a bit, because it reminds her of a scene where one of Holiday’s dogs dies. But the most difficult part of her research was understanding the singer’s addiction to heroin.

Singer Andra Day performs a medley during the taping of Aretha! A Grammy Celebration For The Queen Of Soul at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, in 2019

She sat with recovering addicts, one of whom taught her to tie a tourniquet around her arm and shoot up using an old-fashioned glass needle. ‘I could see this guy’s pupils dilate as he was zeroing in on what I was doing,’ she remembered. ‘He gave me everything I needed to know; why you would steal for it . . . why you would ruin relationships for it.’

She was shaken, too, by the degrading situations Holiday found herself in. The FBI couldn’t stop her singing Strange Fruit, which they saw as a call to arms. So instead, they ordered a black agent to infiltrate her life, to try to get her on narcotics charges.

Instead, Holiday and the agent, played by Trevante Rhodes (so good in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) fell in love; and Daniels doesn’t shy away from portraying their intimate moments together. ‘Yeah, the sex,’ Day said, mock fanning herself.

Stripping out of suspenders, stockings and a bodice, she looks haggard and raw. It’s not meant to be pretty, and it isn’t.

Billie Holiday performs on stage in 1950 in the United States

The actress, for that is what she is now, believes the U.S. government put Holiday through endless ordeals because they feared her power to unite black people behind the song Strange Fruit. She added: ‘Billie Holiday was truly the godmother of civil rights.’

When people ask her what connects her with Billie, ‘I say that I am a black woman living in America. There are obvious differences with the time period, and the different things we’ve experienced,’ she continued. ‘But there is an inherent invisibility when it comes to not just being a woman, but being a black woman in America.’

Holiday, she noted, was shunned ‘even by her own people’, although she found an appreciative white audience. In recent months, Day told me, she has noticed a change. The achievement of Vice President Kamala Harris. The vote campaign orchestrated by Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Black women can be a force to be reckoned with ‘when we rally people together’.

Day herself will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming awards season — though she is not counting her chickens. ‘I do music,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘So I’ve got to put an album out, otherwise my fans are going to kill me dead.’

  • The United States vs. Billie Holiday will be on Sky Cinema from February 26.

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