Singer-turned-actor Andra Day brought versatility to Lee Daniels’ biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” She performs the Golden Globes-nominated song “Tigress & Tweed,” which she co-wrote with soul and R&B singer Raphael Saadiq, and she sizzles in the title role as the jazz legend, portraying her as a significant civil rights activist.
Below, she shares what it was like playing Holiday, preserving her legacy and her process for stepping into iconic shoes.
What did Lee Daniels say to make you say yes to this role?
I was terrified because I’m not an actress. I’m a huge fan of Billie Holiday. The worst thing I could imagine was putting a stain on her legacy with a terrible performance. I loved “Lady Sings the Blues,” and I love Diana Ross. I was just wondering why would anyone try and re-approach that movie. In meeting Lee, I learned that the script would be the revealing of Billie Holiday as a civil rights leader, and the FBI’s war on drugs pursuing her for “Strange Fruit.”
What does Billie Holiday mean to you? What does she represent?
She represents freedom. She represents a fight, and she represents standing up to the government. She represents sacrifice for the greater good. She’s not been given that title because the FBI and the government were able to retell Billie Holiday’s story as just a tragic drug addict.
I love when Lee says, “When you think of civil rights activists, you think of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; you don’t think of Billie Holiday.” But Billie Holiday was doing it with no civil rights movement; it was just her fighting. She represents resilience, strength, the power that we have as Black women, and she represents our voices.
One of the big things I learned from her was to accept my voice. I still struggle with liking the sound of my voice, but she’s owning her tone and her voice being so different. Singing “Strange Fruit” reminded me that you’re here for a reason and to own who you are and what you are.
How did you tap into her voice and tone without mimicking her?
Our voices are very different. I worked with my acting coach, Tasha Smith, to help bring my character and my spirit out through her voice. I found her voice through the music and through song, but I also found it through her laugh. There was something very specific about her laugh; it was sort of like a pinging, like a paddle ball that hit the back of her throat. Every time I would laugh, that helped me drop into her.
I looked at her breath. Where does she breathe? Why does she breathe the way she does? Where is her voice sitting?
I was pretty abusive to my voice, so let’s hope that it comes back because that’s what I do for a living. I’ve never smoked a cigarette before in my life, but I adopted the habit of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. I was not wrapping my throat up and [instead] exposing it to a lot of cold and not drinking tea. I wasn’t mimicking, as you say, not impersonating it, but interpreting it.
What was it like performing “Strange Fruit” and singing it as Billie?
There is such a sense of urgency when you’re singing it as Billie Holiday, when you’re playing someone who’s going to die. When you’re playing someone who has an idea that they may go early — she was aware that her life was on the line — there’s a need. It’s not a need for people to enjoy the song anymore, or to enjoy the performance, or to pay homage to Billie Holiday. You need more than anything for people to listen to the song, to not enjoy the song, to be uncomfortable, to writhe in their skin at the idea of what’s happening to human beings.
How did “Tigress & Tweed” come into being, and what did you want it to say?
I reached out to Raphael Saadiq to work on the music for the song, but it took me a month to write any lyrics. After prayer, I finally wrote all the lyrics that day. Her favorite perfumes were Tweed and Tigress, so I equate those with the scent of victory. The question was if Billie were alive, how would she want to see “Strange Fruit” evolved? I don’t want to see us sad, hanging from a tree anymore. We’re strong; we own the tree, and that’s intimidating only to those who oppose equality and progress.
When was the first time you felt seen for your work as a Black woman?
The first time I felt seen by the Black Lives Matter movement was when they adopted “Rise Up” as their anthem for the movement. The purpose of the song came full circle. That’s why I love the question, not just when I first felt seen, but when I first felt seen as a Black woman, because sometimes in certain spheres, I want you to see me as a person. Oftentimes, people want to put this label so they can figure out where to compartmentalize you. But there are also moments when I’ll say, “No, you have to see me as a Black woman. You have to see my Blackness, and you have to not let it be a qualifier or a disqualifier.”
When the Black Lives Matter movement adopted “Rise Up” as their theme, and being invited to the White House by Michelle Obama and being celebrated for who I was, that was a moment of being seen.