Throughout her profession as a Grammy-nominated musician, Andra Day has sung loads of Billie Vacation songs. However to totally turn out to be the titular jazz singer in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Day needed to dive headfirst into Vacation’s unhealthy habits by smoking cigarettes, cursing, and consuming arduous liquor. It is a part of what makes her portrayal so mesmerizing. For W‘s annual Best Performances difficulty, Day discusses shedding practically 40 kilos to realize a “interval physique” and shaking off imposter syndrome nerves on set.
What scenes did you do throughout your audition for The US vs. Billie Vacation?
I did a scene that is really not within the film, the place she’s having a gathering with John Levy in a membership; we did not actually find yourself taking pictures it, which was humorous, as a result of it was the scene that made me probably the most nervous. However the scene that did make it in that I did for my audition was the scene the place she will get busted and first discovers that Jimmy Fletcher is a federal agent. After which I did the scene the place she’s dying. So these have been my audition scenes, those achieved proper out of the gate. They have been actually, actually difficult, however I additionally assume, as Lee Daniels taught me, the worry of doing poorly actually fueled a whole lot of that, together with private trauma.
If you obtained the function, did you’ve got a second of celebration or have been you a nervous wreck?
I used to be horrified. You possibly can ask Lee. The very first thing I instructed him was, “Did you take a look at everyone? Are you certain you checked round and made certain…” I used to be nonetheless so hesitant, and he was like, “Yo, simply present as much as set.” However I did have one second of celebration with considered one of my employees and with my mom; she was with me on the time. And everyone was like, “Whoa.” However then the worry settled in instantly, and I used to be like, “What the fuck are you doing? Get out of right here. It is a horrible thought.” However Lee believed in me sufficient to take an opportunity that even he was terrified about. And so was I. However right here we’re…
Lee instructed me you probably did some fairly radical issues, such as you taught your self to smoke?
Yeah, not one thing I would really like. That is my first film, so I do not know that I may communicate to younger actors, however I do not wish to recommend that to them. There was additionally the drastic weight reduction—I used to be initially 163 kilos once I began, and I obtained all the way down to 124. At first, I began by simply shrinking my caloric consumption, in fact, after which exercising as properly. However truthfully, I did form of starve myself a bit once I was on set. I do not essentially advocate it, however for my character, I did not need my physique to seem like a gymnasium physique of 2020. It needed to seem like free pores and skin and components. That, for me, was vital: having a physique true to that interval. The opposite factor is, it made me very weak on set and slowed me down in a method that actually helped with the scenes with heroin. Then I began smoking cigarettes, which I do not do. I do not smoke something as a result of, initially, I’ve no body of reference for myself smoking. So it makes me really feel like her; it slows me down. I’m very quick, and he or she’s like molasses. And once I needed to do scenes the place I used to be excessive on heroin, it actually helped my bodily physique to nod in a method the place I may give attention to the emotion, and my physique was reacting the best way I wished it to. It helped to sluggish me down, and it helped, once I did need to be excessive, to drop me into these locations. I wanted to really feel it in my physique to imagine it, I assume.
And likewise, you do not swear.
I do not—it is one thing I am nonetheless making an attempt to let go of. So cussing is one other factor I picked up. And I do not drink alcohol, however I did drink a whole lot of gin and bourbon and all of that stuff, regardless that you are actually not supposed to try this. However look, I used to be determined. I did not wish to be horrible, so I used to be like, “No matter we’ve to do on this second, for this function. Minimize off all my hair.”
You’ve got sung a whole lot of Billie Vacation in your profession as a musician, however was it scarier to sing her songs within the context of this movie?
At first it was nerve-racking as a result of it is one factor if you’re doing a one-off tune right here or there, or I am simply playfully emulating her voice, however to remain in it and to imagine it and to reside as her was undoubtedly totally different. I’ll say as soon as I used to be capable of get to that time, the music and her voice helped me to drop into her. Music was my gateway into her character. That and Billie’s snicker, truthfully. She has such a definite snicker. Her snicker is sort of a Ping-Pong ball—it comes again and hits you. However it was additionally a little bit of a problem as a result of I would discover myself getting misplaced within the music the best way I might simply singing it. After which Lee would convey me proper again. “You are being her, you must really turn out to be her and act. You possibly can’t simply do it the best way you’d do it.”
How previous have been you if you began singing?
I used to be actually younger, possibly round 6 or one thing like that.
What was your go-to tune to sing to impress your loved ones?
Whitney. I might simply butcher Whitney at 6 years previous. I might do “I Will At all times Love You,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “I Wanna Dance With Any individual (Who Loves Me).” My dad and mom all the time had music on in the home: Luther Vandross, Stevie Surprise. It wasn’t till I used to be round 11 that I found Billie Vacation. And I actually found the good jazz singers of that point: Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, after which Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and Donald Byrd.
Do you’ve got a go-to karaoke tune?
What if I used to be similar to, “Rise Up” is my go-to karaoke tune? I am going sing my very own songs to karaoke on a regular basis! I am simply kidding, that will be horrible. No, it might be both Roberta Flack’s or Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly With His Music.” Like, give me both one.
Did you’ve got a favourite movie if you have been rising up?
Woman Sings the Blues is unquestionably one. Additionally, Carmen Jones is a large one. I like Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.
The place was your first kiss?
My first kiss was really outdoors of a theater in San Diego, in an space known as Golden Hill. It was with my first boyfriend. I used to be 16 years previous, and I do keep in mind it being not nice. No offense to him, I am not saying that he wasn’t a superb kisser. I would not have recognized on the time. I simply keep in mind being like, “Yeah, I do not really feel like that is my factor.” I made a decision that definitively at 16 years previous: “Nah, bro, I am out.”