In “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” which will be released by Hulu on Feb. 26, Day plays the iconic jazz singer as she’s being targeted by a government investigation in the final years of her life.
To fully inhabit the legend, Day prepared extensively for the role, as she told Leslie Odom Jr. in Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. (Odom Jr. also portrays a musical trailblazer — Sam Cooke — in Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.”)
“I basically abused my body for a long time,” Day says. “I’m joking and not really joking. I got the role at the very top of 2018. Reading everything I could get my hands on. Listening to every interview. Apparently, I exhausted the internet of Billie Holiday photos. Apparently, the internet will tell you that you’ve reached the end.”
“I put my family through it; I put myself through it,” Day adds. “I went from 163 pounds to 124 pounds. I would talk like her and I don’t drink or smoke, but I started smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Not that I recommend people do this; I just was desperate because this is my first role. I just asked God to give me all of the pain and trauma. I asked him to give me her pain and give me her trauma.”
Day also had to change her voice to sing as Holiday, performing some of her greatest hits — including the painful 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of Black Americans.
“That was an early decision that we made right away to do the singing,” Day says. “Every time I would sing a song I’d go, OK, Lee’s going to hear this and he’s going to fire me. But I wouldn’t have done it if they’d been, ‘Do it in your voice.’ That for me would have probably been a no. There’s victory and there is pain in her voice. So to me it was just like we’ve got to get it, we have to get it, you know what I mean? It’ll have to be my interpretation of it, but it has to be there.”
For more from our conversation with Day and Odom, click here, and watch the full conversation below.