In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Andra Day’s performance as the iconic jazz singer was fueled by urgency, which further reflected Holiday’s commitment to singing the protest anthem “Strange Fruit.”
“She wasn’t singing it because it was just the most beautiful song,” Day told film and media reporter Angelique Jackson in the Variety Streaming Room. “She needed you to hear these lyrics. There’s a reason why that woman was willing to go brave the cops standing outside waiting to pursue her every time she sang that song.”
The collaboration between first-time actor Day and director Lee Daniels resulted in a screen-ready, dynamic depiction of Holiday, who bonded over a screening of Diana Ross’ performance in “Lady Sings the Blues.”
“I was introduced to Billie Holiday at 11 years old. So then very early on to Diana’s performance and her portrayal of Billie Holiday. And then I was just a fan of Diana and her music,” Day recalled. “But it was a little bit of a different energy sitting with Lee, and sitting with [costar] Trevante Rhodes, and [producer] Jordan Fudge, and about to embark on this journey together. Before I’m just watching the movie like, ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful. Oh, this is so amazing.’ And then this time, I was watching the music, feeling all of that, and also feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m about to do this.'”
Daniels praised his star for bringing her expertise as a singer to the role of Holiday, knowing when to implement her knowledge about vocal cords, breathing and fan interaction.
“I know what that exchange is like when I’m on stage and I’m singing for an audience,” Day explained. “I know what it’s like when that spiritual exchange that happens between you and an audience.”
With big shoes to fill, Day was initially hesitant to accept the role. But she trusted Daniels, attributing her successful portrayal to the filmmaker’s bravery, honesty and authenticity. “This is just a genuine person telling a genuine story fearlessly,” she said.
In fact, Daniels was equally hesitant to sign on for the film himself, but ultimately deciding to direct “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” marked a full-circle moment. Daniels says the “Lady Sings the Blues” inspired him to become a filmmaker, described that movie as one that “Black America needed at that time. We needed to see two beautiful Black people in love.” Almost 50 years later, Lee sees his film as filling a gap in Holiday’s legend.
“We did not know this story [and that] is the reason why this story and so many others need to be told,” Daniels said. “We don’t know these stories. There’s a hundred Billie Holiday stories out there that need to be told.”