Filming of the upcoming biopic “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” was years in the making, and required an unwavering commitment to the lead role. Starring as the late jazz singer is soulful vocalist Andra Day.
Day says she secured the role in 2017 and from there submerged herself into the world of Holiday, from picking up vices, scavenging the internet for photos and forgotten moments, to losing nearly 40 pounds.
“I put my family through it, I put myself through it,” explained Day while speaking with fellow actor Leslie Odom. “I went from 163 pounds to 124 pounds, and I would talk like her. I started, I don’t drink and smoke, but I started smoking cigarettes, and I started drinking alcohol — not that I recommend people do this — I just was desperate because this is my first role.”
The Lee Daniels production began filming in October 2019. Set in the 1940s, the film focuses on the U.S. government targeting Holiday for drug use and her singing a controversial song.
“Through this story, we learn about her singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ which was about lynching Black people, and that the government didn’t want her singing ‘Strange Fruit.’ They didn’t want the story to be told,” Daniels explained.
A portion of ‘Strange Fruit’ lyrics:
Southern trees bearing a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
For both Daniels and Day the task of telling a portion of Holiday’s story was worth it.
“I just allowed her in. One of my prayers was, I just asked God to give me all of the pain and trauma, I asked God to give me all of her pain and trauma. I’m a Christian person and I would have people asking ‘well, why would you do a role like Billie Holiday?'”
Her answer is simple.
“He [God] wants these stories told.”
Day’s screen appearance as Holiday comes nearly 50 years after another film attempted to capture the complex life of the jazz icon, who died at age 44 in 1959. “Lady Sings the Blues,” released in 1972, featured Diana Ross in the lead role, a performance for which Ross won a New Star of the Year Golden Globe award.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday“ premieres Feb. 26 on Hulu.