Until recently, Andra Day was best known as a singer and especially for her ubiquitous Grammy-nominated track, Rise Up.
The song has appeared everywhere from a McDonald’s drinks promotion, which saw her lyrics printed on cups, to recent TV hit The Masked Singer in the UK – with eventual winner Joss Stone performing a cover, while dressed as a sausage.
Now, Day’s debut performance as Billie Holiday in new film The United States vs Billie Holiday has thrown her in to the Hollywood awards conversation. She heads into this weekend’s Golden Globes with not one, but two nominations – for best actress in a motion picture (drama) and best original song.
However, the star revealed to Sky News’ Backstage podcast she came very close to turning the part down, even going so far as to pray it wouldn’t happen, as with little acting experience she was worried about taking on such a huge role.
“I do consider myself a deeply spiritual person and so I was doing – it’s funny – I was doing devotion, I was praying to get out of it, I was like, ‘yes, make it go away’,” she says.
“I was like, one eye open, and the scripture was literally about being caught trusting and being caused to do an act of great faith, and I was like, ‘noooo’.
“It was just that moment, you know, when it clicks and you have that peace, and I was like, ‘yeah, I think I’m terrified, but I think I’m supposed to do this’.”
Day, who is a huge fan of Holiday, says she was also motivated to do the film because it tells the story of the star’s activism, and how she was pursued by the US government for singing her anti-lynching song, Strange Fruit.
The actress says she loves director Lee Daniels’ vision.
“To Lee, the amazing script by Suzan-Lori Parks, this idea of vindicating Billie Holiday’s legacy, he was going to honour her and show her as a beautiful, multilayered human being,” she says.
“And that the world would now get to know her as the great-godmother of civil rights who sang the song, our first protest song, Strange Fruit, in defiance of the government and was ultimately martyred for it.
“So the fact that the world will be able to see her in this new light, as a fan of hers, that was beautifully incentivising for me.”
Once Day accepted the part, she was totally committed, and made huge changes to her own life in order to inhabit the role.
“I don’t cuss typically, I have made a vow to myself to be abstinent for like six, seven years now, so I don’t engage in that way, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I did have long hair down to my butt,” she says.
“I lost almost 40 pounds, I cut off all my hair, started drinking a lot of gin and smoking a lot of cigarettes and just generally being more sexual in my behaviour, more just sort of flagrant.
“I wanted to feel these mannerisms, I wanted them to be natural, not a thing, you know what I mean?”
While the film will show Billie Holiday in a new light to many, it doesn’t ignore the demons she battled and depicts her wrangling with addiction as well as some toxic personal relationships.
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Day says the method style of acting really helped her to get into character, particularly during the graphic scenes of drug taking.
“I’m super fast: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom; Billie Holiday is molasses slow,” she says.
“The cigarettes really slowed me down. In the heroin scenes, because my body’s not used to them, [they] would slow me down and sort of cause me to nod in certain ways, and I could just focus on the emotional part of the scene.
“Then also, the gravel in my voice, I had to earn that s*** because that’s years of experience and stuff on her voice, so [the method acting] helped to kind of put a couple of things in place.”
Day says it wasn’t easy to reverse the process of inhabiting the singer once filming had finished.
“There are parts of her… once she’s in there, you know, those parts will not go away, she will not let go, and it’s an experience, it is a lifelong commitment to this woman.
“Coming out of her was, and I will say is – it’s not as much anymore – but it was like losing a major organ or losing a major loved one, like a child, you know.
“Everybody was like, ‘Okay, now you got to get back to being Andra’, and it wasn’t until I started trying that I realised I had no idea who that was – I had no idea.”
The United States vs Billie Holiday is out on Sky Cinema now. Hear our review of the film in this week’s Backstage podcast