‘I did some pretty extreme things’: Andra Day shares how she lost 40 pounds to play Billie Holiday

Mildred Europa Taylor March 04, 2021
Andra Day in 'The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.' (Takashi Seida/Hulu)

Andra Day, who just won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, recently revealed in an interview what she went through to physically transform into the late legend.

The singer-turned-actress was first hesitant to take on the role after being tapped to play Holiday in the film that looked at how the iconic jazz singer was targeted by the federal government over her song about lynchings in the South.

Day, in her W magazine interview, said filling Holiday’s shoes was tough. “I did some pretty extreme things for the character,” she said. “There was the drastic weight loss—I wanted to have a body that looked like that period in time. Starving myself made me very weak on set and slowed me down in a way that really helped with the scenes with heroin. Then I started smoking cigarettes; it made me feel like Billie. I’m very fast, and she’s like molasses. Smoking helped to drop me into those dark places,” said the 36-year-old singer.

She was originally 163 when she started shooting but got down to 24. “At first, I started by just shrinking my caloric intake, of course, and then exercising as well,” Day told W magazine. “But honestly, I did kind of starve myself a bit when I was on set.”

What’s more, she had to drink gin and bourbon to be able to fit in the role. “Even though you’re really not supposed to do that—apparently that’s a cardinal rule to not do that, but look—I was desperate, okay?” she said. “I didn’t want to be terrible.”

Day, born Cassandra Monique Batie, rose to fame from her 2015 single “Rise Up”. Last month, her performance in the film earned her the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama, making her the second Black performer to ever win the award, following Whoopi Goldberg’s win in the category in 1985 for “The Color Purple.” “I’m in the presence of giants with Viola Davis, Frances McDormand, Vanessa Kirby and Carey Mulligan, you inspire me so much,” Day said when she accepted her award at the Golden Globes virtually on February 28. “And to the amazing transformative, dynamic, Billie Holliday, who just transformed me with this role, her spirit. I love you all so much.”

When Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, got his mandate in 1930 to rid America of its drugs vice, he set his eyes on practitioners of jazz music which he called black man’s music.

Having little success with imprisoning the jazzmen, Anslinger focused his energies on Holiday, regarded as the greatest female jazz vocalist. Holiday pricked the interest of Anslinger when she released ‘Strange Fruit,’ a musical lament against lynching. Though the song was banned by some radio stations, it went ahead to become a successful hit due to its powerful message.

The entirety of Holiday’s career was, however, plagued with drug and alcohol abuse, and she would be tormented to death by the federal government, handcuffed to her hospital bed.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 4, 2021


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