Andra Day’s Parents Were “Concerned” While She Was Filming The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
“It was like almost two years of being another person," she tells editor in chief Laura Brown on this week's episode of Ladies First.
In fact, she was so dedicated to this role that the Grammy-nominated musician lost 40 pounds, started drinking more, took up smoking cigarettes, and began to curse again (she had taken a seven-year hiatus from swearing). Now that the performance has made it to the screen and earned its accolades, it all makes sense, but during filming? Suffice to say Day's method acting had her parents worried.
"They were definitely proud, but they were concerned, and it was uncomfortable, right?" the June cover star opens up to InStyle's editor in chief during this week's episode of Ladies First with Laura Brown. "You have somebody who's also not just shrinking, but doing things and saying things, speaking, operating and functioning in a way for it. You have to remember, I started auditioning at the end of 2017, and we didn't start filming until fall of 2019, So it was like almost two years of being another person."
She continued, "I'd be in Billie and I'd be speaking like her, or I would say certain crazy things or I would be cussing. My mom would be like, 'What's wrong with you? Why are you acting like that?' I literally would have to break character to be like, 'Ma, how many times I gotta tell you I'm in a movie. I'm preparing to be Billie Holiday.'"
The iconic role took both a physical and mental toll on her well-being, to the point where she'd go days without sleeping.
"I'd stay awake for days, and then whenever my body would conk out, I would take a second in maybe the dressing room floor or in an alley somewhere or whatever, but interestingly enough I was not eating much," she told Brown. "Sometimes I would be starving myself while I was on set but then I would eat something like eggs, a sausage, or some spinach. I would take days in between and then just fuel up a lot. But the slowness — the cigarettes, the alcohol, the not sleeping, and not eating or drinking much water. It sounds so crazy, but it slowed me down in a way that I think allowed me to really be Billie Holiday."
Andra Day on Happiness: Episode 23: May 11, 2021
Duration: 33:21 minutes
This podcast may contain cursing that would not be appropriate for listeners under 14. Discretion is advised.
Despite receiving praise from castmates and director Lee Daniels, the Golden Globe winner says she still had her doubts about herself. She didn't know if the compliments were just polite — she likened it to a mother telling her daughter that she's the prettiest girl in school. But what gave her confidence was knowing that Daniels would not move on from a scene until he was satisfied with it.
"He will not pass through anything if it is not authentic and he's not moved by what he's seeing, so it was amazing," she explains. "It made me grateful, grateful to God, grateful to Lee, to my cast, to everybody who worked so hard. Those people mean the world to me, honestly."
At one point, she was so nervous about it that she almost didn't even watch it. "Everybody was like, 'It's amazing, it's amazing.' I was like, I'm going to sit there and just be like, 'Damn, why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that?'" she says. "The other part is that it just felt like watching the movie just felt like that's the end, that's the culmination of everything. That's the end of the chapter. And I was so, so, so not ready for that chapter to end because I just still had no idea who I was going to be on the other side."
But the night before the movie's release, she said she "freaked out" since she hadn't watched it yet. "I called my manager and I called everyone. I was like, 'I need to see the movie. I need to see the movie right now,'" she recalls. And she ended up getting an extra-special viewing. "The screening room that they found that would let me watch it was the same hotel that I actually auditioned for the movie in. So I pulled up on it and was just bawling, it was ridiculous. And it was hard to watch, but it also brought me so much joy."
Although Day wasn't in the best head space while filming — which she actually said helped her transform into Holiday — she typically aims to radiate positivity in her life.
"I want people when they encounter me to encounter the God that I love, I want them to encounter joy, peace, their own potential and greatness," she says. "Sometimes you be tired, but you got to show up with a certain attitude. Just not even for the sake of just faking, feigning happy, but just to be like, 'Alright, we're in this together.'"
On the days when she doesn't have the gusto to be completely happy? "I try to be truthful about the condition that I'm in, because I still want to show up and be like, 'Okay, I'm going to be respectful and loving and have joy, because joy is not necessarily contingent upon circumstance.'"
Listen to the full episode and subscribe on Apple, PlayerFM, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. And tune in weekly to Ladies First with Laura Brown hosted by InStyle's editor in chief Laura Brown, who speaks to guests like Michelle Pfeiffer, Emily Ratajkowski, Cynthia Erivo, Naomi Watts, La La Anthony, Ellen Pompeo, Rep. Katie Porter, and more to discuss current events, politics, some fashion, and, most importantly, the major firsts in their lives.