Andra Day lost 40 pounds to play Billie Holiday, started smoking and drinking

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Andra Day has been one of my favorite breakout stars since her debut album, Cheers to the Fall , in 2015. I am a huge Jazz fan and that album was the balm I needed at the time. I thought Andra went dark after that, but she released a Christmas album in 2016 that I didn’t know existed. You know I will have it on rotation when Christmas comes around again. Andra also did an inspirational Rise Up video for her song of the same name.

Andra will be singing and playing my birthday twin Billie Holiday in her upcoming film, The United States vs Billie Holiday, out tomorrow on Hulu. USvBH is a little known story about how the FBI came after Billie Holiday for her activism, namely her controversial song, Strange Fruit, which was about lynching. Andra is profiled in W Magazine where she discussed the dramatic changes she went through to embody the legend Billie Holiday. Andra said she began swearing, smoking and drinking heavily, and she also dropped 40 pounds. Andra also mentioned that Lee Daniels took a chance on her carrying this film, which terrified her. She had to overcome imposter syndrome in order to do Billie Holiday justice. Below are a few excerpts from W Magazine:

When you got the role, did you have a moment of celebration or were you a nervous wreck?
I was horrified. You can ask Lee. The first thing I told him was, “Did you look at everybody? Are you sure you checked around and made sure…” I was still so hesitant, and he was like, “Yo, just show up to set.” But I did have one moment of celebration with one of my staff and with my mother; she was with me at the time. And everybody was like, “Whoa.” But then the fear settled in immediately, and I was like, “What the fuck are you doing? Get out of here. This is a terrible idea.” But Lee believed in me enough to take a chance that even he was terrified about. And so was I. But here we are…

Lee told me you did some pretty radical things, like you taught yourself to smoke?
Yeah, not something I would like. This is my first movie, so I don’t know that I could speak to young actors, but I don’t want to suggest that to them. There was also the drastic weight loss—I was originally 163 pounds when I started, and I got down to 124. At first, I started by just shrinking my caloric intake, of course, and then exercising as well. But honestly, I did kind of starve myself a bit when I was on set. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but for my character, I didn’t want my body to look like a gym body of 2020. It had to look like loose skin and parts. That, for me, was important: having a body true to that period. The other thing is, it 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, which I don’t do. I don’t smoke anything because, first of all, I have no frame of reference for myself smoking. So it makes me feel like her; it slows me down. I’m very fast, and she’s like molasses. And when I had to do scenes where I was high on heroin, it really helped my physical body to nod in a way where I could focus on the emotion, and my body was reacting the way I wanted it to. It helped to slow me down, and it helped, when I did have to be high, to drop me into those places. I needed to feel it in my body to believe it, I guess.

And also, you don’t swear.
I don’t—it’s something I’m still trying to let go of. So cussing is another thing I picked up. And I don’t drink alcohol, but I did drink a lot of gin and bourbon and all of that stuff, even though you’re really not supposed to do that. But look, I was desperate. I didn’t want to be terrible, so I was like, “Whatever we have to do in this moment, for this role. Cut off all my hair.”

[From W Magazine]

I cannot wait for this film to drop. I just hope that Lee Daniels did our girl Billie justice because I am so tired of the movies that only depict Billie as a tragic drug-addicted figure, like the film Lady Sings the Blues with Billy Dee Williams. Billie was so much more than her drug addiction, she was a supernova in talent and passion. Billie stood up against an entire oppressive system and the government that upheld it. With the rise of Black women-centered historical films, USVBH came at a perfect time. Andra has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Billie Holiday.

One of the things I loved about this interview was Andra’s honesty about the fear she had to overcome to take on this role. Most artists don’t talk about their fears or experiencing imposter syndrome. I am glad Lee Daniels took her on because I honestly can’t see anyone being able to embody Billie’s physicality AND vocal range. I can’t believe that Andra lost so much weight to physically transform into Billie. I didn’t realize how tiny Billie was because in all of her pictures she looked a bit more fuller figured. Hopefully Andra was able to shed those bad habits, namely drinking and smoking, after she stopped playing the character. If the trailers are an accurate depiction of Andra’s transformation and performance, I think we will come away from USVBH with an added respect for not only Billie but Andra.

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