cut covers

Becoming Billie

Andra Day and Angela Bassett on playing, and being, legendary Black performers.

Chanel bodysuit and belt. Chopard jewelry. Photo: Lelanie Foster
Chanel bodysuit and belt. Chopard jewelry. Photo: Lelanie Foster

This past year, I’ve often found myself looking to the past for wisdom, wondering how those who came before me have managed to stay hopeful in challenging times. When I saw The United States vs. Billie Holiday, I was struck by Andra Day’s performance as the titular singer — a woman on a never-ending quest to find inspiration and joy against all odds. Billie felt, to me, like a guiding light.

Andra Day has had the same thought. When I interviewed her a few years back — after she had a megahit with “Rise Up” and released a debut album that was nominated for three Grammy Awards — I learned that she chose her stage name in homage to Holiday, whose nickname was Lady Day. (Andra Day’s given name is Cassandra Monique Batie). Andra became enamored with Billie at the age of 11 and says the singer profoundly influenced her desire to share her own voice with the world. But she turned down multiple offers to play Billie in a movie out of fear that she wouldn’t do the part justice. When she finally said yes, she felt a desperate need to draw courage and inspiration from someone who’d had a similar experience — which led her to study Angela Bassett’s critically acclaimed role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It.

It must have worked, because Andra is now nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Billie. She’s up against Viola Davis, nominated for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s the first time that two Black women are running for the same honor since 1973, when the icon Cicely Tyson was nominated for Sounder and Diana Ross was up for Lady Sings the Blues — in which she played, yes, Billie Holiday.

So who better to interview Andra than Angela herself? Witnessing a conversation between the two, who have both played legends and are legends in their own right, was a master class of my dreams. It left me thinking about all the Black women who haven’t just participated in the culture but shifted it — women who have spent lifetimes creating art while nurturing others before themselves. This was a beautiful full-circle moment, and it gave me more hope than I could have ever imagined.

Balenciaga tank, boot, pant, and chain dress. Chopard jewelry. Photo: Lelanie Foster

Angela Bassett: Andra, do you remember where we first met?

Andra Day: Yes, it was at Smokey Robinson’s. I’m amazed right now that you remembered. I was freaking out meeting you!

Angela: I was excited too. And my goodness, congratulations, darling. Your performance is absolutely stunning, scintillating, amazing, and fearless. How are you feeling about all of this? It’s an extraordinary moment in the midst of a pandemic and at this time in your life, and I imagine that it’s a whirlwind for you.

Andra: It has absolutely been as disorienting as you would imagine. But it’s been a blessing. I don’t say this lightly: God is great. I feel pure gratitude for everyone who made the film possible.

The craziest part about it is how actors have such a transformative experience and then move on. Like, “Now go be normal.” That in itself feels crazy.

Angela: By the way, I’m sure you know this, but today is actually Billie Holiday’s birthday. How amazing that we’re having this conversation on that queen’s birthday!

So let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me how the journey to The United States vs. Billie Holiday got started. How did it come to you? Because I’ve heard that you were, let’s say, reticent to do it.

Andra: I love that you’re so classy and said “reticent” when what I actually said was, “Hell, no.” I thought that at some point, years down the road, I would maybe do a movie or something in a show. But I wanted to respect the craft above anything else. I thought I would take years off from singing to just study and focus, and so I said “No” when this first came up, multiple times, because I felt like I hadn’t trained long enough.

People kept pressing me and saying, “You’d be perfect for it.” I’m like, “Why do you think that? An actor would be perfect for a movie.” That’s how things like that go, just like tomato sauce goes great on spaghetti. But I did agree to meet with Lee Daniels because I’m a fan of him as a Black gay filmmaker who has been making incredible films for a long time. When we sat down, we realized we’re born only a couple days apart, and we talked for hours about Billie’s legacy. Lee could see that I was terrified. I just wanted to be great. I just wanted to do justice to her legacy.

Angela: What were some of your fears and concerns about taking this on?

Andra: Initially the drug scenes, but the biggest obstacle was myself. Very few people know what it really means to be present, but actors most definitely do. Stepping outside of yourself is the most uncomfortable thing. I had to learn how to lose myself in a scene. I was so self-aware that it was like, “How do I cut this part of myself off? I don’t want myself anymore.”

Angela: You know, Andra, even after the many years I’ve been doing it, I still go through that as well. You’re constantly trying to get beyond that self-awareness, always trying to bring honesty and vulnerability to the moment.

Andra: I got to a point where I did all this research and knew every possible thing, the sound of her, the movements, but the character has to live. Billie had to live and breathe in me.

Left: Christian Siriano dress. Chopard jewelry. Right: Azzi and Osta beaded jumpsuit. Roger Vivier shoes. Chopard jewelry. Photo: Lelanie Foster

Angela: There’s a moment when you just believe that all that research is undergirding you and you just shoot out the cannon — you just go for it. And to be honest, when I was doing Tina Turner, I was nervous, but I wasn’t so scared that I could say “No” to the possibility. At the time, the roles I was getting were the girlfriend or the secretary — something like that where I wasn’t in it from beginning to end. So the idea that the Tina film had been seen by a lot of people, and that Tina herself is still very much still with us, made it even more daunting.

There was, of course, an inevitable probability that I was going to fall on my face. I would hear people say, “Oh, the script isn’t good” or “Well, they cast an actor who can’t sing or dance.” So there were low expectations for the success of the movie. And of course, at that time there were fewer films featuring a sister, a Black woman in the lead, and it’s a lot of pressure to carry a film. What was it like for you, carrying a movie as No. 1 on the call sheet, darling?

Andra: Up until now, I would just drop in movies to sing a song and then I was done. So because I didn’t have a frame of reference, it was just pressure, period — the pressure to honor Billie, get it right, be present for my cast. It was a lot for me as one person to take on.

Angela: Those dynamics always shift. In What’s Love, by my side all the time, I had Laurence Fishburne. He and I were partners; we had to be vulnerable and trusting of each other. We had to be so in love with each other to go to these places of darkness and vulnerability. I trusted him, and he trusted me, and I could lean on him literally because, although I have the respect, I didn’t have that great ability to be vulnerable to my director at the time.

At some point, you take ownership of this role that you’re playing and you become protective of this role, of this woman. Some things I may have been asked to do or portray in a certain way and I couldn’t be exactly heard. Laurence asked me, “How many times do you want to go through the sexual-assault scene, because it’s traumatic?” and I told him two times, and that was it. He respected me enough to ask and consider my feelings in playing such a heavy role.

Andra: I have to say, as a woman of color, you don’t always feel protected and supported on set. It’s a huge leap of faith for me to jump into a project and have others trust me with this role — they were essentially supporting someone who has never acted before. It was always on my mind that this movie could go terribly. It could take my career. I respected the fact that people who had done this before believed in me, and I wanted to be there for them.

Fortunately, on set, I became close with every single person, because — you’re right — there is so much nudity, and there are so many sex scenes and just very vulnerable moments. I happened to be almost seven years abstinent, so I had to turn off one part of my brain and turn on another part of my brain that had not really been available to me for a long time. Lee was unbelievably careful. I had an intimacy coach, but it made me feel so safe and at peace to be in a working environment where I knew they would not overstep their boundaries.

Chanel bodysuit and belt. Alevi Milano shoes. Chopard jewelry. Photo: Lelanie Foster

Angela: Once you’re at peace with something, you can do it. Do you have a memory that you cherish from filming the movie?

I know for me, it was, I guess, the last day, when Tina actually showed up on set. She did my makeup in my trailer. And of course, the team keeps coming to the door knocking and knocking. “Is there anything we can do?” Just falling over themselves trying to do something for her, and she was like, “We got it. We got it. We’re fine.” She was from a time where she wore her own wigs and makeup, and costumes. She got herself stage-ready and would do four or five shows that evening. So she knows what hard work looks like and she’s no stranger to it.

Andra: For me, we were shooting the scene “Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” when she’s in that juke joint in Baltimore. I’m in a room of 500 castmates and my co-stars. We’re hands up praying and so excited. Lee told me, “You’re going to go into the crowd and you’re going to crowd surf.” The energy was just so amazing. For me, none of it was fake. We were having so much fun.

It was odd, at the end, I was standing there waiting to go into the back dressing room. People were funneling out, and some started to come up to me and pull out their phones and say, “Billie, we love you. Can we have your autograph?” And I’m in the zone, so I say, “Yes, of course.” And then I realized, I’m not Billie Holiday. I was so tapped in that I didn’t even realize when the cameras were no longer running.

Angela: I liked how earlier you mentioned that it’s about letting go, but it’s also about letting go to get into the character. For me, sometimes at the beginning of scenes, there would be maybe a head movement or something, or the way Tina laughed. Just that physicality would be like a grounding, as it were. What was it for you with Billie?

Andra: Once I was getting into it, I quickly became a Method actor. I would spend hours just doing the vocal runs, and the physicality of everything she did down to how she moved her eyebrows. Everything about her was scarily intoxicating, if that makes sense. I didn’t cuss before this movie, and now I’m cursing my ass off left and right. I don’t smoke, but I did start smoking cigarettes for this role.

Angela: Have you quit yet?

Andra: Okay, listen, yes, but I’m not going to lie to you because I can’t lie to you. I did have a cigarette about a week and a half ago, but before that, it had been like two months. It was necessary for me because it helped me get into the same frame of mind, since Billie Holiday was molasses slow. Ain’t nothing to worry about, she was never too pressed, so anytime I smoke, it just makes me feel like Billie — it slows me down. That and listening to her music helped me to stay in her, or be deeper into her, whenever I needed it.

Angela: I’m curious, what aspects of yourself did you come away thinking are close to Billie? For me, with Tina, her resilience, I think I possessed that. Her joy in life and seeing the best in others. And just loving work, loving people. What similarities do you feel with Billie?

Andra: You know what, it’s very interesting that you say that because mine are actually the same. And I think that has to do with the fact that we both are, and we played, amazing Black women. Black women, playing any character, you’re going to leave with resilience. I left with that fight. That unwillingness to give up even in the midst of the whole government coming after her for singing “Strange Fruit.” The abuse from men, the betrayal of white culture and the government, didn’t stop her.

The bravery is a big thing, the willingness. I deal so much with insecurity, with impostor syndrome, with unworthiness. As we’re sitting here right now, as I’m speaking to you right now, I have to fight the feeling of like, Why am I talking to Angela Bassett? I don’t know how to put it into words, but it’s like those more murmurings of doubt. Am I smart enough, am I worth enough? But I try to remember Billie also felt those things but she continued to show up. She showed up for people who treated her poorly, she showed up when she felt like she had nothing more to give.

Aliette feather gown. Chopard jewelry. Photo: Lelanie Foster

Angela: Absolutely. I gained a lot of strength portraying Tina as well, because I came out of there through that fire, knowing that I was strong and that I don’t ever quit.

Andra: I cannot quit even if I’m scared! I didn’t even watch the movie until a day before it came out on Hulu. I was so nervous and self-conscious. When I finally did, it was a range of emotions. I felt sadness. I felt anger. I felt fear. I felt joy. I felt peace. I felt discomfort. But more than anything, I fell in love with Lee and with my cast all over again. It made me want to watch it a hundred times just to relive those last days on set.

Angela: For me, it was the opposite! At the end of it, the last thing I had to do in the movie was the fight with Ike in the limo. And I felt like I was literally oppressed, just like, “You are not going to hit me one more time.” Afterwards, they sent me to a spa because I was so drained emotionally, physically, everything hurt. I broke up with my boyfriend. I had nothing for no one. It took months to get her out of my system because I just couldn’t turn it off.

Andra: It’s something most people will never understand! And now on the other side, after starring in this movie, it’s even harder for me to understand why Hollywood still doesn’t truly invest in Black women. I’m grateful for everything, but I’m not blind. How did you feel being nominated for an Oscar and then having the nerves around winning an award?

Angela: There were 62 years between Hattie McDaniel and Halle Berry winning Best Actress. But I’m so happy to see you and Viola in that category this year. And Francis McDormand, who was a classmate of mine in drama school. It is a wonderful sorority that we are all in, so welcome, sister.

Andra: Thank you. I feel so embraced. I’m not competing with anybody. We are sharing space. This whole idea that there is limited space for us, it is so unnatural. I look forward to the day that it is not a conversation anymore, that we simply see diversity in all this work because it represents life.

Angela: Exactly. So I know we want to stay in the moment, but just for a second, what is your next dream role or vision for your career?

Andra: Actually, I’m talking about something right now with Lee again, possibly. Whatever I do is through our community first and then out to the world. There are so many Black stories, and not enough roles for Black women. It’s about us and our resilience, and what we have had to face and overcome, and how we have supported and created so much culture. We need to tell these stories.

Andra Day and Angela Bassett on Black Joy and Resilience