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'A lesson in authenticity:' Andra Day reflects on the experience of playing Billie Holiday


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Amna Nawaz: A new film takes on the life of Lady Day, the great Billie Holiday.

And the woman playing her, Andra Day, is winning rave reviews of her own, including a best actress nomination at the upcoming Oscars.

Jeffrey Brown is here now with that story for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," we see the legendary jazz singer in her final years, captivating audiences with her way with a song, hounded by FBI agents obsessed with bringing her down.

Garrett Hedlund: Hoover says it's un-American. You have heard those lyrics. They provoke people in the wrong way.

Jeffrey Brown: There's relentless racism, abuse by men, alcohol and drug addiction, but also: a towering magnetism, resilience and artistic brilliance.

It was a big, important life, making it all the more remarkable that, for 36-year-old Andra Day, this was an acting debut.

Andra Day: It was hard as hell.


Andra Day: Like, it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. But it changed me in an amazing way. It was fun. I loved every moment of this. Even the worst moments, even the most painful moments, it was a lesson in filmmaking. It was a lesson in making art, a lesson in authenticity and bravery.

Jeffrey Brown: Until now, Day was herself best known as a singer. Her hit song "Rise Up" became a kind of anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

She grew up in San Diego and attended its School of Creative and Performing Arts, a public arts magnet school, where a teacher suggested she listen to recordings of Billie Holiday.

Andra Day: I just remember being confused, actually, first by her voice. It was so different. She sounds nothing like Whitney Houston or Gladys Knight or Patti LaBelle or Aretha or James. I could not take my ears off of what it was I was listening to in her voice.

Jeffrey Brown: What did you hear in the way that she made a song come alive?

Andra Day: It was emotion. It was truth. Her songs were rooted in truth, in her experience, in how she perceived things and how she felt, and what was right at the time.

And she sort of sung and spoke about all the things that women or people thought about, but didn't necessarily say. So, that's what I think makes her music so powerful. It's very raw, very emotional, very vulnerable, and taboo, a lot of the songs, as well.

Leslie Jordan: What is the government's problem with Billie Holiday?

Andra Day: My song "Strange Fruit," it reminds them that they're killing us.

Jeffrey Brown: The film, a fictionalized account based on real events, was directed by Lee Daniels, with a script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.

It centers on the most powerful and taboo song of all, "Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol, a songwriter and activist, and first recorded by Holiday in 1939. It was inspired by a photograph of a lynching, the strange fruit of the title.

Holiday made it her own anti-racist anthem, an especially brave act when Jim Crow laws still flourished and the civil rights movement was yet to gain strength.

Andra Day: People ask me, what are the parallels between myself and Billie Holiday?

And the reality is, we're both -- I'm a Black woman living in America. There's a sort of inherent feeling or sense of almost invisibility and fight and resilience that comes with that. And that stems from really great leaders like her.

Jeffrey Brown: Holiday's story has been told before, of course. The 1972 film "Lady Sings the Blues" starred another famous singer making her acting debut, Diana Ross.

More recently, Audra McDonald played Holiday on Broadway in "Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Did you decide to play against them? How did you feel about taking on that kind of role that they have taken?

Andra Day: I saw "Lady Sings the Blues" like 50 gajillion times, because it's one of my favorite movies.

It wasn't against the two of them. It was actually a blending. It was Billie Holiday at the center. And then it was, what was amazing about Diana's performance, what was amazing about Audra McDonald's performance, and let me extract those elements, couple them with Billie and couple them with myself.

My performance, I believe, truly is an amalgamation of myself, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross and Audra McDonald. And that was the goal, because they were brilliant.

Jeffrey Brown: And Day went further still, taking up smoking and drinking to force her body to feel what Holiday's was experiencing.

Andra Day: Well, I'll put it to you like this. It was very unhealthy for my body. It was healthy for my spirit, you know?

She's very different from me in that regard, but I felt like I had to earn it. I had to feel it in my body. I also felt like the gravel in Billie Holiday's voice, the sound and the tone is something that woman earned over years of her life.

I had to figure out how to earn it in a very short period of time and to feel where it all came from. And it helped to slow me down, because I'm fast, and I'm do all this. And Billie Holiday is like easy.

Man: And the Golden Globe goes to Andra Day.


Jeffrey Brown: In February, Andra Day won a Golden Globe. Now she's up for an Academy Award, cementing one final personal connection, her name.

It's a stage name she gave herself long ago, in homage to the woman known as Lady Day, Billie Holiday herself.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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