The biographical drama from Lee Daniels, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, features a stand-out performance by Andra Day. This is the singer-songwriter’s first major film role and it earned her the Golden Globe for Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture, Drama. So Day was certainly the right choice for the film’s Billie Holiday, but it turns out Lee Daniels originally didn’t want her to audition.
Prior to the release of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Hulu aired A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels, Andra Day, Suzan Lori-Parks & Trevante Rhodes. Viewers were treated to a deep conversation around the story, preparation, and impact of the film depicting the life of Billie Holiday, moderated by Oprah herself, and also a great story about how Andra Day was cast in the titular role. Here is what director Lee Daniels shared about casting his lead:
[Andra Day’s] name had come up to me over and over again, by my agents, by her agents, and other friends, the casting director. I hate being told, as you know, Oprah, I hate being told what to do. So I didn’t see her. But I got in my car and I sat and talked to her, and I saw this vulnerable, very vulnerable woman that wanted to do Billie right. And she was talking herself out of the job, I’d never seen it before in my life, but she was talking herself out of the job. ‘Are you sure you want me to audition for this?’ and I couldn’t believe it - I’m talking her into auditioning and I don’t want her to audition. So I sent her to my best friend and acting coach, Tasha Smith, and my other best friend, Tom Jones, a vocal coach, and they punched her to the left and punched her to the right and threw her into the ring with me. And she came in to audition and it just was the birth of a soul. I had not witnessed anything like that before and so I knew that it was God speaking and I had to honor, and it was no question about it.
Wow, talk about a match made in Heaven! From not wanting her to audition to knowing the role was hers, no question about it, it sounds like Lee Daniels put Andra Day through the wringer to book this role and it paid off for both of them. Day put 110% into capturing the essence of Billie Holiday, from meeting with addicts to fully understand Holiday’s addictions to drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, and even studying the differences between Holiday’s sound when performing live versus spending time with friends in the studio. Check out this clip from the film: