What did Andra Day do to prepare for her title role as the star of "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," director Lee Daniels' gripping new film about the transcendent jazz and blues singer's soul-sapping battle against racism, addiction and relentless government persecution?
A more apt question would be: What didn't the three-time Grammy Award nominee do to prepare to play Holiday in this Paramount Pictures production, which begins streaming Friday on Hulu?
The role, which marks Day's film debut, has earned her growing Oscar buzz and a 2021 Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama. She threw herself into playing the famously gifted, troubled and tormented Holiday with so much focus and commitment, body and soul, that it seems as if Day's life depended on it, not just her budding acting career.
"This was incredibly difficult and the hardest thing I've had to do in my life," she said, speaking by phone recently from her Los Angeles home. "It was transformative."
For starters, this proud 2003 graduate of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts lost weight to play "Lady Day," as Holiday was affectionately called by fellow musicians. A lot of weight.
Through a special diet, an exercise regimen that focused on aikido, and periodic bouts of not eating — both before and during filming in 2019 — Day dropped from 163 to 124 pounds.
"I wanted to do it healthily," she noted. "But when it got closer to starting to film on set, there would be moments of starving myself. It's not something I recommend; it's not a healthy way to lose weight. But I was trying to get — this sounds gross — a period body, to show what Billie might have looked like when she was skinny and on drugs. It's not particularly a pretty sight. I tried to look gaunt and have my skin as loose as possible.
"Those details really mattered. I couldn't show up with a six-pack (body). On set, I was hungry — a lot."
After being cast as Holiday by Daniels, Day also began drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. And, also like the real-life Holiday, she began swearing. A lot. And she took an even deeper dive into the enduring art created by Holiday, Day's biggest and earliest singing influence, whose classics she performs and whose life she portrays throughout the film with a startling realism that is by turns poignant and horrifying.