Director's Cut: Lee Daniels on Casting Andra Day as Billie Holiday

Director's Cut: Lee Daniels on Casting Andra Day as Billie Holiday

Director's Cut: Lee Daniels on Casting Andra Day as Billie Holiday

Andra Day stars as Billie Holiday and was nominated by Lee Daniels.

Andra Day stars as Billie Holiday and was nominated by Lee Daniels.

Photography: DANIEL DORRANCE

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

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She died young when her heart gave out at the age of 44, but Billie Holiday left behind a legend, that through her epic hardships burns bright as something hot and almost untouchable. Still, some brave artistic descendants have dared to invoke the tragedy of Holiday in their own work: that Jorja Smith calls her an influence is compatible with Smith’s unmistakable vocals, Holiday-like in her ability to be aloof yet beckoning, while unapologetically addressing racial injustice. The writer Zadie Smith, went so far as to write a story, published in The New Yorker in 2017, in Holiday’s first-person voice, suggesting that the truth of Holiday’s identity was slippery by nature: “Not only is there no more Eleanora, there isn’t any Billie, either. There is only Lady Day. Alligator bag, three rows of diamonds nice and thick on your wrist,” wrote Smith in “Crazy They Call Me.”

Director Lee Daniels is the latest artist to handle Holiday’s radioactive life story. While one may not envy the responsibility of portraying the singer’s outsize mythos, in his upcoming biopic, Daniels is certain that his Billie—R&B singer Andra Day—is up to the challenge. In addition to fatefully sharing part of Holiday’s nickname, Day is currently knee-deep in method-style preparations for the once-in-a-lifetime role. As Lee suggests here, there may be only one Lady Day, but then there’s Andra.

V: What made you pick Andra for the role of Billie Holiday?

LEE DANIELS: Andra, as a songstress [and as a person], understands and relates to Billie as a female black artist. She and Billie have an uncanny connection. The story of the way the government came for Billie is something that Andra understands—the injustices of what happened then, and also how it relates to what’s still happening in our society.

V: What was your first impression of Andra?

LD: My friend Simone suggested I meet with her. I met her at Soho House in L.A., and ended up spending two hours with her; it was a love-fest. She’s so smart, and her intelligence, wit, and her take on the script and on Billie herself impressed me so much. She is one of the greatest singers alive today, but besides that, it’s her awareness of what is going on culturally [and] in the world, and her desire to and ability to give back, that makes her [so special].

V: How would you describe Andra’s presence?

LD: Her presence is that of an inviting and warm connoisseur of arts, who also has a clear vision.

V: What does prep work look like for the film?

LD: Tons of rehearsals on scenes, and vocal coaches to nail the sound of Billie’s voice… [Andra has already proven to be] a perfectionist and a star.

LEE DANIELS’S UPCOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY FILM IS NOW IN PRODUCTION.

Credits: Concept artwork by production designer Daniel Dorrance for upcoming Billie Holiday film directed by Lee Daniels Photography (Andra Day) by Andre Wagner Photography (Backdrop) by John Vachen, colorized by Avi Katz (1943)

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