Andra Day earns a best actress nomination for ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

By Sarah Bahr

Not even an Oscar nomination could curtail Andra Day’s productivity. The Junk Jedis had arrived to clean out her garage, and, well, Monday was as good as any.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, as she hopped on a call to talk about her best actress nomination at the Academy Awards, while offering occasional direction to her garage-cleaning wizards. “I’ve still got a house to uphold and a family to take care of!”

Just a few months ago, the 36-year-old star was still a relative unknown as an actress — her starring turn as the iconic singer in the Lee Daniels-directed biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Hulu) was her first acting role in a major film. But she’s making a big impression: Last month, she became just the second Black woman to win best actress in a drama at the Golden Globes.

And now, she and Viola Davis are the first pair of Black nominees in the best actress category at the Academy Awards since 1973, when Diana Ross was nominated for “Lady Sings the Blues” (in the same role Day plays) and Cicely Tyson was up for “Sounder.”

In a conversation Monday, she discussed what it was like to hold her Golden Globe for the first time, what she wishes someone had told her before playing Billie Holiday, and how she finally kicked the cigarettes she began smoking for the role. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Where were you when you found out you were nominated?

A: I was sleeping on the sofa again. I fell asleep at like 4:46 a.m. I didn’t want to be awake for the announcement. But then I woke up around 8 or 8:30 and heard the news. It’s just a blessing. I say it all the time, but I’m so grateful to God for this.

Q: You probably saw this nomination coming. Did you react the way you expected to?

A: I expected to freak out and go crazy, but my reaction was really one of just peace.

Q: This was your first major film role. What do you wish someone had told you before you took it?

A: I don’t know what they could’ve told me, because I don’t know if I would’ve listened. Someone could’ve said, “Don’t smoke cigarettes” or “Make sure you take care of your body,” but if I felt it would improve my performance, or if I felt like that was what I needed to do, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

Q: Was it hard to stop smoking?

A: It got to be a little scary — what I thought was just going to be maybe five or six months of smoking turned into a year and a half with all the pickups we had to shoot. I couldn’t leave that head space because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to drop back in. I’ve quit now — though I did smoke on a photo shoot the other day — and I just put my trust in God to bring me through. Just being gentle with myself and allowing myself to go through the emotions.

Q: What was it like to hold your Golden Globe for the first time?

A: It was heavy as hell. I actually have a video of when my manager brought it over, and I was just like, “Whoa, this is really heavy, and it’s golden, and it’s a globe.” Now it’s sitting in my house affirming, “I’m yours,” and it’s amazing.

Q: This is only the second time in nearly 50 years that two Black actresses have been nominated in the category in the same year. What’s the significance for you?

A: It’s an honor even being mentioned in the same breath as Viola. But it’s a little bittersweet because it’s the first time two Black women have been nominated in this category since 1973. Black women have been made to feel mostly inadequate, when it’s clear there have been performances that are worthy. I’m looking forward to the time when it’s not a conversation anymore — when it’s not “Wow, this is the first time two Black women have done this!” — but it’s just a normal idea that you could have two Black female faces there. It shouldn’t be an uncomfortable idea that it could be all Black women being represented in this space.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m releasing an album on June 4. That’s what I do for a living, though this too, now, I guess. And I’m going to do more stuff with Lee Daniels as well — we’ve started developing some ideas we want to co-write, co-direct and co-produce. I want to get more Black stories out there.

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