Lee Daniels has revealed that his upcoming film The United States vs. Billie Holiday was the first movie he ever made while not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The 61-year-old director and producer opened up about creating for the camera while totally sober in a wide-ranging interview with The Hollywood Reporter that was published Friday.
Daniels’ attempts to work without substances began more than a decade ago in 2009, after he directed his Oscar-nominated film Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire.
Getting serious: Lee Daniels, 61, revealed that his new film The United States vs. Billie Holiday was the first he directed while free of drugs and alcohol in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published Friday; seen in 2019 in NYC
He continued drinking though, and it wasn’t until four years ago in the midst of running his hit Fox series Empire that he also gave up drinking.
‘This is my first film sober,’ Daniels said via Zoom.
‘You can’t anesthetize,’ he continues, referring to his sobriety. ‘A glass of vodka is a nice cover, a blanket, a fur coat on you to take away all the insecurities that you have, to take away all of the nervousness, the fear. Sober, you’re naked and you’re doing your work.’
Daniels’ sobriety made him fear he wouldn’t be up to snuff when he returned to making movies.
‘I didn’t want to direct sober,’ he continued. ‘I was scared. I didn’t know whether I could direct without at least a little liquor in me.’
Security: ‘A glass of vodka is a nice cover, a blanket, a fur coat on you to take away all the insecurities that you have, to take away all of the nervousness, the fear. Sober, you’re naked and you’re doing your work,’ he said; still from The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Fear: ‘I didn’t want to direct sober,’ he continued. ‘I was scared. I didn’t know whether I could direct without at least a little liquor in me’; Daniels with Andra Day on the set of The United States vs. Billie Holiday
The United States vs. Billie Holiday isn’t due out on Hulu for another two weeks, but it has already been generating Oscar buzz for its star, Andra Day, who also received a Golden Globe nomination.
She plays the legendary singer of the title, whose gritty voice became one of the most recognizable in jazz.
Although she made numerous classic recordings and worked with many jazz greats, she’s best remembered for her anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit.
Daniels’ own struggle with drugs may have helped inform his film about Holiday, who struggled with drug and alcohol use throughout her life and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959, when she was only 44 years old.
‘When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of this brilliant, tortured jazz singer that happened to have been a drug addict,’ Daniels said. ‘Before there was a civil rights movement, there was Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit. The government saw that song as a threat, and she was a target.’
Tragic tale: Daniels’ new film follows the struggles of Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer whose voice and life were devastated by drugs and alcohol; still from The United States vs. Billie Holiday
In addition to his latest film, Daniels has also been producing a slew of upcoming projects.
He produced the Idris Elba film Concrete Cowboy for Netflix, which is due later this year, and his television company is producing multiple shows for Disney.
Among them is a miniseries about Sammy Davis Jr. slated for Hulu and a series remake of The Spook Who Sat By The Door, which is about the first Black spy to work for the CIA.
For ABC, Daniels is making an adaptation of Waiting To Exhale, as well as a reboot of The Wonder Years with a Black cast.
He’s considering other remakes featuring Black casts for either The Exorcist or Terms Of Endearment.
‘I also really want to do a superhero film,’ Daniels said. ‘What is a Lee Daniels superhero movie? What does that look like? It looks like a very grounded, real, situational superhero, whether it’s three Black girls, a gay boy, a gender-fluid superhero.’
Controversy: Daniels said it was ‘time to move on’ from his hit series Empire. The show was wrapped in controversy after star Jussie Smollett allegedly faked a hate-crime assault against himself; Smollett (L) seen with Daniels in 2017 in NYC
As for his series Empire, Daniels confirmed that a spin-off series starring Taraji P. Henson wouldn’t be moving to series, which was first reported in December by Variety.
‘It’s time to move on,’ he said. ‘We did it with Empire. We did it. We did it. We did it. A lot of things are happening because of Empire.
‘We forget that it changed the way the white world looked at Black people,’ he claimed. ‘People say they want the next Empire. Well, there’s never going to be another Empire.’
The series fell into turmoil late in its run, when Jussie Smollett, who played the gay son of Cookie Lyon (Henson) and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) was indicted for allegedly setting up a fake assault against himself, which was meant to look like a hate crime.
Difficult days: ‘It was very painful,’ Daniels said of the controversy without mentioning if he still talks to Smollett. ‘It’s still a very painful situation to even talk about now, because I love him. For me, it’s unresolved’; still from Empire
Daniels instantly expressed his support for Smollett when the assault was first reported, but he had a more ambivalent for New York Magazine in 2019 after police claimed the attack was staged.
‘I can’t judge him. That’s only for the f***ing lady or man with that black robe and God,’ he said.
In his newest interview, the director declined to say whether he still kept in touch with Smollett.
‘It was very painful,’ he said of the controversy. ‘It’s still a very painful situation to even talk about now, because I love him. For me, it’s unresolved.’
Reexamined: Daniels is working on numerous TV shows, including a Black reboot of The Wonder Years and possible remakes of The Exorcist and Terms Of Endearment with Black casts; seen in 2019 in NYC