As a member of the small number of people who have been able to transition from the stand-up comedy world into acting, Tone Bell has been one of Hollywood’s most promising stars for a long time. On top of his Can’t Cancel This Showtime special, you’ve probably seen him in Netflix’s Disjointed, Amazon’s Sylvie’s Love, or alongside Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, and Regina King in the hit film LITTLE. In his newest role as John Levy in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it’s safe to say that Bell has solidified himself as one of Hollywood’s most underrated and versatile actors.
Being recently released via Hulu, the Lee Daniels directed biopic focuses on Billie Holiday’s life as she was under federal investigation for her 1939 song Strange Fruit — one which shed light on the lynchings of African Americans. As Levy, Bell played a businessman who owned New York City’s Ebony Club — a place where Holiday (played by Golden Globe-winning actress Andra Day) frequented and often performed. Having a relationship closer than that of just a club owner and a performer, The United States vs. Billie Holiday showcased the complicated, intense, and tumultuous dynamic between the two.
Madame Noire got the chance to speak with Bell about his transition into acting, playing the role of Levy, and what it was like to work alongside Andra Day in their new film.
Madame Noire: You’re a part of a respected club of actors — such as Jamie Fox, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Mo’Nique — who have all been able to pivot from the stand-up comedy scene into the acting world, and succeed in dramatic roles. What has the transition from comedy into acting been like for you?
Tone Bell: Stand-up comedy is so uniquely gratifying. It can be a lonely scene at times — but it’s strangely addictive. It’s difficult to pull yourself away from it. A stage, a microphone, some lights, and a crowd is all a traditional comedian needs to be their own writer, producer, director, editor, and star. It’s not always easy developing your own “voice” as a comedian, but I enjoy the challenge.
That being said, my transition was fairly quick and abrupt. I started my comedy career in Dallas back in 2008. Years later — within a few weeks of moving to L.A. — I was able to book a couple of things and it honestly blew my mind. A few months after that, I landed a deal with NBC and again my mind was blown!
In less than a year, I was one of the leads on a network TV sitcom. It was a fast transition for me, but it was the first of many blessings in regards to my career. The talented and gifted people I have been able to work with and learn from have helped me tremendously along the way.
On that note, how did you land your role as John Levy in The United States vs. Billie Holiday? What drew you to it?
This is a true story — Lee Daniels called me on a Friday night back in October of 2019 and wanted to talk about the role. He didn’t offer it right away but he did say, “I loved your tape” — which had actually been sent to him for a different role months earlier. Then he said, “I want you to re-read the script and look at the role of John Levy and tell me if you can do it.” He wanted me to read it that night — but there was no way that was gonna happen. I told Lee, “I’ll read it first thing in the morning. I’m with the fellas, drunk, watching the game — but I’ll call you as soon as I read it.” He just laughed and said, “Oh my God, okay. Let me know if you can be John Levy.” I re-read the script the next morning, called Lee, and by Sunday I was on a flight to start filming.
I wanted to know what it was like to work on “a Lee Daniels set” because I knew it’d be challenging. Most of my work has been comedy-related, so having an opportunity to do something out of my comfort zone was appealing. The cast was incredible to work with and Suzan-Lori Parks wrote an amazing script. To be a part of a story like Billie Holiday’s was powerful and it’ll be around forever, much like her iconic song Strange Fruit.
Could you tell us about how you prepared for the role? Levy seemed to be a really complex character…
It was a process to prep for John Levy. Between talking to Lee and the other producers, I had to put myself into his shoes and be someone that was not favorable on screen. He’s the kind of guy that keeps a ledger — not a diary. He was a smooth-talking guy that was out for himself by any means necessary.
What I did not prepare for was having my a*s out fresh off the plane on day one of filming. I thought I was gonna have a few days — maybe a week — to mentally prepare for what my bare a*s was gonna look like on a big a*s movie screen. Or having to tell my family, “Y’all probably wanna watch this one when the kids go to bed.”
What did you find to be the best part of starring in the film? What was the most challenging?
There are so many best parts. Aside from getting really close to the cast and crew — and just making this wonderful film — I learned so much more about the life of Billie. Her history, her struggles — and how unintimidated she was as she continued fighting to end the plight of our people. The most challenging thing was the dressing room fight scene. That was a rough day on set. If you’ve seen the movie already — you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Grammy-nominated singer and now Golden Globe-winning actress Andra Day starred in the lead as Billie. How was it working alongside her for the film?
Andra is a force. She’s a great friend and a phenomenal woman! Some days were harder than others, but Andra’s smile always shined through. We instantly connected and she always made me feel appreciated. I was one of the last additions to the cast and sometimes that process can be awkward, but Andra welcomed me with open arms. That woman is special… so special that she just won a Golden Globe!
Overall, what would you say one of the biggest takeaways from the film is?
There are so many takeaways in a film like this, but Lee shined a light on Billie to show her as the spark of The Civil Rights Movement with her actions — and the controversy surrounding Strange Fruit.
To see Tone Bell in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, watch the trailer below and stream the movie via Hulu.