Interview: Tone Bell on His Role as John Levy, in Lee Daniels’, ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ How He Got His Start in Acting and Comedy, ‘Sylvie’s Love,’ Isolation, His Relationship Status, and So Much More
Tone Bell, comedian, actor, writer, and producer who is best known for his Showtime stand-up special Can’t Cancel This and his role on Netflix’s original series Disjointed, sat down with Glitter Magazine to discuss his role in the newly released biographical drama film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a Hulu Original, written, directed, and produced by Lee Daniels and starring Grammy-nominated singer and actress Andra Day.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is based on Johann Hari’s 2015 book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, and chronicles the singer’s struggles with addiction, the racism she encountered, as well as the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to silence her activist efforts through her music.
Holiday’s career is haunted by relentless harassment by the Federal Department of Narcotics as they target her with an undercover sting led by federal agent Jimmy Fletcher, played by Trevante Rhodes, with whom she had an affair. The film takes place in 1940s New York City as the federal government targets Holiday in a growing effort to “escalate and racialize the war on drugs,” with an agenda to stop her from singing her controversial and soulful ballad, “Strange Fruit.” Tone Bell plays the role of John Levy, an abusive nightclub owner that engages with Holiday played by Andra Day.
Other notable cast members include Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher, Tyler James Williams as Lester Young, and Rob Morgan as Louis McKay.
Tone most recently co-starred as Dickie Brewster in Amazon Prime Studio’s Sylvie’s Love and appeared on BET’s American Soul as Richard Pryor. His recent films include Little, starring Issa Rae, Regina Hall, and Marsai Martin produced by Will Packer, and Dog Days starring Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Rob Corddry, and Adam Pally.
Read on to learn more about Tone’s portrayal of John Levy, working with Andra Day and Lee Daniels, how he got his start in acting and comedy, what he’s been up to on isolation, his relationship status, his amazing career, and the long time friends he collaborates with along the way. You can also watch the full interview below or on Glitter Magazine’s YouTube channel.
GLITTER: How did you get your start in comedy?
TONE: Actually, it’s ironic I’m wearing this sweatshirt (Savannah State). I used to book comedy shows when I was in college. So before I ever started, I was just a fan of it. I met some comedians, and I started booking college shows and stuff. Then in 2008, I was like, “I think I’m taking my crack at it. I love it.” I started in Dallas and then eventually moved out to L.A.
GLITTER: Who are some of your inspirations in comedy?
TONE: Oh, man. Oh, man. Patrice O’Neal. Bill Burr. Chappelle, Eddie, Kevin. I mean, everybody has like a little something. Pryor; you’ve got to say Pryor. Cosby; just being a storyteller. I love a good storyteller. I can’t take that away from him. But that was my thing. I love telling stories. Even more than telling jokes, I love to tell a story.
GLITTER: Those are all great ones. How did Can’t Cancel This come about with Showtime?
TONE: I was working on my first hour, had done a half-hour special with Comedy Central, and I’m one of those comics like, once I do it on TV, I don’t do that joke anymore. You’ve got to go catch that where it was. So it was touring and trying to get this new hour and like, what’s my angle? How do I feel about the world and myself, and how do I introduce myself? Most people knew me for sitcoms before. So it was more “What’s a good introduction to me; what’s something funny?” We make the joke a lot like, “I’ve been in a lot of canceled one-season sitcoms.” So, it was like, this is something you can’t cancel. We had some offers from other places, and we worked with a company, and we got exactly what we wanted out of it. The dope part is, everybody I kind of started with that I came up with, worked on the project. One of my boys, he’s a stylist, he dressed me. One of them is a photographer; he shot it. He did all the still photos and a cover photo. My boy who’s been on the road with me for like five, six years, he warmed up the show. So Omar Dorsey is the voice you hear to introduce me from Queen Sugar. Like everybody, all my homies came through, and everybody had a hand in it.
GLITTER: You successfully crossed over from comedy to acting. Did you always have this interest?
TONE: Yeah, yeah, I’ve been in theater groups and doing stuff since I was in high school, and I was on this PBS show when I was like 12, called Kids Barn. I always had the knack for it. I kind of gave it up because, honestly, it was a reality show, boom. I was like, “Oh, man; TV’s not going to be what it used to [be].” I was and still am a huge Will “Smithaholic.” I’m a big fan of Will since, like Fresh Prince. I was like, I’m going to do that. I’m going to do a sitcom. So luckily, I’ve had the opportunity. But yeah, comedy is something nobody can take away from you because it’s like an independent team sport.
GLITTER: Do you like dramatic acting or comedy more?
TONE: People ask this all the time; comedy.
GLITTER: Do you love comedic acting or standup more?
TONE: Standup. I would say that everything has to work together for it to be great. The crowd has to be into it; you got to be on, you know, the lights, the sound, everything. It doesn’t have to be anything special but just being in a club and seeing if my thoughts can make you laugh. Like, you go home happy. The nights that it doesn’t go well, you go home, like, I’ve got to fix that. So it’s such a cathartic thing. I think most standups would say that too.
GLITTER: Tell us about your role on BET’s American Soul as Richard Pryor.
TONE: All right, I mean, you’ve got to have some feeling with this, don’t be just putting this all on me. (laughing)
GLITTER: (laughing) Sorry, You have the big roles; so I have to ask.
TONE: I got a phone call from a friend who was behind the scenes and was like, “Hey, would you do this?” I was like, “Who else turned this down?” You’ve got to know what the role is, because if you’re going to do Richard Pryor, it’s like, I want some time. Do I think I could, you know, pull it off? So when I got the call, I was like, “Oh, shoot, we’ve been talking about this movie for years,” and this came up, and some friends that I had over a while we’re like, “Yo, we’ll send you a script, read it.” I jumped into it quickly. I didn’t have that long to prepare for it because I was also shooting The United States vs. Billie Holiday at the same time. So luckily, I was already shaven, and I kind of had the mustache look already. You got to see yourself in that look. Also, I needed to know how much “Richard” this is. Luckily it wasn’t about his life. This was about Richard Pryor being a host of Soul Train. So to me, this is not as deep, dark and biopic. So I was like, “Yes, I will definitely do that.” So that was a lot of fun, man. Everybody, the whole cast is amazing.
GLITTER: You appeared in Little, along with Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, and Regina Hall. Can you tell us some of the highlights from the project?
TONE: It was so fun. I’ve known Marsai since they started Black-ish; like I was with Kenya Barris when he got the phone call that Black-ish got picked up. It was wild. So watching them grow up and kind of be around and then see this happen was like, “Hell yeah, I want to be a part of this.” I love Tina Gordon; she is amazing. The director, Will Packer, I’ve known Will for years. So it was nice. It was a nice project. I mean, Regina and I had a project back in the day; it didn’t move forward. But I mean, just everybody, Issa has always been dope and watching Marsai being like a boss behind and in front of the camera was dope to watch. She might have been 13, 14, then. It was so dope to watch her grow up in front of the camera. Amazing, amazing, she was so fun and funny. I wish they would release a lot of the bloopers, and I’m sure people haven’t seen a lot of bloopers, but it’s super funny.
GLITTER: Can you tell me about your role as Dickie Brewster in Sylvia’s Love?
TONE: Yeah, Eugene Ashe directed that and of course, Nnamdi and Tessa starred in it. It was cool to go back to that era. It was a fictional piece, but it was a nice love story. I’m glad I ain’t have to sing. (laughing) I’m glad it was that era, so I didn’t have to sing. I do not sing. If you ever see me singing in something that is not my voice. (laughing)
GLITTER: Just belt it out! (laughing).
TONE: Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. I was like, “Is it singing?” So they put me through all these piano lessons. So some of the notes I actually played. I don’t really play an instrument either. The wardrobe was beautiful; the layered wool and the women’s dresses and the hair. I mean, it all came together. First of all, I ain’t seen myself without a beard in like ten years, so that sh*t threw me off. When I got the role, I was like, “Y’all sure? Because I don’t know what I look like either under this, I’ve been wearing this face sweater for a long time; are ya’ll sure you want to do this?” So it came together, man; when people just want to work together and get something done. There’s a lot of familiar faces in it too. I mean we saw Regé-Jean blew up off of this, you know, Bridgerton and everything. That’s my dude right there, man. It was such a fun cast. A little bit of every movie gets thrown on the cutting room floor. So, I mean, there are some scenes that people didn’t see, some extra stuff that popped in and I didn’t know. I was like, “That’s in there?” It was amazing. Especially for just like Black love; just like a nice story without all the negative stereotypes and the tropes that we’re used to seeing when it comes to a lot of films that are Black-led. This was just different. It’s a beautiful story about two people.
GLITTER: What did you enjoy the most about working with the cast?
TONE: Probably the quartet, Nnamdi, Courtney, Regé, like all of them. It was like we were a real band. Practicing and playing in studios; it was like we were a band for real. We’re backstage yelling at each other and sh*it. It was a lot of fun. I think my favorite day on set was the day we had to do… I think it was our first day on set if I’m not mistaken.; well, it was my first day on set. We had to do a quartet photo like looking off to the side like a black and white joint for the concert. (laughing) That was my favorite. You know, you always see that sh*t back in the day, it’s always like this. (turns his face to a side profile)
GLITTER: (laughing) Yeah. Like the esthetic.
GLITTER: Are you a big jazz fan at all?
TONE: I’m more of a funk fan, to be honest with you. I’ve got plenty of Miles albums. Even right before this, it was cool because I started collecting vinyl. So I was listening to a lot of stuff already. It just makes you appreciate the music a little more, especially how talented Nnamdi [is] he learned the saxophone for this. He spent two years learning the sax. Courtney’s a professional bass player and Regé-Jean had to learn drums. I had to learn how to tickle those keys. It will definitely make you appreciate what was going on in the era.
GLITTER: Can you tell us about your character, John Levy, in The United States vs. Billie Holiday?
TONE: Let me just give a shout-out to Lee Daniels and Andra Day. I can’t wait for you all to see this if you haven’t seen it yet; she puts her foot in it. Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a beautiful piece, and Lee directed the hell out of it. Yeah, it was a different character than I’ve ever played. Even Dickie Brewster from Sylvie’s Love is…he teetered on that line that I’m not used to. I usually play like the perfect guy and parents want to meet him and, you know, he’s great. Dickie was a step up, and John is a little different. So it was Lee trusting me with it, and actually, he’s told the story already. So I’ll tell it; I wasn’t originally cast as John. I had to replace someone. It wasn’t because he wasn’t talented. He was a talented brother. It just was like, “I need this look.” He called me in, and I was actually… so here’s a true story, I was actually drunk at a bar. Lee called me, and it was like a Friday night or something. He was like, “Hey, Tone, I want you to take a look at this.” I was like, “Lee; I am hammered right now. I’m watching basketball. I’m with my boys, so I’ll call you in the morning.” He was like, “What?” One of my boys was like, “Who was that?” I was like, “That’s Lee Daniels asking me to read a script right now at ten-thirty at night. It’s too late for that.” So I woke up; I was like, “Lee, I’m going to read it first thing in the morning, and then I’ll call you back.” Then, of course, I accepted it. I read it, and I was like, it’s something I’ve never done. These are those moments where you choose as an actor, whether you want to accelerate or you pump the brakes, and I was like, “Let’s go, man.” I’m guessing you’ve seen it?
GLITTER: I can’t believe you’re the same person, because the fact that you can go into such an intense character and also be a comedian is absolutely amazing. So, yes, I’ve seen it.
TONE: It was a dark week. Not to give anything away, but yeah… I got off the plane and had to do the intro scene when you meet my character, kind of the first couple of things, you see. So that was different; not knowing I was going to have to wear nothing. Do you know what I mean? It was one of those…I’ve been in intimate scenes before, but nothing like this. It’s Lee Daniels, so we’re going there. So, yeah, it was different, and then, the other scenes you’re talking about, it was a dark time. I don’t want to say too much; one of the last moments where we kind of get into it, there was a scuffle. I’ll say maybe a little more than a scuffle and what made it in is a moment that went wrong, but went right for the film. Well, you know what I mean.
GLITTER: I don’t want to give it away, but…
TONE: I don’t want to give it away either. If it looked real, it was because it was real. So, I sent Andra flowers after that, I was like, “I’m so sorry.” I was like, “Oh my bad.” It was like…”.
GLITTER: “I didn’t mean it.”
TONE: “…I didn’t mean it.” Now we are super tight because of it, I mean, you don’t go through something like that…we had some moments. It was hard too because they’d already been shooting for like three weeks. So to come in and be this guy, kind of worked. I was meeting everybody when they met me. That was actually the first thing we shot when John and Billy meet. So, we were really being introduced to each other. Then we go to this, you know, hard-core, but, trust me, it’s different watching it. I mean, knowing like comedy is my number one, and I mean, as soon as we break it and I know I don’t have anything to do for two hours. I’m cracking on Lee, I’m cracking on the producers, and I’m giving Andra sh*t, and Tyler sh*t. Then, you know, so we get back into it. It’s like give me 15 minutes, let’s get back to this place. I mean, it’s uncomfortable, but it should be uncomfortable.
GLITTER: How did you prepare for the 1940s setting?
TONE: To me, it’s all about the shoes. I know that sounds kind of crazy sometimes when I tell people that. Shoes were made different back then, and when you step into those shoes, and it makes you walk differently, it makes you feel… you get the clean shave, you get the hair. But something about wearing the clothes and the garb, like those shoes and how this dude is going to walk; just kind of makes you powerful because I think it grounds you in and pulls it out of you. Everything was so authentic. You know, sock garters, it makes you put your hands in your pockets different, it makes you reach in your coat pocket different, just that feel, that weight of those clothes back then and just how stiff those shoes are and talking to Lee and doing my research and watching playbacks of what they’ve already been doing. I mean, Miss Lawrence, amazing; Da’Vine, amazing; Trevante, so good. Blake DeLong, Evan, so good and we got Rob Morgan. We all got so tight, because, we hang out afterwards a little bit, and then, we’d be on set the next morning, and we really became a family on the set. As dark as it’s going to be, we had a ball making it.
GLITTER: Did you know the complete story of Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit” before taking the role?
TONE: I heard the song. In the ‘90s, for the first time, I thought it was beautiful. Then, I heard it in college a couple of times, and remixes started coming out. I think probably early, the mid-2000s, when, like, the lyrics broke themselves down to me. Sometimes you hear that cold-ass beat, and you go, man, these lyrics don’t even make it through. Then you start hearing them and then the visual. I think, as I said, you’ve seen this, so the visual that Lee and Suzan-Lori Parks give us with this is going to define the song in a different way for a lot of people who never really thought about it.
GLITTER: What was it like for you working with Andra Day?
TONE: Yes, she’s so great; I mean, other than our stunt malfunctions because we did our stunts together. They had people there, but we were like, we’re just going to do them. It was great like she’s so warm; like she’s great. I mean, I’ve seen her plenty of times afterwards. I think we wrapped like late 2019: that’s when we wrapped the project. I’ve seen her in between. I mean, of course, not so much in 2020 as I probably would have. If I got a show, she’d stop by, we’ll hop on the phone. As a comic and I can’t go anywhere, she used to FaceTime me. She’ll either FaceTime me like we’ll hop online, like the family that would be at her crib. I would just do my new jokes in front of her family, sitting around the table, around the kitchen island. So, I’m like “Yo’ I ain’t got no audience.” She was like, “Well, there’s nine of us over here. You want to rip these jokes off?” I was like, “Girl, let me get my notebook.” I was like, “This is new, but I’m going to run this past ya’ll.” So they gave me an audience. I mean, I love that girl. She also gave me a bistro set. I was moving; I moved in September. She was like, “Hey bro; I’m going to bring you this bistro set.” I was like, “I need a bistro set.” (laughing) She’s so talented. I mean, to even understand that this is her first acting role. Bodies it, bodies it, bodies it.
GLITTER: Why is it important to you that Black stories such as this one get told on the big screen?
TONE: We’ve heard this, I guess, more recently, the last couple of years now, but now people are taking hold of it, they’re actually thinking about it, but the Black history that we hear is—the all-star team. We get a lot of Black history that served to us, and we don’t get a chance to go out and or we don’t take the opportunity to research it ourselves. So I think films like this, I mean, between The United States vs. Billie Holiday from Judas and the Black Messiah, to Sylvie’s Love, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Fences. Between the writer, the producers, the figures themselves, you really have to give them credit for everything they did. I mean, there would be no Kanye without Billie Holiday. There wouldn’t be any Beyoncé without Billie Holiday. To be able to speak that freedom and then get your just due from it wouldn’t even be possible without this. So I think it’s really important that people understand that this might be a good movie, but this sh*t happened. Never take advantage, or for granted, the liberties, even though they are not where they should be, the liberties that we do have now because of people like this, I mean, like Billie put her foot in a lot of stuff and took a lot of sh*t. So, I mean, you and I are able to do this.
GLITTER: What changes do you hope to see in the industry after the Black Lives Matter movement’s progress?
TONE: Such a hard question. One is just understanding; I think understanding. The crazy part, I mean, it may not just even be in entertainment, because I worked in corporate as well; but you want peace, you don’t want violence. Let’s talk about it; own it. I think accountability is the word of the year already. Just being accountable for it, because I’m sick of this whole, “I’m listening now,” like I’m sick of that sh*t. Like just don’t be an as**hole. Change the cards. You can change it. Like, start now, start now. I was on the road.
I actually did a couple of out-of-town dates in December. The weekend after Sylvie’s Love came out. It was crazy telling people about it and, you know, most of the audience is like, “Oh, man, we’ve seen it already, we came to see you, and we can’t believe you’re the same dude,” and all that kind of stuff. Then I remember having to go to a lot of white audience members who had not seen it, and I’m like, “Are you nervous?” I started asking, “Were you nervous to watch it?” I said, “This ain’t one of the movies that are going to make you feel bad, but also even the ones you think make you feel bad, learn something that a lot of us are just learning for the first time too.” You know, I mean? We’ve seen Lady Sings the Blues, and we know who Billie Holiday is, but that history and the struggle, we don’t know. So just take a step back and realize this ain’t about the past all the time. Let’s correct our future with this too, opportunities are what we want. I don’t want to feel like a number, “You know what, we can stick two Black people in here.” You don’t want that. Let the talent speak for itself and not always have to, like, draw straws at it. Where’s a conclusion? Like, “They’re great. They’re great.” But I mean, we should have had a Black James Bond a long time ago.
GLITTER: Yes, we’re due for that. Well overdue. (laughing)
TONE: You know what I mean? How excited people are to see… What’s the name of the show on Netflix, Lupin, because he’s a Black spy? You like, “See, we told you it was possible.” (sighs) It infuriates us when we know it works, we know we’re the best. Like you can’t put us on a level playing field, we’re taking off. So you got the Will Packards, the Tyler Perrys, the Lee Daniels, the countless other Black directors and decision-makers and tastemakers in Hollywood that are, once again, putting it on the line so that we have a voice. It is important for us to keep going; but if we don’t start working together, man, all of this sh*t is going to crumble anyway.
GLITTER: Can you tell me what a day was like in social isolation for you?
TONE: A day in total isolation? Amazing.
TONE: (laughing) Do you mean the first part of quarantine type sh*t?
GLITTER: First month.
TONE: Needed it. Outside of all the bad stuff that was happening, taking three to four weeks off was amazing. I ain’t got to go to the airport. I ain’t got a pack. I ain’t got to run out to comedy clubs all over the city six nights a week. I ain’t got lines to learn right now. I ain’t got to be on set from 6 AM to 6 PM. This is a blissful event. I’m not saying I hate it because I do love it, but it was nice to sit down for a second. It was real nice to sit down for a second. Of course, that’s what we all thought was going to be like two weeks. Right, but that first month I loved it. I’ was just cooking meals and doing puzzles and reading books and going skating and taking walks and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I loved it. It was nice to bring it down a notch and just settle.
GLITTER: How did you handle working with a pandemic going on?
TONE: What do you mean? What working? I wasn’t working? (smiling) I was working on myself. You know, I was getting my inner child together. Discovering me, you know, my love life that doesn’t exist. (smiling)
GLITTER: Love yourself!
TONE: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing this year, self-love. It was nice. I mean, I got a chance to, like, just really sit back and just kind of work on me; writing, of course, writing and finding hobbies and stuff because like, I’ve been so busy the last couple of years that I really haven’t taken time for myself. When I come home for two or three days, I can come home and do nothing. So it was nice for 30 days not to do anything. It was cathartic and just a chance to slow your brain down because you’re always going, wake up, drink a cup of coffee. You got to meet, and you got to write this.; you’ve got to write that. So I started developing a couple of films and got a chance to take my time with it versus, like I said, having to go to the airport every other day.
GLITTER: What can we expect next from you?
TONE: The comedy album is coming out soon. Until I can shoot something new because we had to do some audio, so hopefully, by then, by late summer, early fall, I’ll be shooting another hour. Hopefully, Can’t Cancel This Either or Can’t Cancel This Two something like that. Like how Lil Wayne did it like Can’t Cancel This Volume II or something like that. We got a couple of films in the pipeline, a new show, selling some stuff, and I’ll be touring again. So that’s what I got coming up next. I do make an appearance on A Black Lady Sketch Show this year, so I’ll be on season two.
GLITTER: Well, thank you so much for taking the time out. I really enjoyed speaking with you today.
TONE: Well, your light is beautiful. You look great. I like the flowers. You got the Glitter [signage] in the background, and you got a nice color scheme going on. I like it. I like it. Don’t change anything. (laughing)
GLITTER: Thank you. I noticed [your sweatshirt]. Are you from Georgia?
TONE: I went to Savannah State. I graduated from Savannah State. Yeah, but I’m from Atlanta, originally from the East Coast. Yeah.
GLITTER: Well, thank you. It was nice to hear from you.
TONE: Follow both of us on Instagram.
GLITTER: Oh, of course. Yeah.
TONE: Mine is @ToneBell. What’s yours?
GLITTER: Mine’s @ZoeFowler28.
TONE: There you go. Well, follow us and watch the movie on February 26 on Hulu.