First Look: Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in biopic 'Miles Ahead'
Actor Don Cheadle’s obsession with Miles Davis began as a child with the jazz trumpeter’s album Porgy and Bess, a beloved staple of his family’s music collection. Now, Cheadle will make his feature film directorial debut with a crowdfunded biopic on Davis that will focus on the musician’s transition into music after a five-year hiatus—otherwise known as his “silent period”—and tumultuous relationship with first wife Frances Taylor Davis.
In an EW exclusive of the actor in character, Cheadle gave fans a first look at his interpretation of the icon during in the period leading up to his 1969 jazz-rock fusion recording In a Silent Way. “It’s surreal,” says the 49-year-old House of Lies actor, who in the photograph totes a trumpet and sports Davis’ trademark jheri-curled mullet.
The biopic—which will co-star Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg and Emayatzy Corinealdi—begins shooting this week in Cincinnati after being in development for nearly a decade. Cheadle spoke to EW about the independent film—which he co-wrote—and shared details about how he was approached by the Davis family to profile the prodigious talent, why he turned to jazz heads to crowdsource funding, and explained why he’s set on making a movie that Davis himself “would want to star in.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to finally begin production on Miles Ahead—to be in costume and begin this process?
DON CHEADLE: It’s a great shot; it’s kinda cool, huh? I attribute that to my department to more than anything I’m doing: That’s hair, makeup, wardrobe, and props. But it’s cool to be sitting on it and have it all begin. At this point, with everything that’s happening, its real and surreal and hyperreal and every version of it that I can think of.
There’s a sense you’ve been working on this for a while. Tell me about your exposure to Miles Davis—was he someone you were exposed to at a young age?
His music was definitely a part of my life very early on, thanks to my parents. And I was fortunate when I was young to have music teachers in school that also introduced us to jazz in general. I was maybe 10, in fifth grade, when I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the sax at a school which had instruments because we couldn’t afford one. So I started playing sax, and was really a fan of Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderly. And through Cannonball I found Miles.
Do you remember maybe one album around the house or a song that impacted you most as a kid? My dad’s favorite album was Birth of the Cool—that was always playing in our house as I was growing up.
I remember the Porgy and Bess album by Gil Evans and Miles Davis that was in my house. Man, that album cover was so iconic. His picture isn’t on the cover—it’s just a man in a crisp white shirt and a woman next to him, pulling at the trumpet, which is very emblematic of the story we’re telling in a way. Him holding on to the music and and in our story, Francis, the love of his life, that tug between the music and his love, and where they connect and how they move away from each other. That was my introduction.
Did you ever get to see him perform live?
I saw him at Red Rocks in Colorado, an outdoor amphitheater when he came back with the “We Want Miles” tour. That experience of watching him … the experience of watching him with this super eclectic band, a rocked-out guitar player, a South American percussionist, and a funk bass player and jazz be-bop sax player, and funk drums, and Miles in the middle keeping it all together. The experiment of it—that you were watching the process as opposed to some polished, produced thing—was great.
It was great to watch someone have that kind of courage, to not know what was going to happen and be invited to the journey. Even though he had his back to us and walking around, you could see him interacting with the other musicians. It looked like he was searching for something, and I’ve never seen a performer like that since.
That sounds like an incredible experience. What about his story or life resonates most with you? In talking about his ability to find clarity through cacophony, you sound so passionate.
Well, the thing about Miles Davis was that he thought of himself as a social musician who played social music and didn’t want to be boxed in and defined. He could recognize talent that very few could and not only recognized it, but gave the people with whom he played room to develop and grow and stretch out and find their own voices. That’s why he spawned so many leaders.
Everyone who played with Miles’ band became a leader and most of them went on to be leaders of bands and have long recording careers because he gave them the room to create and demanded that they create. He’s the guy, if he heard you rehearsing your solo and then you played that onstage, you were fired. I don’t pay you to rehearse, I don’t pay you to rehearse, I pay you to rehearse live in front of people. Don’t bring your polished solo out, go out and go crazy.
Some could say the same of you—an actor who’s done drama and lighter pieces, television and movies. Is that something you’ve thought about?
I’ve never tried to draw that parallel between me and Miles Davis. I would say that I always wanted to get into acting for the ability to do a lot of different things and not just do one thing over and over again. And I don’t know if it’s boredom or relentlessness or interest in many different things, but I guess there’s a similar thing going on there, where I don’t want to necessarily lock into one thing or be defined as only being able to do one thing, you know, constantly going to a place that’s comfortable and known. When you’re in discomfort and a little terrified [laughs], that’s when you grow.
So you’re a longtime fan; you admired him as an artist and man. How did you decide that you were going to make a movie? It’s no small thing to embark on a project like this … especially not in this case, where you’re approaching this independently.
This was something that had been a periphery for me. I never thought about portraying him, really. I had done several other quote-unquote biopics and was always struck by the limitations they presented, because they were trying to be historically accurate. Let’s be honest, any biopic is a series of omissions and conflations of events and amalgamations of characters. And you’re trying to have a movie experience under three hours, so in the process you condense people’s lives from cradle to grave, so things tend to feel episodic and event-oriented as opposed to a story about people and relationships and a character.
So I didn’t want to do another biopic. So when I heard the idea, from various people who had played with him, producers, writers, that this could potentially be something, I thought, ‘if the script is great, I would be open to it since he’s always been a fascinating figure to me.’
And then, in 2008, when Miles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his nephew was interviewed and was asked, ‘Would you ever do a movie on his life?” He said yes, and that Don Cheadle is going to play him. And I was like ‘I am?’
You were like, “I haven’t seen a paycheck..”
[Laughs] I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen the script, I haven’t gotten a call. Then producers had been talking to the estate about the project got in touch with me and I sat down with them and they began pitching me the idea. And again, they were standard biopics, fare that was concerned with hitting benchmarks. Miles’ life could be a 10-part miniseries on PBS—it can’t be done in five minutes. I don’t know how you do that about someone who was relevant in music for 50 years and give it any sort of importance. It needs to be more of a movie that he would want to star in. Miles Davis was the star of his own story.
So don’t call this a biopic.
You can if you want, and there are elements of it that would make it that. But to me, that was something I was rejecting. I wasn’t interested in that, and I’m not interested by all the things that a traditional biopic does. I want to tell a hot story that’s full of his music that feels impressionistic in that it finds a way to incorporate all his musical styles and influences and ideas. It needs to feel like his approach: “I don’t care about what happened before. I’m about what’s happening now and about what’s happening next.” That’s Miles’ marching orders to me.
Right. So how do you take that to a studio?
Well, yeah. So I left the meeting, and told them if a picture is ever developed and feels like that, then I’d be interested in playing it. By the time I got home, the producer had called me, and I was about to call him. And I said ‘I have to do this.’
As an actor or director?
As the filmmaker—whatever that meant, as the writer, director and actor, to bring this concept into being. And so much has happened with the process—I was working with a writer and ended that relationship. We had a home on HBO and then we weren’t anymore. And finally, Steve Baigelman, who co-wrote the movie with me, came on, and we decided we’d do something crazy, and just go for it. [Laughs] With the blessing and support of the family, and people like Herbie Hancock and others that have known and played with Miles and knew what he was about, we decided to go ahead and make a movie that Miles Davis would have wanted to be in.
Are you going to focus on one particular aspect of his life or time period? You mentioned that to do a biopic, you’d have to create something that’s hours and hours long.
Well, the construction of the movie is the parallel story of Miles in 1979 at the end of this quiet period he was in, the five-year stretch of time when he wasn’t playing and performing and recording, juxtaposed against the 10-year period where he was with Francis Taylor Davis, who, at the time, was the love of his life and his muse.
What do you think is about you, your life, your acting, your art, convinced the family that you were the one who they could creatively trust to tell this story? I feel like so much of the controversy around biopics—whether it’s Jimi Hendrix, Aaliyah, Hank Williams—is around the family’s hesitation to share the story of someone near and dear to them. What is it about you that made you a natural choice?
And rightly so. They should be hesitant. I can’t imagine handing over the keys to my loved ones life to some writers and you know, a bunch of people I don’t know and say, ‘ok produce a story on my mom.’ [Laughs] They have their experience of their father, their uncle, their bandmate, their leader, and, at the end of the day, I don’t know why they said me. Maybe it has to be with the kind of roles they’ve seen me play before, maybe it’s because I’ve been in other biopics. Maybe it’s a resemblance, whatever the concoction was that made sense to [Miles Davis’ nephew] Vince Wilburn to say, ‘Don is going to play my uncle.’ That’s a question I never really asked, to be quite honest.
A family’s involvement can really make or break a project like this, especially when it comes to the music rights.
It absolutely does. We wouldn’t have been able to use the music we’re using if the estate hadn’t signed on and hadn’t been on board. We’re working with Sony and Columbia and the family and between the agreements of that triumvirate, we’re able to use the music of his life, during the Columbia years.
Will you release a film soundtrack so new fans and a new generation can appreciate those sounds?
You know, hopefully it will be not just a release of his music. Herbie Hancock is kind of godfathering the whole thing and we’re running all of this by him. This soundtrack hopefully could be more than just a soundtrack of music from the movie; it can be music that’s been inspired by the pieces we select. It’s about trying to bring it forward and not just chronicle what has passed before.
Do you have a dream artist whom you’d like to feature and collaborate with on the album?
There are many. There are many. And you know, I don’t want to drop a name and that have that person come back … [Laughs]
Kind of how you got involved with this project in the first place? “What? I’m doing what movie?” “I’m doing what soundtrack?”
Exactly. That can’t happen.
With the music—I know you mentioned that you play the saxophone—will you be playing the trumpet in the movie?
You will? You’ll be playing his songs yourself?
No. I’m not going to be, we’re going to be using Miles Davis playing. [Laughs] We’re not going to do a movie with the rights to his music and not have him playing.
We’re going to use his recordings. I’ve learned how to play. There will be elements of me playing the movie but when it comes to the pieces that are Miles Davis playing, it will be Miles Davis.
Did you learn how to play the trumpet specifically for this movie?
Yeah. The trumpet is a very unforgiving instrument. If you don’t play it every day, its, it fights back. It hasn’t been, I’d say, until the last year that I’ve been playing consistently.
So you play every day?
Well, I have a day job. For some time, for some amount every day. Sometimes it can be for hours, and sometimes it’s 10 minutes. But I touch it every day.
Tell me about the crowdfunding. What made you turn to crowdfunding to cover production costs? Was this something that a studio was just unable or unwilling to take on? You mentioned you originally had a home with HBO.
This is an independently produced film. There is no studio element. We’re still in the process locking down all the financing so it was a component of funds needed to cover a gap , including my own personal money I’ve put into the movie and a consortium of others. It’s to cover what it takes to put together a period movie, that has to have different looks and ways you’re trying to authenticate the time period you’re dealing with. And the music rights—all of that stuff costs money. But it also felt like a good way to open him up back to the public and try to raise that awareness and use the social mediums to make this a social event. To make it social, like the music Miles talked about. It just made sense on multiple levels to do it this way.
One of the amazing credits on your resume is that you were nominated for an Oscar for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda. You know what an Oscar-worthy film looks like. Is that something you’re keeping in mind as you begin to make this movie?
No. I mean, that’s a good way to f–k the whole thing up. [Laughs] You just keep the work in front of you and stay humble. I told my friend, Glynn Turman who plays my dad on House of Lies, ‘I’ve bit off a lot.’ And he said, my mom used to say “bite off more than you can chew and then chew it.” So I’m chewing. I’m chewing.
Last question: Are there any other passion projects in the works, any for which you’d possibly turn to crowdfunding again? One on Michael Jackson’s doctor Conrad Murray, perhaps?
I try not to make biopics. So I’m done for a while.
This interview has been edited and condensed.