*Don Cheadle is giving fans a first look at himself in character for his Miles Davis film “Miles Ahead,” which charts the jazz legend’s relationship with his muse, the challenges he faced coming out of his silent period and his attempt to steal back his music.
The film is set in the period leading up to Davis’ 1969 jazz-rock fusion recording “In a Silent Way.”
“It’s surreal,” says the 49-year-old “House of Lies” star.
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.
EW: 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?
DC: 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.
EW: 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.
DC: I remember the Porgy and Bess album by Bill 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.
EW: Did you ever get to see him perform live?
DC: 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.
EW: 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.
DC: 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.
EW: 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?
DC: 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.
EW: 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.
DC: 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?’
EW: You were like, “I haven’t seen a paycheck..”
DC: [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.