How Don Cheadle Became Miles Davis

The Oscar-nominated actor opens up about his thrilling new film, Miles Ahead, in theaters April 1, and why he doesn’t give a shit about the Oscars. PLUS: Watch an exclusive song from the film’s soundtrack.

Sundance Film Festival

Do not mention the word “biopic” to Don Cheadle. He doesn’t want to hear it. He’s played that tune before, as streetball legend Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Sammy Davis Jr., and of course, his gripping turn as the refugee-sheltering Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, for which he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

“I keep trying to shoot down ‘biopic’ every time somebody says it, but it doesn’t matter,” says Cheadle. “Every time they say a film about a historical figure, that’s how they categorize it. I’d rather people call it ‘historical fiction’ than a ‘biopic.’”

That’s because Cheadle’s new film Miles Ahead, which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and stars in, isn’t your typical biographical picture. While it borrows its title from Miles Davis’s landmark 1957 album, the movie takes place in the late ’70s—a period where Davis withdrew from the public eye and lived, as Cheadle says, like “the Howard Hughes of jazz,” holed up in his apartment engaging in copious amounts of drugs and sex.

“He was silent for five years. He did not touch his horn or play. He just played organ,” says Cheadle. “Vince [Wilburn Jr., Davis’s nephew] tells the story of how, the moment he tried playing again, his whole embouchure had gone, his facility was gone, and he couldn’t make a note. He just cried like a baby.”

Miles Ahead is equal parts drama and thriller, as it jumps back and forth between past moments that shaped Davis—including his turbulent relationship with his wife, Frances (played by the radiant Emayatzy Corinealdi), to the messy present, as the jazz legend teams up with a Rolling Stone journalist (Ewan McGregor) on a mission to retrieve a top-secret recording from a shady record executive (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s a slice of free-form fiction that aims to capture the mad genius of Miles Davis. Which it does.

The Daily Beast sat down with Cheadle earlier this year to discuss his stunning transformation into the inimitable Miles Davis.

You could have easily gone the Walk the Line route with a Miles Davis film, telling the story of Cicely Tyson saving him from heroin addiction. I didn’t want to do that. We watched The Dewey Cox Story, and for every filmmaker trying to make a movie about a musician, Walk Hard should be their cautionary tale. Everybody should have to watch that before they make their movie. I heard Danny Boyle say the same thing—that he watched Walk Hard before making Steve Jobs and went, “Oh, no!”

Right. Miles Ahead isn’t like any film about a giant I’ve seen before. The narrative is free-form, and instead of chronicling the famous high points, takes you inside Davis’s head.

As we were looking through the work and read through all the biographies and source materials, the interesting part of his life, to us, was the five-year period where he wasn’t making music. Because on either end of that prolific career, what does it mean when the font of creativity has shut down? And what’s happening inside of that? Do you want to come back, or do you want to die?

And he did almost die. He did. He almost died. It seemed to be a good jumping-off point for examining an internal journey that felt universal to us. We can’t all be Miles Davis, but any of us who are creative people know what it means to come face-to-face with that moment of, “I’ve run out of shit to say.”

The film follows Miles Davis during a very fraught time in his career, and one where he’s both a total recluse and a total live wire. He was the Howard Hughes of jazz. But he was really a G and was behaving how we wish we could have—with no consequences—so there’s a wish-fulfillment element there, too. I didn’t want to show somebody sitting at a piano hitting a chord and going, “No, that’s not it,” and tearing up a piece of paper. Let’s make this the ride. When your guts are churning, that’s a shootout, that’s a fistfight, that’s your love going away, and that’s what allows you to write Bitches Brew.

Getting the estate onboard is a real struggle these days when it comes to making movies about musicians. It’s the reason why nobody’s made a Jimi Hendrix film yet with his actual music. How did you get the Miles Davis estate to back your vision? We had to talk to the family a lot and hip them to the fact that what we were trying to do was capture the essence and truth of Miles Davis, as opposed to the facts of his life. The facts didn’t matter to us, but the truth of the process did. We thought, let’s do what he did as an artist: Don’t do it the same as you’ve seen it before, don’t worry about mistakes—there are no mistakes, bash headlong into it, show people how the sausage is made, stumble down the stairs until you hit something that kind of works, then get your momentum and run with it. We thought, look, man, if you were in Miles Davis’s band and he heard you playing a solo in your hotel room, and then you came down onstage and played that solo, he’d fire you on the spot. We wanted to make sure that the movie that we made felt like an expression of improvisation.

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Speaking of improvisation, there’s a great sequence where Miles Davis is creating Porgy and Bess in the studio that really does a fine job of showcasing his creativity. It reminded me of some of the best scenes of the Brian Wilson flick Love & Mercy. “The whole work-through of Porgy and Bess, all it said in the script was ‘Miles works with musicians.’ There were no scripted lines. We had no idea what we were going to do until we did it. I just said, ‘Give me a bunch of musicians that can actually play, and we’ll figure it out.’ It will be an actual session.

This is a warts and all film, too. Was the Miles Davis estate at all touchy about the low points of the film—scenes of drug use and abusing women?

[The estate] put me onboard. They said, “You’re doing it,” so I didn’t have to pull them along. And if you read the autobiography he wrote with Quincy Troupe, Miles talks about it and he’s not trying to soft-pedal it or back away from it. I did this shit, he says. He owned it all.

Why do you think artistic geniuses are so prone to abusive and self-destructive behavior? They have to consume. Everything gets consumed. Everything is fuel, and all must be consumed for them to create what they create. We are the beneficiaries of their agony, and sometimes people get left in the dust—which is tragic, sad, and painful, and sometimes those wounds never heal—and then what comes out on the other end of that is Bitches Brew. They consume. Picasso was the same way.

What’s your musical background like, and are you really playing the trumpet in the film?

I play in the film. I started playing the trumpet when I knew I had to do this, so I’ve been playing for about three-and-a-half or four years. I grew up playing sax, so I played that from about fifth grade until I was a senior in high school, and I was also singing with the jazz choir and composing and writing. And then I went away from music. I had a couple of scholarships to pursue local jazz and instrumental jazz, and a couple to pursue acting, and I had been living in Colorado freezing my ass off and think I kind of made a weather choice. I thought, yeah, I’ll go to CalArts and study theater.

Have you ever seen Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo on Arsenio?

[Laughs] I’ve seen it. He was appealing to the kids! And I may show up on somebody’s show playing. But I’m gonna be in the band. I’ll play with The Roots!

That needs to happen. How long did it take you to make Miles Ahead? Ever since Miles was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. It’s gone through many different iterations since then. A company went away, a money person went away, two different writers came and went, so the last five years with this script and this iteration is really how long it took to make Miles Ahead.

You were Oscar-nominated in 2005 for Hotel Rwanda, so did you use some of your juice to make this project happen?

Honestly, I was not out campaigning to do this. I literally had no dog in the Miles Davis fight. I’d done a lot of biopics—Hotel Rwanda, The Rat Pack—and was getting tired of them for the same reason we’re talking about: they were kind of standard. I was looking the other way, and the family came to me.

Were you at all disappointed by the opportunities you were given after receiving a Best Actor nod for Hotel Rwanda? Historically, white actors are given many more opportunities after something like that happens than people of color.To be honest, there’s shrinkage in the industry for everybody. There are about seven people who the studios feel confident and comfortable putting their money behind. So, I understand hedging your bets, and that it’s a very corporate mentality that has to do with bottom lines and appeasing investors. So then there’s very little about, oh, let’s do something different and try to break the mold. That doesn’t usually happen. In those ways, it’s not surprising the kinds of movies that get made. Conversely, is it that great to win an Oscar? We could probably name 10 white actors who have won Oscars and think, well, what is that person doing today?But I was never disappointed. Personally, I’ve been very fortunate. I can’t look back at my career and think of any movies that I thought I should’ve had a shot in. But I know that’s the story for many, many people. It’s a microcosm of a microcosm, and Hollywood is not going to be inured to the same things that affect the world in which it sits.

The #OscarsSoWhite conversation really exploded and led to not only Academy changes, but a lot of people discussing the issue of diversity—or the lack thereof—in Hollywood. I blame my tweet! I’ve never seen a tweet go like that.

People keep conflating it—and I know why—with it being a black and white issue, but it’s about diversity. And it’s not just about the level of the Oscars. Because who gives a shit about the Oscars? If I win an Oscar, it’s going to be behind my couch with the rest of my awards. I put my kids’ trophies out, I don’t put my own trophies out. But what that can do for you business-wise, that’s the important part. And it starts way back at the green-light level with executives determining at the onset what they’ll make. So when we talk about #OscarsSoWhite, it’s a symptom of something that starts way further back.

How many more Marvel films are you signed on for? There are rumblings you’ll be kicking the bucket soon. [Laughs] If I talk about Marvel I just start seeing red dots on my chest. Acting in these is a little tedious sometimes and couldn’t be more different than what I did on [Miles Ahead], but there is a real level of acting that’s necessary to live inside of those different realities and bring them to life. So it’s a challenge, and it’s ultimately fun when you’re getting to fly around, kick ass, and be a superhero.