Don Cheadle Talks About Playing Miles Davis in Miles Ahead
Posted 7/2/2014

If anyone has the acting chops to portray Miles Davis, it’s Don Cheadle. The actor was nominated for an Academy Award for his leading role in Hotel Rwanda, won a Golden Globe for his role in the TV series House of Lies, and took home a Screen Actors Guild award for his work in Crash. Cheadle has co-written the screenplay for—and will make his directorial debut with—the forthcoming Miles Ahead, a film that will eschew the typical biopic formula.

Cheadle is making the film with participation from the Davis family and outside of the studio system, investing his own funds and money from private investors. He also has joined the growing ranks of Hollywood figures (Spike Lee, Kristen Bell) who are taking to the Web to raise money and increase buzz for their projects.

Cheadle’s crowd-funding campaign through Indiegogo seeks to raise $325,000 to supplement the film’s budget. Incentives for contributors include movie posters, DVDs, early access to the music, streaming video of the film before its theatrical release and, for $15,000, a package that includes a set visit and an associate producer credit. (More information about contributing to the film is posted here.)

The actor, 50, has admired Davis’ music since he first heard his parents’ LPs of Porgy And Bess and Kind Of Blue at the age of 11. But he hadn’t seriously entertained the notion of portraying the “Prince of Darkness” until something odd happened at the 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. While accepting a posthumous honor for Davis, the trumpeter’s nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn Jr., surprised everyone—including Cheadle—by announcing that the family would produce a feature film about the late jazz icon and that Cheadle would be their leading man.

Once a promising high school sax player who had been offered a jazz studies scholarship, Cheadle is learning to play trumpet for the role. He has hired Robert Glasper to score the music, with Herbie Hancock—who won an Oscar for his 1986 score for the film ’Round Midnight—helping to supervise the soundtrack.

On his fundraising site, Cheadle says the story focuses on a few days in 1979 when Davis confronted “his relationship with his muse, his voice, his fears and challenges to come out of his silent period and return to the music.” Actors Ewan McGregor (Big Fish) and Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) have been signed to play key roles as a music journalist and a record company executive.

Cheadle has played an iconic musician before: He won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of Sammy Davis Jr. in The Rat Pack.

DownBeat caught up with Cheadle by phone in Cincinnati, where he was preparing to begin filming in early July.

DownBeat: Miles Davis was such a complex character—he could be combative and egotistical, but there was also a highly sensitive artist inside. Is the complexity part of why you are drawn to him?

Don Cheadle: Absolutely. Those things coexist inside of him. You know they can coexist, because you hear the music, and that can’t be created out of egotism and rage and violence. That only comes out of a sensitive, deep, poetic place. It is fascinating to me. He used to say, “I’m a Gemini, and there’s always two of me, and when I’m high there’s four of me. And they’re arguing, and they don’t get along.” He understood himself, the contradictory nature of his own experience.

Why did you decide not to do a traditional biopic but, instead, to focus on how Davis came out of his self-imposed silence?

The scope of his life is not containable in a 90-minute movie. [We had] the option of trying to touch on every era in which he was important, and every direction his music took, but you would have to give short shrift to every single one … . That doesn’t feel that successful to me, as a movie. There are documentaries that have done that much better.

I focused on this period because, in a “meta-Miles” sort of way, I see it as an opportunity “to play what’s not there,” as he used to say. He was just creatively spent and needed to figure out what to say next. As an artist coming from a different discipline, who understands being creatively blocked, and wondering if you’re ever going to come out of it—[I find it] a very interesting part of a creative person’s life—especially this creative person’s life.

Your promo clip shows you practicing the trumpet. Will you play the instrument in the movie?

I’ll absolutely be simulating it, but I’ll be playing sometimes. Sometimes you’ll hear me working it out. But when we have Miles’ music, we’re going to use it as much as we can.

Will you try to include music from every era of his life, or will you be emphasizing his connections to modern hip-hop and r&b?

There’s a parallel story that the movie follows [in flashbacks], which is his love affair with Frances Taylor Davis, from ’57 to ’67, roughly. So we’re using music from that era on, and music from different artists as well. But mostly, it’s all Miles.

Why did you turn to the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to help raise money? Were the major studios not interested, and are you fighting a presumption that a movie about jazz can’t make money?

It’s clearly not “studio fare.” It’s seen as being niche. But I don’t think the movie is about “jazz.” I subscribe to what Miles said about jazz: “I don’t like that word—it’s trying to put someone in a box. I play social music—the music of the times.” You know, he was skewered by a lot of people once he stopped playing what they considered to be jazz. He lost many fans. But, to me, he was following his muse and going with what spoke to him as an artist. And that’s really risky. People were saying he sold out. No—you sell out if you do the same thing that you know people like, over and over again.

So, we’re fighting against the box that people want to put the movie in, [just like] the box that people wanted to put Miles in. My goal for the movie is that people will be entertained by it, and that they will want to do their own investigation of Miles Davis and his music … and to realize that we are hearing his influence in today’s contemporary artists. But it’s not a didactic exercise—that’s not what I go to a movie for. I want to make the kind of movie that Miles would want to see.

Allen Morrison


Actor Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis in the upcoming film Miles Ahead. (Photo: Olaf Heine/Weiss Artists)

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