By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—There was a moment in Don Cheadle’s long and arduous journey to bring his vision of jazz legend Miles Davis’ colorful story to the big screen when the Oscar-nominated actor thought he might just throw in the towel.
“There was no part of it where fear wasn’t in the side car,” he reveals during a press conference. “If this thing had gone away years ago, I would’ve complained about it, but part of me would’ve been relieved that I did not have to deal with all that pressure.”
The 51-year-old performer said he tried to find someone else to direct the project but ultimately wound up producing, directing, starring in, co-writing and even writing some of music for the film.
In hindsight, with the film completed, Cheadle can finally relax as he unveils his passion project to the world.
Cheadle’s take on Davis is far from the conventional musician biopic, which typically involves the performer’s origins, the ups and downs of a career and death. Instead, he focuses on a short span of Davis’ life and career—the late ‘70s—and weaves in a story in which he and a journalist go a wild adventure to recover a stolen master tape from an unscrupulous talent manager. It also examines the disintegration of Davis’ marriage to longtime love and muse Frances Taylor, and his abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Sporting a goatee, Cheadle, who currently stars in the popular Showtime series “House of Lies,” spoke about co-writing the film with Steven Baigelman, learning to play trumpet (even though it’s Davis’ music that can be heard on screen) and working alongside co-stars Ewan McGregor, who the intrepid journalist, and Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Davis’ long-suffering wife Frances, who gave up a promising career as a prima ballerina to devote herself to her husband and their family.
Q: This isn’t your typical biopic. Why did you decide to take a non-traditional route?
Cheadle: You put your finger on it. I didn’t want to do it the same as films that I’ve seen about historical figures. Miles had gone on record pointing out several films done that way, and he said he’d never want that story done for him that way. Steven Baigelman, who co-wrote the script with me, and I wanted to have a movie that felt like the energy of creativity and felt like a composition as opposed to something that was didactic or instructional or tried to clarify all the highlights and lowlights of Miles Davis’ life. That’s why we focused on this way to tell the story.
It’s been a long road from the initial announcement that (Davis’ nephew) Vincent Wilburn made that I was going to play him in a movie to it arriving in theaters. That’s 10 years. It feels like it was a minute.
Q: What was your first encounter with Miles Davis’ music and how did you decide to do this?
Cheadle: My first introduction to Miles was before I was conscious of it. My parents played his music at home. When I went through their record collection there was Miles Davis in it. I would recall, “Oh. That’s what that was.” I didn’t know I was listening to Miles’ music. I just knew I was listening to this incredible music. And then I started playing the sax when I was in fifth grade or sixth grade. My way into Miles’ music was through (jazz alto saxophonist Julian Edwin) “Cannonball” Adderley.
I was trying to figure out what he was doing on the horn and what those solos were about and then I’d transcribe them and try to play them. Then I just became enamored of him and his music and all of these musicians he influenced. Everyone that played with Miles became a leader in his own right—from Herbie (Hancock) to Keyon (Harrold) to Wynton (Marsalis). That was incredible music to bump into.
I’ve been listening to his music for 30 or 40 years. As far as this movie being made, When Vincent Wilburn was interviewed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for Miles Davis was asked if they were going to do a movie about his life and he said, “Yes, and Don Cheadle is gonna play him.” From that moment, when he made that declaration, I met with the family and we started talking about what and how and when.
Q: Did you ever meet Miles Davis?
Cheadle: No, but I saw him (perform) at Red Rocks in 1982 during my senior year of high school.
Q: Did the story change from what you planned 10 years ago?
Cheadle: Yes. We were with HBO and Picturehouse, and that relationship dissolved when the financial crisis hit and the world broke. We then rebooted and the estate introduced me to Steven. Since then this has been the take on the material.
Q: You mentioned the fear you had in getting the story right. Was it harder getting started or to keep going?
Cheadle: Producing, directing, acting, writing and composing music—any one of those things was fear-inducing, but to do them all (seemed insurmountable). I tried to give this away several years ago. I tried to hire another director so that I could not be faced with that responsibility and be faced (all the responsibility). But that didn’t come to pass. Everybody I met with said, “This is your vision. Why would I? You have to see this through to the end. This is your journey.” And, thankfully, I knuckled down and did it.
Q: Did making this film take a physical toll on you?
Cheadle: Yeah. My wife was there at the beginning (of production). Then she left and came back about a month later. She said, “You can’t ever do this again.” She could see it. I wasn’t sleeping. Every ride the next morning in the van was about, “How many hours of sleep did you get?” That was a thing. If somebody would go, “I got 8 hours, 7 hours of sleep,” then we’d be like, “How? Give me the mix. I need the powder or whatever you did.” It was a very intense production schedule. We didn’t have enough money or time to do it. Our first assembly of the movie was 104 minutes; it’s now 100 minutes. We shot to the bone.
Q: When did you feel like you’d nailed it?
Cheadle: I have yet to feel that way about anything, and maybe that’s just how I’m set up. Maybe that’s how most actors are set up.
Having stepped behind the camera as a producer and director on my show (“House of Lies”), and having to sit through every piece of footage of myself on camera can be incredibly uncomfortable. You feel very exposed and vulnerable. It’s like when you call in to check your voicemail and you hear your voice and immediately go, “I don’t want to hear that.”
Now imagine that 25-feet wide and 15-feet tall and over and over and over again. You just imagine yourself in different ways than you see yourself, and it’s probably just natural to have a rejection of that.
Q: Did you ever just want to quit?
Cheadle: I definitely had days where I did want to just walk off the set and say, “That’s it! I’m done! I can’t deal with it anymore.” One day, after I saw a rough assembly, my producing partner (Lenore Zerman) had to literally come and get me out of bed the next day and say, “You have to come to the set! You have to show up and direct! People are there, you have to work!” I know of two or three directors that have told me a very similar story. Denzel (Washington) told me a story like that when he did “The Great Debaters.” You just feel like you’re taking on something that’s so important to you, and you’re going to drop it. It’s like someone handing you a premature baby and you’re like, “I’m going to mess this whole thing up!”
Q: How much in the script can be taken as truth?
Cheadle: It’s all truth. How much of it is fact? A lot of it. But like any movie that’s not a documentary or an autobiography. There are events that happened that we point to and we talk about. Miles was shot in a drive by. There was this recording that was produced during this period of time that’s never been released that everyone wanted and people were after. He was in a relationship with this (record) studio where they were trying to get the next thing out of him. There was a trumpet player that was hired at Columbia during this period that was there to fill the void that Miles had left. I don’t want to go through and de-mystify the movie by pointing to everything that happened or didn’t happen. Clearly we’ve taken poetic license in places to support the narrative, to create the momentum and create a story that feels like momentum, but it’s been very interesting in my own research to tell a story back to somebody who was there, and they saw it a different way.
Q: You’ve talked about your process as a director and an actor. Tell a little about your process writing the film, and selecting this portion of Miles’ life as opposed to doing 16 however many years that you could’ve done.
Cheadle: Well I definitely didn’t do anything normal or conventional, especially with this figure. We always talked about this being the first title of the movie. The working title was “Kill The Trumpet Player: Vol. 1”. Because we always thought that, wouldn’t it be great if we could do five Miles Davis movies? So if we just focus on this, now we can do an origins movie. We can do a when he came out of this period movie. We can do a near his death movie. We can do five different Miles Davis movies. And they would all be different and interesting and invaluable. But we focused on this particular period of time because it felt very meta Miles. One of Miles’ biggest dictums that he lived by was “play what’s not there.” And if felt like kind of a down note before this up note, and we wanted to look at the down note before the up note and create a narrative that would allow us to externalize an internal process.
Q: Can you talk about casting Ewan McGregor as journalist Dave Braden and working alongside him? What was that like?
Cheadle: We had a great relationship, a great chemistry. Ewan is someone who’s work I was familiar with. I wanted him to play someone close to himself. He wanted to do it in an American accent and I was like, “No, I want you, Ewan, to be you.” The first day that I was supposed to meet with him and discuss the script—I’d already gotten the feedback from our representatives that he liked it and was into it—but he just wanted to meet and talk, so I was supposed to meet him at his house. So I show up. I’m very prompt and he’s not there. It’s five minutes. It’s 10 minutes. It’s 15, 20, 25. And I think, “Oh, he’s doing that actor thing,” where he’s trying to let me know who’s really running shit around here. “Now you just wait. I’ll get there when I get there.” So I was like, “OK. I’m not going to blow up, but I’m not going to wait much longer.” And the door bursts open and he’s out of breath and like, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry.” He’d just gotten a new motorcycle and, you know, he’s an avid motorcycle rider, and he just had to ride it, and forgot. He almost got into a wreck on PCH because he (remembered) and went “Oh ****!” and spun around and came back to meet me.
So he’s just really a generous, supportive collaborative partner in this, and, as he said, it’s a little tricky when you’re acting with your co-star and your co-star goes, “Cut!” and says, “This time you might want to …” You’re not supposed to do that (as an actor). But as your director, you have to listen. We, very quickly, came to an understanding and a shorthand that allowed us to really be good working partners, I think.
Q: Can you speak about casting Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances, Miles’ wife?
Cheadle: Emayatzy is very physically gifted and an athlete. So it wasn’t like taking someone with two left feet and preparing them. And when she showed up with the dance piece—of course, my head was underwater for a bunch of different reasons—but I didn’t even know when they’d rehearsed it. I didn’t know when they’d done it. They just showed up and presented it and I said, “You guys have already done it.” I just had to figure out where to put the camera.
Q: How was it learning to play the trumpet?
Cheadle: I’ve talked to a couple of people since I made this and when I tell them I learned to play for this, they say, “Why? Nobody knows. You could have just (pretended) and everybody would have thought you did it.” And I say, “Well, I would have known and trumpet players would know.” I always want to get the people that are really doing the thing to buy in because I know if I can get them (convinced it’s me) then I can get everybody else. Even beyond that, it wasn’t about me trying to fool anyone, it was about me wanting to really have an understanding of what that study was about and what playing trumpet meant. What the breath was like and what the commitment is like. It’s unlike any instrument. It’s a very punishing instrument and very unforgiving.
It’s something that’s stuck and I really love it but I wanted to understand from the inside out what that study was about and what that commitment was about. I learned the solos even though I knew we weren’t going to use my sound. We were going to use Miles’ sound. I’m playing in the movie. We’re using Miles sound. Trumpeter Keyon Harrold is playing over me. I play several different instruments but I really enjoy (the trumpet), and I miss it when I don’t play it.
I wanted to be at some point in my development as good as I could be which would be as bad as Miles was very early in his development but I wanted to be at some point on that same scale and that same point of continuum that he was.