Don Cheadle on playing the drug-addled Miles Davis in "Miles Ahead," and the toxic costs of Hollywood racism

The "House of Lies" and "Iron Man" star turns director with an exhilarating biopic about a damaged jazz genius

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 29, 2016 11:01PM (EDT)

Don Cheadle in "Miles Ahead"   (Sony Pictures Classics)
Don Cheadle in "Miles Ahead" (Sony Pictures Classics)

No doubt it’s an obnoxious film-critic cliché to say that there are certain actors who are always worth watching, even in bad movies or mediocre TV series. I mean, if they’re so great, why can’t they make their movies and shows better? Let me ratchet up the obnoxiousness even more by saying that I made this same observation to Don Cheadle over breakfast in New York last week. Because Cheadle is absolutely one of those actors who often seems bigger than his material. He’s an immensely versatile performer who does comedy and drama and action and even self-mockery (as in the Funny or Die “Captain Planet” shorts, or his appearance as himself on “30 Rock”) with unwavering grace and total commitment.

Cheadle was an entirely good sport about it, as you’d expect. In person, he’s an elegant, genial fellow who doesn’t give much away. (I said “breakfast,” but the only thing Cheadle ordered was black coffee and a glass of tap water.) But his eyes widened momentarily when I wondered whether he’d ever made a movie with John Malkovich, another suave, distinctive all-purpose actor in that same category. “I would love to do a movie with John,” he said. I suggested that they needed to play a villainous gay couple in a spy thriller or a superhero movie. “Will you please write that movie?” Cheadle said. “I’d do that role in a heartbeat.” There’s my pitch, studio heads! The line forms on the right.

In the latest twist of a long and varied career that began with bit parts on “L.A. Law” and “Hill Street Blues” in the mid-‘80s, and includes his starring roles as the ruthless Marty Kaan on Showtime’s “House of Lies” and Col. James Rhodes, aka War Machine, in the Marvel Comics movie-verse, Cheadle has now moved behind the camera. He’s done so in the most challenging way imaginable, as the director, producer and co-writer of the colorful, uproarious and tragicomic biopic “Miles Ahead,” in which he also plays the central character, jazz legend Miles Davis.

Selected as the closing-night feature in last fall’s New York Film Festival, “Miles Ahead” is an obvious labor of love, born out of Cheadle’s lifelong obsession with Davis’ groundbreaking music and troubled personal life. Although the movie can’t avoid all the pitfalls of the showbiz biopic, it’s a subtle and complicated example of the form that gracefully weaves together numerous episodes and historical periods, and never seeks to whitewash the more painful aspects of Davis’ story. In the present tense of “Miles Ahead,” it’s about 1980 and the trumpeter has become a Howard Hughes-style recluse, living alone in his New York brownstone buffered by cocaine and alcohol, and refusing to surrender the tapes for his long-contemplated comeback album.

A Scottish music journalist played by Ewan McGregor (and we’ll get to the controversy surrounding that role) gets into Davis’ house and at least partway into his confidence, and unleashes numerous adventures along with a stream of almost Fellini-esque reminiscence and association. So Cheadle’s screenplay (written with Steven Baigelman) locates Davis at a personal and professional low point, but weaves in bits and pieces from throughout his remarkable career: the bebop years after World War II, the extraordinary small groups of the early ‘60s, the symphonic orchestrated works created with Gil Evans (Davis himself always preferred “Sketches of Spain” to the immortal 1959 sextet LP “Kind of Blue”) and the then-controversial jazz-rock “fusion” albums of the ‘70s, which alienated much of his middle-class white audience and anticipated musical innovations that still lay ahead.

If you’ve ever seen Cheadle act in anything, I hardly need to tell you that he grabs your attention and holds it throughout the film. You could say that Miles Davis is a role he was born to play, but then again Cheadle could play anything. (If given a role as an Irish leprechaun or a Nazi officer, he’d find a way to make you believe it.) He doesn’t look much like Miles Davis, but he captures the musician’s door-creak voice and hesitant body language without making it feel like mimicry. To give a performance this layered and complex and unstinting while also directing the film around it, which is risky and imaginative and full of life, testifies to impressive powers of concentration.

“Miles Ahead” is just one movie, and Don Cheadle obviously can’t be the answer to Hollywood’s racial problems all by himself. I sure hope he gets to direct another one; John Malkovich is out there waiting.

The show business biopic is such a well-established genre: You have to tell some of the person’s life story and yet you don’t want to fall into a whole series of psychological and narrative clichés. How did you approach that problem?

I guess I did wrestle with this, off and on, during the writing of the piece. How much are you beholden to payoff? How far away from it can you go and still bring people along? At the end of the day, when I was speaking with Miles’ family, who were the people that in some way I cared the most about, I said I wanted to do something that was in the spirit of Miles Davis as a creative artist. Not as much as trying to do something that would either be some kind of a love letter to him or the Cliff Notes of his life where people could walk out of the theatre and go, “Well, OK, now I know everything about Miles Davis. Next thing.” I wanted to do something as a storyteller that felt like my experience of Miles Davis as I listened to his music, as I read about his life. Something that was more experiential than didactic or informational.

You accomplish this marvelous but sometimes disorienting feeling in the film, where we’re never quite sure where we are with relation to reality, fantasy and memory. Was that something you started with, that idea, or did it emerge from making the film?

We started with an idea of this person, one of the most prolific voices in the 20th century living this sort of Howard Hughes life. Herbie Hancock [Davis’ longtime pianist] would say he would come to the house, knock on the door and Miles would open it a crack and ask Herbie to go buy stuff for him. He’d bring him something back and he’d say, “Thanks,” and he’d shut the door and he wouldn’t see him again for weeks. How does that happen? And once you’re in there, does he come out of it? Does he stay in it?

So that just became a point of departure. And without trying to sound too grandiose, I wanted a meditation on a person as opposed to some record of him. When you’re coming at it from that angle, it’s about where does memory move toward reality, or history become fantasy. The boundaries are very porous. You can move back and forth and everything makes sense, so Miles can be thinking about Frances [his ballerina ex-wife, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi], and she can pirouette and start to fall, and then Dave [McGregor’s character] can finish her fall, because this is all really the container for a musician going “I’m going to tell you how to tell this story.” And puts his horn to his lips and blows the story. This is his performance of his story, his telling of his story through music. Within that, yeah there are rules, there’s a container but it’s permeable and you can move through stuff.

You made this film in collaboration with the Davis estate, with his family. So at least you didn’t wind up in the same situation as John Ridley, who made a film about Jimi Hendrix where we never hear “Purple Haze.” So you got access to the music, but that also put a certain responsibility on you. You didn’t want to write a love letter or cover over the ugly parts.

I’m not going to say it was just a glide path, because there were a couple “come to Jesus” moments where there was a meeting with Erin, Cheryl and Ben [Davis’ children] a couple of times and they had to be like, “Yo what are you gonna do now?” [Laughs.] Once it became real and we finally got our financing and we’re going. It’s like, “So -- you’re really going to do that?” It’s one thing when it’s theoretical, it’s another when you’re actually in the process of doing it. Erin and I go off together sometimes. I remember we were writing and I was pitching the idea and she’s like, “Are you going to talk about John Coltrane at all? What about when he met Bird [Charlie Parker] and left Juilliard? What about when he went from modal to fusion? Aren’t you going to talk about any of those moments?”

I said, “All of that music will be represented in the movie. But I want to use it cinematically. And let the music be apart of a story as opposed to going, ‘Now let’s make sure we’re locked into 1967 so that we can talk about the second supergroup. Let’s make sure in 1958 we know that was Cannonball Adderley and that’s John Coltrane.’” I personally care about those things, as someone who’s interested in his life, but I don’t know how that’s inherently dramatic, it just sounds like we’re trying to give information.

Right. You’re not making a film for the DownBeat magazine connoisseur audience.

Yeah, the 3 percent of people that really, really know Miles Davis. I used to walk around all the time and just take a poll. "Miles Davis -- what do you know about him? Who is he?” And people go, “Jazz guy right?” And I go, “OK! Got one right.” What did he play? There was a 30 percent drop-off there and then I’d go, “Trumpet.” And people would say, “Oh, OK. Is he the guy who blew his cheeks out?” [Laughs.] Very few people knew a lot about Miles Davis, but for those who do know then it’s wall to wall, the deep tracks of Miles Davis stuff. “Junior” was Miles Davis nickname when he first got to the town. His wife is Irene, his kid is Cheryl. That’s Miles’ first wife, it’s all in there really, we tried to do stuff for everybody. People who really knew him, but mostly for people who knew nothing at all.

As I was talking to Erin, I said, “We could do this version of it where I do all of those things that you say or we could do something that feels like this. Which do you think your dad would want? You think he’d want to be in this sort of a gangster-crazy movie, or do you think he’d want to be in a version of those movies that he’s gone on record as saying he doesn’t like?”

Well, I was fascinated by your decision to focus on that “darker” Miles period, in the ‘80s, which I can remember. I was exactly the kind of white boy who was obsessed with Miles Davis, but I assumed that a lot of the stories about how crazy he was and all the stuff he was doing were apocryphal. Your movie makes it sound like it really was that crazy. How much of the story you tell is true?

Almost all of it. Like any good biopic, things are elided and characters are omitted. Things that happened this place, we make happen in another place. Dave is an amalgam of many different people that were in Miles’ life at that time. I’ve never really wanted to go down the list and fact-check it for everybody, but it’s easy to do. There’s tons you can read. You can read his autobiography with Quincy Troupe, you can read an article with Alex Hayes. There’s tons of places where you can go find what really happened. Again, we wanted to take the puzzle of his life, cut his life into a bunch of puzzle pieces and then throw it in the air, and then reconstitute it in to be a story.

I’ve had the pleasure to sit next to a few people I’ve depicted in movies. I was with Paul Rusesabagina when we shot “Hotel Rwanda.” I was with Earl Manigault when we did “The Goat.” We did the Petey Greene story, and I was sitting next to the man who played his best friend and we shoot these scenes and I go, “So, Paul, you like that?” And he’d be all “Well you know ... he wasn’t really there, it happened over there.” [Laughs.]

I said, “If we’re gonna do this, I don’t want to be coy. Let’s go all the way and do something that feels like Miles Davis.” One of the stories I heard many different times, was that there was a store around the corner and Miles said to his manager one day, “I’ve always wanted to rob this store.” He’s like, “OK.” So he went into the store and says, “Hey, Miles would like to hold you guys up.” They’re like “Oh, Miles Davis? Sure, sure.” Miles comes in, holds them up, they give him all the money, he goes out and gives it to his manager and his manager goes back and gives it back to the guy. Stuff like that happened around him a lot.

In various ways this movie suggests that Miles’ turn to electronic fusion in “Bitches Brew” and some of his subsequent projects, which was so controversial in the ‘70s, was actually way ahead of its time. I wouldn’t argue that those albums were perfect …

I don’t think he would either. He didn’t think that about “Kind of Blue,” which is insane. He’s like, “Eh, we got close, it wasn’t exactly what I was trying to do. I was going for some other kind of sound, but it’s cool. The record’s cool.” [Laughs.]

Do you have that sense about his later music, that he was pushing for something that wouldn’t actually happen until later?

I think he always was. That’s what I thought about all his music, that he was always chasing something that he heard that not everybody else around him was hearing. And that he appreciated when people were doing the same thing, which is why he let Coltrane play for 20 minutes. He’s like, “He’s looking for something, he’s trying to fucking find something.” People are like, “Why do you let this guy go on for so long?” He’d say, “Because he’s working something out. And I appreciate that, I like that. Let him go until he gets to it.”

He created space for everybody else to do that. That’s why all those guys, whoever he played with went on to be leaders in their own right, and he was always chasing it. You listen to “Bitches Brew” -- that album sounds like it’s coming together and falling apart all at the same time. Here’s a dude who’s showing you how the sausage is made, which to me is the highest respect you can give to the listener. “I’m not going to give you my prepackaged thing, completely finished with a bow on it.” He’s like “I’m going to bring you into what it sounds like for us to figure some shit out.” The journey is the destination, right?

Yeah. “Deconstructionist” is an overused term in criticism, but it fits in this case. It feels like Miles was trying to do that in his music.

I agree. All the time. Every album, no matter how we want to see it, how the record company wants to put it out -- for Miles that was always in process and you hear it. There’s a song on “Quiet Nights” where he plays this really beautiful ballad, and as the last note is lingering and the drummer hits the last brushes on the snare, as soon as he finishes, he’s like, “Play that back! Play that back!” There’s no reverie, he’s like, “Next fucking song.” He lets you see the bad-haircut days, you know what I mean? He lets you go through it, like “Eh, that wasn’t so good, but the next one might be.”

I saw him in the “We Want Miles” tour [circa 1981]. And right there, if you look at that band, you’re like, “What’s he doing?” Of course he’s trying to do stuff with a rock guitar player and an African percussionist, and a nouveau-jazz clarinetist and a funk bass player and an R&B drummer. He’s trying to put a group together to spit out something that no one's ever heard before, including himself.

I think about stuff that came out just a little bit later, toward the end of his career or shortly after his death: A Tribe Called Quest, or the Roots. Groups that wouldn’t have been possible in an era when rock and hip-hop and R&B and jazz were understood as separate realms.

Yeah. You got a tuba in your band? You can't have a tuba. [Laughs.] They all sit on the shoulders of that kind of experimentation and that way of putting music together, which I would think started with his Gil Evans period, the nonet, Miles +13 or +14. Just different: a bassoon and a French horn, a sousaphone but no piano. Letting those instruments play the chords against what you’re soloing, or breaking your solos into parts. It just was a very different way to compose music.

This is something I’ve spoken to Wynton Marsalis about. He says, “People always want to talk shit about Miles because he stopped playing jazz. Because he never said that's what he did.” Out of his own mouth he said, “I’m not a jazz musician. I play ‘social music.’ I play the music of the time. I’m trying to deal with the sonics that are in front of me. I’m not trying to play old shit I played 40 years ago. I did that.” It just really shows you people’s need to compartmentalize. There’s this nostalgic thing about it too. “No! You’re the music to my first make-out session in the back seat. It’s not that! When I want that other thing, I listen to AC/DC or Hendrix.”

How many different looks do you think of when you think of Miles Davis? How many different styles? The cars, the women? He was always changing everything, so when you look at the whole picture I think you’re looking at a man who was in constant flux. So it makes perfect sense that he would try everything. It’s bad on us that we’re going, “But you’re this. You need to stay like that.”

Now I have to ask you about those reports that you were pressured to put a white sidekick in the movie, and that’s how Ewan McGregor’s role wound up in there?

When I talked about that after the #OscarsSoWhite thing, I thought, Oh, everybody’s gonna seize on that.” It wasn’t a white actor specifically, no one actually specifically said those words. But me and my team knew what was being said although it was not actually being said. What’s being said is, “You need an international piece of casting that can allow you to sell the film overseas.” We could’ve gotten a Japanese actor if we needed Japanese money. We could’ve gotten a big French actor, set it in France and gotten French investors. We needed another piece of casting that would allow us to sell to international markets, and more often than not, that piece of casting is a white actor. That’s just the way it is. It’s a reality.

And in fact you were able to use Ewan’s character to play with some of the racial and perceptual issues we’ve been talking about. How the purist jazz audience of that time, which was predominantly white, viewed Miles and his music.

Absolutely. I think it was nothing but additive. There was no, sort of, “Oh fuck, now we gotta cast Ewan McGregor.” You kidding? We get to cast Ewan McGregor and now we get to, without hitting it right on the head, explore and expose all of that stuff. Just the fact that he’s driving Miles and it’s the opposite of “Driving Miss Daisy.” He’s Miles’ chauffeur, he’s going around and doing this stuff for him that would let all those other things happen. The flashbacks, or the beating story, the love story, the muse story have a greater resonance. It gives us a bigger understanding of all that stuff. I think it was a brilliant piece of casting, actually. We were very fortunate to have him.

Talk about the challenges of playing someone who was very well known and had a larger-than-life public persona.

I didn’t want to do mimicry. It’s something that we also kind of bumped up against when we were doing “The Rat Pack.” [In which Cheadle played Sammy Davis Jr.] Our director was saying, “Look, I can get four guys from Vegas who can crush all these parts and sound like these guys and look like them, but I’m trying to get under that and reach something that makes that person tick. That’s way more important to me than you not looking or sounding like Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr.”

But there’s a balance. You can go to “I’m Not There” and have a little black kid and a woman play Bob Dylan. You can go all those ways, but we wanted to kind of have Miles Davis, or as close as we could, be the container. His voice is obviously emblematic of who he is; if you’re not doing that it’s hard for people to know who you are. But the way I plugged into that is that his voice became that way because he got in an argument with somebody about money after he had throat surgery and was told not to speak. I can wear that and totally own it and feel completely secure about it. It’s based in something, it comes out of character. All of the other stuff, that’s the container. That’s Miles. The hair, the sunglasses, the attitude.

How much were you thinking about the cultural change that was going on around Miles during this time period? Because of course it’s the ‘50s, it’s the Civil Rights era, it’s the chaos of the ‘70s and then it’s the edge of the Reagan years.

Again, I didn’t want it to be like about those things, about themes. I wanted it all to be story. We wanted to put that incident in front of Birdland [where Davis was arrested for loitering during a break between gigs], but it still needs to come out of the story we’re telling. It’s because of America, it’s because of racial issues, it’s because of things that if you’re a conscious, sentient being in 2016, we don’t have to go that far to understand. We’re looking at the election right now. You have to just whisper that out there and people will understand what you’re dipping your toe into.

For us, it was always also about the story. He rejects Frances, in a way. He rejects the muse. He turns away from that thing which feeds him, and sort of the Greek punishment for that is what happens out on that sidewalk. Don’t get too ahead of yourself. Don’t forget who you are. You step away from me, you’re stepping into that. That was in the storytelling of it. But, yeah, what’s underpinning that is everything that’s happening in the country with race: “I don’t care that you’re on the marquee. I don’t care that in there you’re a big dude. Out here you’re just a nigger on the street smoking a cigarette.” That was a part of who he was too, and I think when you go back into the present-day part of the movie with his edge, you get all that. There’s a lot of protection going on there. He was a very sensitive person, or he couldn’t have created what he created. That music can’t come out of an insensitive soul.

That comes through clearly. You explore all of these facets of his personality, but you don’t offer excuses for his worst behavior.

It’s not excusable, I don’t think, to the people to whom it’s happening. There’s no excuse that in any way excuses it. But there’s an interesting contract that’s happening [in Miles’ abusive relationship with Frances]. I understand a possessive person, a controlling person, a jealous person saying to someone else, “You have to quit everything you’re doing and support me.” But when the other person says yes to that, it’s like, oh, there’s only one way this can go. To us, the success of that story was that she did run out. That she eventually did say, “I’m out of here.”

Not to fling a spoiler into the middle of an interview, but there is one scene between Miles and Frances where the audience is going to be, “Wait, we don’t like this guy now.”

Yeah. If she goes down into that basement with him, that’s it, possibly. That might be it. She was good friends with someone else I talked with a lot, and she said, “That day really happened, that’s totally true, and she did know that if she went down those stairs she might not be coming back.” She said, “I just had to get into his insanity and focus it and be the matador for a second and say, ‘This way, bull.’ And he went that way, and I went that way and never came back since.” She sent somebody to get her clothes and that was it.

You’ve been outspoken at times about the racial dynamics of Hollywood. I wonder what you made of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s recent argument made the case that the Academy members are, by and large, not racist on an individual level, and that what happened with the Oscars the last two years probably came as a surprise to most of them. How do you read that situation?

You know, I have no idea. Without doing a survey of every individual member of the Academy that voted ... and knowing that even if you did, who’s going to tell you? The membership is predominantly white and over 50 and men. We can talk all day long about what we believe is better or worse. These are completely subjective determinations. Bias and all of those things always come into play when you’re picking anything. When you’re going to the store to pick mayonnaise or mustard you have a reason why. So it’s impossible for me.

I don’t know how people are snubbed. I think you can be snubbed by eight people, if they all decide together not to recognize you. But if we’re talking about 3,000 or 4,000 people or however many people are voting ... It feels like a snub is a singular decision made by a collective to not recognize something. That’s how I would feel, anyway. I think it’s very likely that everyone voted for those people that they like and the performances they thought were the best. Now, if they don’t have a frame of reference for “Straight Outta Compton,” which is likely, that doesn’t say anything about “Straight Outta Compton” being good or bad. It says something about their point of view. It says something about their perspective, potentially their bias, potentially how they value what is good or not. “Those aren’t even actors, they just got a bunch of gang-bangers and put them in a movie!”

I don’t know what people are thinking, so I guess if you address it with the membership and the membership is more diverse in every way — sex, age, sexual orientation — you may have different things come to the fore. And we may see that if these changes take place. I don’t know that you can say definitively that they’re not racist. I would never say that they are. But I don’t think you can say that they’re not either. We don’t know.

It’s like Chris Rock’s whole thing. Is it “lynch you” racism? No. Is it “burn a cross” racism? No. It’s maybe “You’re not quite ready for our sorority” racism. Where does that live, and what does that actually mean? We’re talking about something that starts way back in somebody’s office in Studio X, where they won’t even greenlight you.

It’s about what gets made, first and foremost.

It’s way more about that for me. It really matters.

But perspective matters too, right? In “Beasts of No Nation,” Idris Elba scared the crap out of people, and that generally has not been the way for a black actor to win an Oscar. It’s been about playing someone who is noble and suffering, or playing a criminal who is punished. Playing a really scary African warlord who recruits child soldiers is too frightening.

That’s right. And another thing — let’s be honest, we don’t know that everybody is seeing everything. It used to be that you had to go to the Academy, you had to check in, they had to know that you saw that movie and then you could vote for that movie or not. If you get 52 screeners at your house and watch four movies, then you’re voting for people who you like or don’t like. “Did you see ‘The Danish Girl’?” “No, but I think that guy’s a good actor, so I’m gonna vote for him.” I don’t know how these people are making these decisions.

The point of the actual Oscar or nomination itself -- it matters in the lifeblood of the movie sometimes, it matters in the parlay. I remember when “Hotel Rwanda” came out and we were getting different nominations, I was sitting next to an executive from MGM at the SAG Awards, and we didn’t win any SAG awards. And he said, “If we don’t get any Oscar buzz or nominations, we’re not going to put any more money into the advertising.” I said, “I can hear you. I’m sitting right next to you.” [Laughs.] He’s like, “Oh, yeah. If we don’t get any nominations why would I spend more money?” And that’s the first time I understood that, because before I was like, “Who cares? It’s a pageant.” No, this is critically important for our film to have legs.

It’s how the cultural economy functions, and it’s how the real economy functions for these studios. It gives them the ability to put that on the cover of that DVD package. That stuff matters. You see an uptick in money, which allows you to parlay your own career. In that way, that’s important. It’s not about going onstage and somebody handing you something and getting to thank a bunch of people. That’s the furthest from the important part of it.

“Miles Ahead” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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