After a few small roles on TV – including a recurring part on the soap opera The Young and the Restless — Emayatzy Corinealdi scored a breakout role when she landed the lead – and made her motion picture debut — in Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere. Since then she’s appeared on Amazon’s Hand of God and now will be seen in Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead as Frances Taylor – the first wife of jazz icon Miles Davis and arguably the muse for some of his greatest works.
Frances is seen only in flashbacks, with Miles (Cheadle) recalling their turbulent relationship many years after it has ended and while he is in the grip of profound drug addiction and health problems. But Corinealdi is a luminous presence in the film, and was equally luminous when we sat down with her earlier this week in Los Angeles.
You play a woman in this film, Frances, who is a muse for Miles Davis, she’s almost seen in an iconic fashion. What’s the challenge in taking a role like that and making sure the audience sees her as a real human being and not just this symbol up on a pedestal?
Emayatzy Corinealdi: It does have its own set of challenges, especially even just portraying someone who is living, you know, who is still here with us. You know, you want to honor that person, but at the same time, you have to respect the art as well. So you have to find the balance between the two. And then just, it was important to me to make sure that her story was told. You know, I couldn’t find a lot of information about Frances online when I began this process, so it was important to me that people knew who she was, outside of just being the wife of Miles Davis.
She’s still alive?
See, I didn’t know that because you’re right, there’s not a lot of information about her out there. Did you get to meet her?
I did. I met her – we’ve had about four or five lunches or so. She lives here in L.A. and she’s beautiful. Just a beautiful woman. She’s seen the movie and been to the premieres and really is excited about it finally happening and the movie finally coming out.
Did you meet her before doing the part?
And did that give you more insight into her and Miles?
Absolutely. It was really – again, if I hadn’t had that, you know, it would have been more of me trying to find out, think about, create for myself who this woman was. So really it was a gift to be able to meet her beforehand. So we had many conversations before we even started filming.
How much did you know about Miles’ music going into this?
Just a very little bit. You know, my dad was an avid record collector and had all his albums, but I really didn’t know who he was and know about his music until doing the film and just in my own research before doing the film.
What do you think his legacy is?
Oh man. You know, one of the things I love about Miles Davis is that he never – -he was very unorthodox. He never stayed in one lane. He was always changing, always trying to be better, and I think that that is something that will stand. He put his stamp on so many different things. He played jazz, but he doesn’t classify his music as jazz music. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I mean, he can’t be categorized, and so I think that that is something that will stand.
Can you talk about working with Don both as an actor and a director?
It was really wonderful. It was really wonderful. Working with a director who is also an actor, there’s just an innate understanding that you have between each other, you know. He’s going to take care of you in that sense. He knows how to structure certain scenes and things like that – things that directors maybe don’t always think about because they’re not actors. So that was wonderful. And then just working with him as a director, Don to me just comes off as one of those people that really respects the craft and takes it seriously, and so you know that he is capable. He is capable. He’s this first-time director, but he’s not new in that sense. So it was really freeing for me and reassuring that I could find it without being concerned about anything else that had nothing to do with that.
Miles Ahead is now playing in theaters.