Miles Ahead is not just your standard biopic about the life of the legendary jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. Don Cheadle, who not only stars as Davis but co-wrote the film, co-produced it, and made it his debut as a feature film director, wanted the movie to play like a Miles Davis jazz piece, focusing on one period of his life and flashing back from there, giving the movie an impressionistic, improvisational feel instead of just moving from point A to point B.
It remains to be seen how audiences react to that, but there’s no doubt that it’s a bold approach for a first-time director, especially when he’s also giving an outstanding performance in every frame of the movie. Screen Rant spoke with Cheadle this week in Los Angeles about directing for the first time and playing one of the icons of 20th century music – and of course we also asked him about the grim prospects for James Rhodes/War Machine, the superhero he plays in Captain America: Civil War who doesn’t look like he fares too well in the movie’s trailers.
I read that people had mentioned you for this role over the years, including members of the Davis family. Did you envision yourself actually doing it?
Don Cheadle: It wasn’t anything that I was out there trying to do. People go, “What kind of movie were you trying to do? What do you want to do next?” It wasn’t on a bucket list where I would go, “I’ve got to play Miles Davis at some point.” I was enamored with his music and I’ve loved it since I was 10 or 11 years old, but it wasn’t something that was really on the horizon for me.
But yes, as you said, people had been mentioning it to me for many years, not just when Vince (Davis, Miles’ nephew) said it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that I was going to play him. But others had mentioned things to me about it, saying, “That’s the one, that’s the thing you should do.” And I know other actors who had been trying to launch projects about Miles Davis. It just never took hold until we were able to do it in this iteration.
And when you did it, you’re not only starring in the movie, but you’re in every scene, you co-wrote it, you directed it…
Too much, right?
That’s a lot on your plate. How was it handling all that, particularly directing your first feature while starring in every frame of the film?
I tried to not think about any of that stuff and really just put one day in front of the next day and approach it like I would approach any project where I had a job to do and I know these were all the jobs I had to do and you do your homework the night before. You know, I had meetings every night before we worked with Roberto (Schaefer), my DP, and Pam Hirsch and Lenore (Zerman), my two producers, and we just tried to take it in small bites every day.
Any advice you ever get from one of your directors that kind of stuck in your head and that you were able to deploy while doing this one?
You know. I was talking to…. a lot, over the years, you know. People would tell me to do things before – Warren Beatty would say to me, “When you are going to direct?” I’d say, “I don’t know, I’m not ready to direct.” He’d say, “You’re never ready to direct. Just go.” Denzel asked me the same thing, whenever I worked with him, I’d see him and he’d go, “When are you going to direct your movie?” He was like, “Man, get out there and do that thing.” So there was this sort of idea from all of the guys that I worked with that a) it was time for me to do it and b) there was very little they could tell me other than stay healthy, get good sleep and let the people around you that you’ve put in those positions help you. It’s a collaborative effort – best answer wins.
This isn’t the standard biopic – “He was born, he did this, he did that…”
It plays almost musically, like a Miles piece. Is that the effect you wanted?
Absolutely, 100 percent. I wanted this movie to be about creativity, as opposed to being instructional about any of those dates in his life or somehow trying to diagram genius or diagram this gift, which I didn’t know how to make that inherently dramatic or actually how to do it. I know how to talk about someone’s vulnerabilities. I know how to experience fear and regret and loss and desire to own your own story and feel like everyone’s biting it and picking at it and tearing it apart. And I wanted it to feel like a piece of music and something that was like a Miles Davis experience as opposed to an instruction manual about Miles Davis’ life.
I’d like to switch gears before we go – we’re going to see you in a few weeks in Captain America: Civil War and it looks like War Machine’s in a world of hurt in the trailers we’ve seen. What can you tell me about his journey and his role in the story?
Internal injuries – I mean, when you’ve got blood coming from your ears and your nose, that’s bad, yeah. That’s what I can tell you (laughs).
Miles Ahead is now playing in theaters.