Interview: Actor Don Cheadle Discovers Himself ‘Miles Ahead’

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CHICAGO – Like improvisational jazz, the performance career of Don Cheadle has many moods, directions and shadings. For his latest film, he takes on the titles of co-writer and director, along with the lead role of music legend Miles Davis. This all comes together is the aptly titled “Miles Ahead.”

Cheadle applies a different kind of music biography spin, with a centerpiece story about Davis that operates as a mythical framework for the musician’s life story, told in a loose flashback format. The cinematic structure is jazzy and kinetic, and it moves forward with an energy all of its own, driven by the frenetic soundtrack of the man himself. As a director, Cheadle has crafted something outside the norm, a visual blend that could be at home within the florid sweep of a Miles Davis composition.

Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in ‘Miles Ahead’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and lauched his acting career with a BFA degree from the California Institute of Fine Arts. He got his Screen Actors Guild card through an appearance in “Moving Violations” (1985), and went on to roles in “Colors” (1988) and a number of television jobs, including regular parts in “Golden Palace” and “Picket Fences.” It was a showy character named Mouse in the film “Devil in the Blue Dress” (1995) that first got Cheadle rave reviews, and he parlayed that into character roles in “Boogie Nights” (1997), HBO’s “The Rat Pack” (1998, as Sammy Davis, Jr.) and “Traffic” (2000).

It was his portrayal of real-life Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda” (2004) that got Cheadle a Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and he also produced and starred in the Academy’s Best Picture in 2005, “Crash.” He has shown his comedic side in the “Ocean’s 11” heist series, and in 2010 joined the Marvel superhero family as Iron Man’s sidekick – War Machine – and will repeat the role in the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War.”

The brightly intelligent and cooly regal presence of Don Cheadle was evident as he sat down to talk to about his directing debut in “Miles Ahead.” There is a visual feel that is fresh and kinetic in your film. Besides Miles’ music itself, what inspired the visual style for you, and did you storyboard it from the screenplay or allow a shot list to guide your efforts?

Don Cheadle: We shot listed the film, and storyboarded the more challenging scenes – there were definite ‘game plan’ moments that we knew we couldn’t freewheel. As much as we could, we wanted the whole thing to be loose and improvisational. It’s tricky to do that in a film, because so many ‘knowns’ have to occur. We’d knock off all the knowns we could and then tried to feel the energy, let it become spontaneous and make it feel like a Miles Davis composition. The philosophy was to be experiential, and not instructional. This is being called the ‘anti-biography,’ much like the film ‘I’m Not There.’ As you were developing this story, when did it click that this direction was going to work best for what you wanted to say about Miles?

Cheadle: The word ‘work’ in your question is in the eye of the beholder. [laughs] We felt pretty confident about our approach, and we didn’t want to travel on a road that had come before. With Miles, we wanted it to be loose, even in the flashbacks – which to us didn’t feel like flashbacks – we wanted to treat them as a story tumbling forward.

We didn’t want to leave the point we were at, come back to it, than start all over. We looked at non-linear films like ‘Toto the Hero’ [1991] and ‘Run Lola Run’ [1998], that have these different points of view, but all feel like there is a momentum that is pushing forward, and that’s how we constructed our story. You famously learned to play the trumpet in completing your characterization. Which Miles Davis riff, that you learned to play, defined the emotion and feel for the film, and how did it eventually flow through your fingers and your instrument, and guide you as a characteristic?

Cheadle: Number one, learning how to play, and just thinking, ‘goddamn, this is such a mean instrument.’ It’s unforgiving – you can put it down for just three days, and then feel like you never learned it ever. Every trumpet player I talked to had the same advice, ‘you have to stay with it.’

You saw it in the film. Miles always carried his mouthpiece around, and was always working on his embouchure [muscle memory for wind instruments], even when he wasn’t playing. He was trying to keep the musculature in shape, but of course as we depict in the film, he lost that. What about the dive into the music?

Cheadle: All of his music touches all genres, and what’s been really fun is bumping into folks who knew I was making the film, and depending on what bag they were in or where they were coming from, how different their entry points were in regards to Miles Davis. I’ve met people who didn’t know anything about Miles Davis before ‘Bitches Brew’ [1970] because of its rock fusion. I’ve met people who didn’t know him before ‘Tutu’ [1986], and even younger folks who only know his work with Scritti Politti, Human Nature and Cindy Lauper. They’d ask, ‘You mean, there was stuff thirty years before that?’ Yes, dude.

I hope that the film will spur people to listen to all the different genres and all the different facets of the musical experience in which he performed. That was Miles Davis. You’ve portrayed two African American entertainers – Sammy Davis, Jr. and Miles Davis – who had to endure the American apartheid of their 1950s/’60s era, despite their tremendous popularity and talent. As a man born in another generation, how do you relate to the pain of this unfairness?

Cheadle: I wish we could say that we’re past it. We’re sitting in a city now that has just gone through several months of this type of debate. In some ways, it’s more dispiriting and more disheartening, we’re still talking about it, and it’s still here. I lived in Los Angeles right before the riots in the 1990s, and lived in L.A. under police chief Darryl Gates. It was policy for African Americans to be targeted, we didn’t dream it up.

Don Cheadle Director
Don Cheadle Directs a Scene in ‘Miles Ahead’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics There was a scene in that HBO film, ‘The Rat Pack,’ where you were portraying Sammy and he was dissed by the other guys. You just gave sort of an off-stage look that said it all…

Cheadle: What was interesting about that moment – it wasn’t in the script. I didn’t want to take the role for a long time, because none of the separateness of Sammy while within the Pack was addressed. They came back to me and said it wasn’t a race movie. I knew it wasn’t about race, but I just thought if we left out that part we were leaving behind an important element of his situation during that time, especially if we didn’t see how he dealt with it.

I told them, ‘you know what I need. Let the joke come out, and set up a camera upstage. Let me play the sad clown, and then turn around and show the audience the truth through my expression.’ Just that duality, and the necessity to absorb that blow and just go on, that’s all the audience needed to see. That changed everything. Since you were in effect ‘directing yourself’ as the title character, what technique did you use to separate the acting assignment from the directing assignment, and did they ever clash during the shoot?

Cheadle: No, because everybody knew the drill. There were moments when I was performing as Miles, and had an actor across from me as a partner in the scene. I would call ‘cut,’ and then give an instruction as myself as director. ‘Now this time I want you to…” [laughs]

I’d often get, ‘you’re my f**king scene partner, stop directing me.’ All my fellow actors in the piece were down with it, they’re were all pros, and actually became my support system. And I empowered them – if anybody thought something didn’t flow right, they were empowered to even say, ‘I think you need another take.’ There were no hard lines between the jobs and the roles on the set. You began your media acting career in television. What role do you think got you the attention that took you on a path in four years from Picket Fences to Boogie Nights?

Cheadle: Most people would probably point to ‘Devil in the Blue Dress’ [1995]. That role happened in a very interesting year as well, as it was another situation in which black actors were frozen out of all the major Oscar acting nominations. They included me in the snubbing, and I got as much attention for not getting a nomination, as if I had gotten one. [laughs] Getting snubbed worked out for me. Do you think a world could exist in which superheroes were real, or do you think they would be exploited and cause an unbalance in the sense of our equality? And which of War Machine’s powers do you best enjoy?

Cheadle: [Laughs] To answer the first part, I don’t think we’re ready for super powers. It would either exploit others or be exploited. On the the other hand, I guess humans have had a good run, maybe it is time for another species. We don’t seem to do things very well. As far as War Machine’s powers, who wouldn’t want to fly? Your work to end genocide has been some of most important of your life. How can we as human beings best understand a circumstance like genocide, as we’re buried within ourselves in America?

Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle in Chicago
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Cheadle: I think at this point genocide has been fairly well documented. If people want to access the information, they can. There is limited bandwidth as to what we deal with regarding the situation, and right now we’re all focused on the election, and nothing else can get daylight. But I think if you ask yourself these questions – how can we deal with it? How can we impact the world? – we can find the answers if we ask ourselves openly. I did.

Are you part of a church group? Are you part of a school? Do you do work in the community? There are ways to put your attention on issues you want to address. There are levers you can pull, you just have to do a deep dive into your own self. But especially seek community, seek people who are like minded and want to do the same thing. Form a wedge, instead of being one individual trying to tilt against the windmills. My impression of Don Cheadle as a celebrity is as a man of class and bearing. How did you react when people began to first recognize you, and what is your feeling when you accosted by admirers in your regular life?

Cheadle: Most people who approach me, they’re very respectful, they usually want to talk about how they admire a particular performance that I’ve done. BUT, I do have to say that now that everyone has a camera, it’s a little different. I feel sometimes that I’m just an item that people need to check off in a treasure hunt. It’s like, ‘I got one! I got a dude that’s on something!’ [laughs] Then it is posted for all that social media.

Sometimes I’ll say, instead of taking a picture, ‘why don’t we sit and chat for a minute.’ They look at me like, ‘what good is that to me? I don’t want to talk, I need the photo, because otherwise how can I prove I met you?’ I’m just a relic. My kids are always saying, ‘what are they going to do with that shit? You’re just my dumb Dad.’ [laughs] If Miles Davis were Charles Foster Kane, what would be his ‘Rosebud’?

Cheadle: I don’t know what his ‘Rosebud’ would be, because Miles was so mercurial, and was constantly shifting. His secret was that he was inexhaustible in his search for the next thing or the next sound. For Miles, that was always changing. The people who knew him said he was an extremely restless person, and easily bored. He just was uncomfortable with stasis.

“Miles Ahead” continues its nationwide release in Chicago on April 8th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Keith Stanfield and Emayatzy Corinealdi. Written by Don Cheadle and Steve Baigelman. Directed by Don Cheadle. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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