Most moviegoers know Don Cheadle from his work in blockbusters like Captain America, Avengers, Iron Man, Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen. Those more eclectic fans will know him from his Oscar-nominated role in the harrowing drama Hotel Rwanda, from Oscar-winning Crash and his award-winning role in the film noir Devil in a Blue Dress.
He is a well-known and well-respected face in Hollywood, and he has moved seamlessly between various movie genres.
But he is breaking ground in his new film drama, Miles Ahead, which looks at the tumultuous life of iconic trumpeter Miles Davis. Cheadle has moved behind the camera in his first effort at directing and, like his eclectic filmography, his range shows up in the directorial debut.
Unlike linear biopics, Cheadle focuses on the musician's visceral talent, inner demons and sense of humor in a film noir type of thriller of car chases, shootouts and drug addiction.
My interview with Cheadle was his first of the day. Lucky me — as he was still fresh, and our conversation was a more leisurely affair than the normal whirlwind conversations that are part and parcel of most film tour interviews.
Nearly decade in making
Cheadle talked about the struggles he went through just to get the film made. The idea for the film came during Davis' 2006 induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Davis' nephew suggested a biopic and pitched Cheadle as Davis.
But Cheadle says he didn't want to just play the role, but to direct the film as well, and to make a nonlinear biopic reflecting the soul of the man through his music compositions and wild character. The film exudes attitude.
"If I am going to do a movie on Miles Davis I want it to be gangster, I want it to be wild, I want it to be impressionistic,” Cheadle said. “Feel like its free form and it can go anywhere, really feel what its music feels like. Not trying to tackle everything from cradle to grave."
But the cameras wouldn't start rolling for nearly ten years.
Labor of love
When they did, it was a labor of love. Cheadle's love for Davis went way back.
As a kid, Cheadle played the sax, which came in handy during filming of him playing the tumpet as the iconic Davis.
The film opens in the late ‘70s, during a fallow period for Davis. He is a recluse with a limp and a cocaine addiction.
Ewan McGregor costars as a Rolling Stone freelancer — a fictional white, charming loopy wannabee named Dave Braden, who knocks at Davis' door asking him to do a story on "his comeback." Davis, is a fraying, leathery, surly addict who doesn't take kindly to the comment and punches the reporter in the face.
Then, he invites him in. The film chronicles one frenzied day in the life of Davis with the reporter in tow.
The two set out to recover a set of Davis' unreleased music reels stolen from the musician's home by a couple of studio gangsters.
"It's based on a lot of incidents," Cheadle said. "Like any biopic, characters are composites and amalgams. Miles made a secret recording that went missing. He was shot in a drive-by. He had many reporters coming to him during this period of time trying to get the story."
The film gets into Miles’ background through flashbacks. It juxtaposes the older, paranoid Davis with his younger, confident — albeit arrogant — self, at the top of his game. With Miles on the cusp between realism and remembrance, we learn of his emotional dependence on his former wife — talented dancer Frances Taylor — and his abusive behavior toward her both physically and emotionally.
Cheadle does not sugarcoat Davis' transgressions — he loves the music icon, for who he was and what he created.
"HIs approach to creativity which was: Do it different, don't do the same thing, be on the edge of your creativity, don't be safe. All of that stuff was what Miles did," Cheadle said.
Cheadle portrays him as soft spoken, yet intense. Through his hushed voice, Davis commands attention. As a reporter and as a fan, Dave Braden — played by McGregor — will go the extra mile to get to know Davis. He becomes the confidant, the cocaine provider, the sleuth and Davis' anchor to present-day reality.
The white factor
Cheadle says his teaming with McGregor was a great artistic experience, but also a necessary pairing with a white star to get the film made.
"I'd have more difficulty financing it unless the actor that I picked had international appeal. … And having Ewan McGregor and selling to the UK was a huge piece of the pie that we needed in order to get the ball rolling," Cheadle said.
On the heels of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Cheadle neither defends nor chastises the industry.
A pragmatist and a celebrity, he sees Hollywood as a big business, "averse to risk and fear-based."
That does not mean he defends its typecasting stereotypes. Hollywood, he says, doesn't take purposeful aim against blacks and other minorities; however, its decisions can lead to racism and bias all the same.
My conversation with Cheadle switches gears onto his upcoming superhero flick, Captain America: Civil War, with a superstar cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans and Elizabeth Olsen.
I ask him if this is his last one of the series.
"We never know," he said. "Marvel keeps all that under lock and key and I just get a call one day, 'Hey, show up.' And then I guess I am in the next one. You never know."
"But, I understand you are not having a good end on this one ..." I said.
He feigned surprise. "What happens?"
"I don't know," I smirked.
"I don't either," he shrugged, and left it under wraps. "You do not expect me to tell you, right?"
His Miles Davis biopic is visceral, honest and creative. His performance as Davis is maybe his best so far. But I sure hope he gets a Marvel call for the next superhero extravaganza.