Don Cheadle: We Had to Get a White Actor to Get 'Miles Ahead' Funded

Don Cheadle's taking over the world.

Image via Sony

If anyone is a renaissance man, it's Don Cheadle. The 51-year-old actor has been in just about everything from high budget superhero flicks to small indie dramas to the small screen with his current show, House of Lies. He's also a producer, writer and director. The man really has done it all in front of the camera—so now he's going behind it too.

For his feature directorial debut, Cheadle took on telling the story of Miles Davis (he also co-wrote the movie and is starring as Davis in it), focusing in on a few days the jazz legend that he spent with a music reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) in 1979. Cheadle uses this dark period of Davis' life to further explore his history, including his fraught relationship with his wife, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and how music saved him many times over. 

We sat down with Cheadle to talk about Miles Davis, Hollywood's problems with diversity, and the sage directing advice Cheadle got from George Clooney. 

I'm honestly surprised nothing has been made, before this, on Miles Davis.
It was years in the making. Even before that, predating me, Frances [Taylor, Davis' wife] said she was approached about making a movie in the '70s. So it's been a long time. 

Was there any pushback on trying to make a movie about a black jazz musician, starring you, a black actor? 
We had to get a white actor to make this movie go. To be truthful, I imagine we could have had a Chinese actor. If we were going to shoot it in China, or focus on the story about Miles in China, we could get money from China. Or a big French actor, if we were going to do it in Paris. So having Ewan, who has a European presence that by metrics people are determining make it a better risk, was absolutely essential to us getting our budget and being able to go forward.

Which is sort of depressing in itself. Just the fact that it took that. I look at movies in the '90s and I'm not sure if any of them would get made today.​
It's just risk averse—people are risk averse, and always looking for excuses to say, "No." Not reasons to say, "Yes." 

Then why was this the movie that you wanted to make?
This is the movie I was told I was going to make. It was declared by Vince Wilburn at Miles Davis induction ceremony in 2006 at the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, that they were going to do a movie about his life and that I was going to play him. So I hadn't called to ask what's up with that Miles Davis movie? He said, “You're up with that Miles Davis movie.” And then we started the process of trying to figure out how to put that together. I was not interested in doing any movies about actual historical figures, I wanted to play modern people from the time that I was living in, that were relevant to that timeline. I wasn't out seeking it.

This is the first feature you've directed. Was there a difference in helming this?
It's a much bigger stage that you're on. It could have been a lot more challenging if the people around me weren't down for the ride and not willing to go with the moments where I needed to direct as Miles because I was trying to stay in character and focus on my own work, as well as do the directing. [But] it was very challenging. I don't know if I would ever do it like this again. My wife came down and visited halfway though and said, "You can't do this anymore." I lost weight, I was stressed out, and I wasn't sleeping. It was rough. 

Was it just the stress of that double duty?
Yes, it was. But I remember I talked to George Clooney before I was starting. I said, "Hey, any ideas, any tips, anything you can tell me?" And he goes, "Do your pushups." [Laughs.] And he goes, "No I'm dead serious, do pushups. Stay healthy. Drink water. Get sleep." You have to take care of yourself as a human, you cannot go down during this. You can't get sick, and I can't believe I didn't get sick during the whole time, but emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, I got sick as shit. But my physical body actually maintained.

Did you have any fear going in, about having to make a biopic? 
Well, they can often feel like the CliffsNotes version of someone's life. 

I really didn’t like Steve Jobs for that reason. 
It can often feel like you're checking boxes, and I think biopics often are concerned with how they're highlighting moments that you know about, and giving you different views of that, or introducing some new aspect of this character that you didn't know about. And for me, just personally, with this artist, this voice of the 20th century, one of the greatest artists of our time—of any time really—I wanted the movie to feel like an experience of his music, rather than be about everything that he did. I wanted it to be experiential.

For Miles, it was all process—the destination was the process. And that to me, is what we hope: as actors, we always want to be in the moment, we always want to be malleable, we always want to be permeable, and let things act on us, as opposed to going, "This is what I've planned to do, and I'm going to present that to you, and that's the performance." I'm going to be out here, and I don't know what's going to happen. I'm going to be alive. I want to be available. I don't want to be calcified.

To read more coverage of SXSW 2016, click here.

Latest in Pop Culture