“I’m knackered,” Don Cheadle declares as he sits down. “People ask, ‘What does London look like?’ and I say, ‘Cars, hotel rooms, strangers with mics!’” Publicity is not Cheadle’s favourite thing, but he can’t avoid it. His latest film, Miles Ahead (in cinemas now), sees the Oscar-nominated star of Hotel Rwanda not just playing jazz legend Miles Davis, but also directing, co-writing and producing.
Given the level of his involvement, Cheadle came to the project reluctantly. In fact, his participation was announced before he’d even been asked by Davis’s nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr, following his uncle’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2006.
Former Davis collaborators had been saying that he should play the musical revolutionary for years, so “it had been in the ether”, says Cheadle. However, Wilburn was keen to get moving on it. “I think he just thought, ‘Well, how about I just stop all the pussyfooting and just announce it?’” But it came at a time when the actor was worried about being typecast as the go-to man for black historical figure roles. Having played Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda and Sammy Davis Jr in a TV biopic, taking on Miles Davis was “just the opposite” of what he wanted.
“It seemed I was getting nothing but offers to do things of that nature. I was feeling like I was about to get pigeonholed. I was saying, ‘Give me something, anything, other than some period piece with the first black man to…’”
Often he’d been put off by the way the characters were portrayed as either “savage or saint” and the way the scripts would depict a subject as “important, and you’re supposed to feel a certain way. Who wants that experience?” He laughs, adding that he dubbed them “What Did Your Grandaddy Do? movies, because it was always white producers. I was like, ‘What are you trying to exorcise?’”
Cheadle wanted the films to be “dynamic and exciting” with three-dimensional characters who had “foibles, to see their humanity”. When he finally talked to representatives from Davis’s estate, none of the ideas they had excited him. They were too conventional, too much like other films he’d seen.
Cheadle first heard Davis’s music when his parents played his LPs. But he only really came to know who Davis was when he started playing alto sax at school and realised that what he was being given to learn was far less complex and interesting than the music he was hearing at home. “So then I got hip to Miles and started rifling through my parents’ albums and found Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue. That’s when I started getting into it.”
After graduating from high school, he saw Davis play a gig and became fascinated as much by the man as the music. “He was just a very intriguing, enigmatic figure.” He told Davis’s family, “Everything that Miles said to me as an artist was: ‘Go get out there on the edge and figure out a way to push yourself over it, or have somebody push you over it and figure it out on the way down.’” The film, he therefore insisted, “needs to be gangster. It needs to be hot. It needs to be action. It needs to feel like we’re walking around in a Miles Davis composition. So if you find somebody to write that and you get a director, give me a call.’”
They quickly realised that no one would make a film that way, so Cheadle found himself wearing multiple hats. Getting the funding took years, however – Cheadle has said that casting a white actor was a “financial imperative”, hence his hiring of Ewan McGregor as a fictional Rolling Stone journalist who joins Miles during his late-70s “silent period” in an action-packed hunt to retrieve a stolen session tape.
He now qualifies this, saying, “I could put parentheses around ‘white actor’; I could say ‘international piece of casting’ . So, the ‘white actor’ could have been Denzel Washington,” he laughs. “They just needed something to let them say, ‘I know how to sell that overseas.’”
I ask whether he regrets framing the problem in racial terms and he shakes his head. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about it. It’s conflated with #OscarsSoWhite, it’s conflated with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s conflated with f ***ing Donald Trump, so I think it’s good to have that be a part of the conversation. But let’s be clear, it is just a part of the conversation.”
For Cheadle, the bigger issue is who is deciding what films get made in Hollywood. “Where are the executives, the people of colour and different ethnicities and genders, to be able to say ‘yes’ to greenlight a movie?”
When he was starting out, he looked up to Sidney Poitier, Yaphet Kotto, Ossie Davis, Denzel Washington – black actors with careers that gave him something to “aim for in my imagination”. Today, it would be hard to find a better role model than the multi-tasking Cheadle. “I don’t think of myself in those terms,” he says. “But I am glad that I am here and that someone might look at me and think, ‘Is this a path that I should go on? Yes.’”
Miles Ahead is in cinemas now