In the new film Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle—who writes, directs and stars—shows moviegoers a fascinating side to jazz legend Miles Davis they might have never before seen. But just as vivid as his portrayal of Davis is leading lady Emayatzy Corinealdi’s turn as Frances Davis, Miles’ long-suffering muse and wife.
Here, Corinealdi—a veteran of Hand of God, who’ll also appear in the upcoming A+E Network reboot of Roots—talks about complicated women, stars in the age of privacy and how the way she listens to Miles Davis has changed forever.
There’s a lot of interest in the lives of jazz musicians right now—movies about Miles Davis and Chet Baker are out this month. Why do you think we’re looking to people like them at the moment?
I think it’s really more of a timing thing than anything, because this film was 10 years in the making! It could have happened anywhere along that process, but it’s here right now. But, when films of similar subjects do kind of coincide I always find that fascinating. I think that in this case, there is a curiosity about culture, music and people from time periods in the past because we can go online right now and find out what our favorite person is doing, what they are eating, where they are going next week. There’s really just nostalgia about a time when you didn’t know everything about a person.
Is that part of what attracted you to the film?
I got involved through an audition; it was really through just kind of a standard process at the beginning. When I first read the script, I was excited about it just because Don Cheadle was the director, and he has always been someone I wanted to work with. And then there was Miles being the subject—along with his marriage to Frances—and that was fascinating to me. I always look forward to an opportunity to portray a woman who has some complexity to her.
How did you approach playing her?
Don actually put me in touch with Frances, and she and I met for lunch many times out here in Los Angeles. She shared so many wonderful stories with me and we had great conversations, so that was the bulk of my research. That is a really wonderful thing to have. That doesn’t happen all that often. So, that coupled with me doing a lot of my own research to learn more about Miles Davis—reading a lot of biographies and things like that—helped to piece it together for me.
And so once the research was done, what was your experience like making the film. It’s not an easy story to watch, so I wonder if it was an easy one to tell.
I really tip my hat to Don, because he just took command of this. He’s been working on the project for almost 10 years now, not just acting but directing it and producing it and co-writing it. That’s a lot to take on, and he just did it so well. I was always in awe of his ability to navigate.
What was your favorite part of the movie to film?
One of my favorite things was we had a scene where we were in a jazz club and Don is up on stage performing as Miles. And he’s at that point when the club clears out and it’s just me. So, he’s just performing for Frances, which is something that she told me would happen often. After his sets, he would perform just to her. So, for me sitting in there watching him actually playing the trumpet, I had a reaction on both levels—in character and as myself. As a character, it was the feeling of pride in knowing that she was his muse and is kind of bringing out this creativity in him. And then on a personal level, I’m sitting out there and I’m like, OK, this is Don Cheadle playing the trumpet in this club just to me. That was just really, really amazing to me.
Did making this movie change your opinion of Miles Davis at all?
Whenever I hear one of the songs, I think about the film. I also learned a lot about Miles Davis; at the beginning, I didn’t know as much as I do now. I learned the bulk of my knowledge about him through doing the film. And now when I hear his music, I am listening for different things, I’m wondering what time period he recorded it and what that meant. But I don’t ever need a break from him. I don’t think you ever really need a break from Miles.