In a project that is eight years in the making, Don Cheadle stars in his directorial debut as the legendary musician Miles Davis. “Miles Ahead” is a film that pays reverence not only to the musician, but also to Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor Davis, the woman who inspired his critically acclaimed seventh album, “One Day My Prince Will Come.” The gracious and stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi stars as Ms. Taylor Davis in “Miles Ahead”. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with her about the role, working with Don Cheadle and connecting with the real Frances Taylor Davis.
Aramide Tinubu: How did you come on to “Miles Ahead”? What excited you about the project?
Emayatzy Corinealdi: Well I came on through the normal audition process. I went on tape, and then Don saw the tape and I was cast from there. What excited me about the film was Miles Davis himself. He’s someone that I didn’t know all that much about at that time. But, my dad was an avid record collector and had all of his albums. However, he was always just kind of mysterious to me, I just didn’t know that much about him, so that was interesting. And then there was the relationship that he and Frances had, which I knew nothing about. So, when I was reading the script, it was just so enthralling as a woman to read this woman’s life story. She existed in a time where it was tough for Black people in general to do anything, and she still was able to achieve all that she had achieved in her career. She was one of the original members of “West Side Story”. She was in “Mr. Wonderful” opposite Sammy Davis Jr., and she was this prima ballerina. She was cultured. So, to have all of that and to be in this relationship with Miles Davis and he tells you he wants you to quit your career…
AT: And you do it.
EC: Yes, and you do it. That for me as I was reading it, I thought this is fascinating because in this day in age that’s not something that would really happen, and even more so just for me, I asked myself ‘Would you do that?!!” Whenever scripts make you ask those questions to yourself you know there’s something there. So for me, that’s what made me excited. And on top of all of that, it’s Don Cheadle and he’s just one of those actors that if you can get the opportunity to work opposite, than you better do it. All of that is what brought me to “Miles Ahead.”
AT: Speaking about Don Cheadle, he’s this thespian, but this is his directorial debut. Despite his immeasurable talent as an actor, were you nervous at all about the fact that he was stepping behind the camera?
EC: No actually, that’s not something I was nervous about at all. I was just nervous in general about working opposite Don Cheadle (laughing). But that was really it. I didn’t really think about the directing portion, because though this is his first film outside of directing episodes of “House of Lies”, I just see Don as one of those consummate actors who just knows how to do everything already. If you’ve been doing something for so long, and for so many years, you pick up things so that’s not something that I was concerned with going into it. I was just excited to work with him as an actor. And then, to work with him as a director on his directorial debut was also exciting to me.
AT: Did you have the opportunity to speak with Ms. Frances Taylor Davis about her relationship with Miles Davis? Was she excited about your portrayal of her in the film?
EC: Oh yes, the family was just involved in general. They really were just very supportive of the film and they were a large part of the conversation with Don and very accessible and very hands on. When Don first told me he was going to hook me up with Frances, I just said “Oh my God yes!” I was just so excited to have the opportunity; it was wonderful. I met her in LA, and we had lunch at this beautiful café on Sunset Boulevard. When I met her, I kind of didn’t know that to expect, but I didn’t expect to meet this little vivacious, full of life, dynamic woman. She really is just a ball of energy, and a ball of life. Interestingly enough, you can almost see how someone would want to take that and keep it for themselves. You can understand how Miles wanted to just cage her in.
AT: Yes, they were opposites. After all, he was know as the Prince of Darkness
EC: Yes, Frances just has this light. So for me, it was really exciting to get the chance to meet her. She was so open and forthcoming with stories and sharing things with me. She’s just as excited that Miles’ story is being told as anyone else. Despite their tumultuous relationship, she’s able to see the genius part of the work that he did, while not excusing the horrible side of his behavior. Which again for me speaks to her strength as a woman. She was able to love him, give up her career, make all of these scarifies, and she was still strong enough to leave when she saw that their relationship was going nowhere.
AT: Oh most definitely.
EC: And, she also never went back, which I think is to really be applauded. I think it was really fantastic on her end.
AT: Absolutely. Going back to her career, Ms. Davis was trained by the legendary dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham. Did you take on any dance training for your role?
EC: Yes, I worked with our choreographers Drew Lachey and his wife [Lea Dellecave]. I have very minimal formal dance experience. I have lots of hip-hop dance experience; I used to take class and everything. However, when it came to ballet I was like, I have to get this right, this woman was a ballerina for Katherine Dunham. So I was all for the prep that needed to happen. And then, for me on a personal level, my mom always wanted me be a ballerina, and I was just adamant that I wanted to be a track star. I wanted nothing to do with ballet.
AT: (Laughing). Oh I’ve been there. It’s a rough sport.
EC: (Laughing) Yes. So, when this came along, it was a personal thing for me, I just really want to do it for Frances and my mother as well. I worked with the choreographers and they really made sure that I got my posture and the movements and everything down, as well as all of the different positions. I mean we really worked. It was very important to me to make sure that it was authentic and real, and that I looked like I knew what I was doing.
AT: As you said, Miles and Frances’ relationship was often extremely volatile and physically violent. How did you and Mr. Cheadle prepare for those heart-wrenching scenes?
EC: We had a conversation at dinner before we started filming and we talked all of that through. I think for me, it was just going from the perspective of what I felt she was fighting for in each of those moments. What is that she was trying to get? Those moments were difficult especially in that one particular scene when he’s convinced that she’s cheating. It’s so hard to fight against someone who is stuck in what they believe whether you agree with it or not. For me, it was about approaching all of those scenes from her truth, and what she believes is happening. In that particular moment she realizes, “I might not make it out of this. I’ve got to come up with something,” At that point she was fighting for her life. In the scene where he asks her to stop dancing, she’s fighting for her career and her relationship. She doesn’t quite know how to react. She never says, “Yes.”
AT: She just leaves.
EC: Right, she doesn’t know how to take that, but ultimately, we see that’s what she chose. The conversation that Don and I had early on, was talking through our thoughts about how they felt about each other. Don has so much information about Miles, and he’s been living with this project for a lot longer than I have. He really gave me a lot of helpful insight as well. And then for me doing a lot of my own research on Miles Davis. Reading these autobiographies and biographies and things like that, so that I was as educated as I could be about his perspective on things, and the contributions that he made.
AT: For sure, I actually read an interview that Miles Davis did with People Magazine back in 1981, when he first started playing again. It was so interesting because it really felt like the film. He kept saying he was bored with music, ad that’s why he was gone for so long. Don Cheadle has said, this isn’t a biopic of Miles Davis, but it’s a film that feels like him. Do you agree with that sentiment? Is that what “Miles Ahead” has accomplished for you?
EC: Yes, absolutely. I love how Don puts it when he says, “It’s almost like a day in the life of Miles Davis.” I think the film is just that. There’s so much truth there. It’s not just a film where everything is made up. It’s full of facts. It’s just a specific way that he chose to tell the story, and I think it’s so artistic and unorthodox the way that Don approached the film. It’s so interesting. It’s entertaining, but you also get the informational side of it that you would get from a biopic, so it caters to both. Whereas sometimes with a standard biopic, you just get all of the facts laid out.
S&A: Oh for sure, it often feels like a textbook.
EC: Yeah, and this isn’t that, and for me that was what was exciting. It was like going on a ride of sorts.
AT: You’ve had such incredible success as an actress, first with your feature film debut in Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere”, your current role on Amazon’s “Hand Of God” and your upcoming role in the “Roots” reboot. Would you want to step behind the camera and sit in the director’s chair?
EC: Oh yeah, I would love to. I would love to try my hand at directing and even producing in some kind of way. Something about that intrigues me, but for directing I could completely see myself trying. (Laughing) Don is always trying to convince me not to go down that road. But, I think I would like to because I have visions and ideas about different things. Other actors just inspire you, so writing is something I would love to do more of. I would really be interested in doing something in that vein, writing something for myself or someone else and directing for sure.
AT: Wonderful. Congratulations on such a beautiful performance and thank you so much for speaking with me. This was lovely.
EC: Thank you.
“Miles Ahead” will debut in theaters Friday, April 1st. You can check out S&A’s Chief Editor Tambay Obenson’s review of the film here.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami