SXSW: Don Cheadle discusses career, inspirations, “Miles Ahead”

Sebastian Sada

On Tuesday, actor Don Cheadle sat down with film critic David Edelstein to discuss his career, figures that inspired him and his transition into the role of director for his upcoming film “Miles Ahead,” at South By Southwest.

Cheadle first discussed the process of securing his breakthrough role as Mouse in “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995). He explained that, after a chance meeting with director Carl Franklin, he was asked to audition for the role but claimed that he was not fit for the part. After auditioning, however, both Franklin and co-star Denzel Washington agreed that he was perfect for the role, and proceeded to cast him in the film.

Cheadle explained that securing the role of Mouse marked a significant step in his acting career.

“[Getting to play Mouse] felt like my personal mountain …  I think my career shifted dramatically after that,” Cheadle said. “I quit the show I was on … and I was able to just start doing films.”

Edelstein added that Cheadle is one of the most “watchful” actors in the industry – one who interacts with others and suggests a wariness about the world in each role. Cheadle explained that, as an actor, listening is just as important as delivering his lines, primarily because doing so enables viewers to have a voyeuristic experience – or suspend their disbelief – when watching his films.

Later in the discussion, Cheadle asserted that certain figures in his life, primarily his teachers, inspired him to become an actor. Being introduced to acting techniques by Stanislavsky, Hagen and Meisner gave him early insight to the mind of the actor, leading him to become an advanced student at the California Institute of the Arts. Cheadle also cited directors as sources of inspiration throughout his career, notably Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”), from whom he learned new things about the actor-director relationship.

Upon commenting that being of an actor is a “job to job” affair, Cheadle was asked if that indicates a universal anxiety about unemployment. He agreed that most actors are never granted job security, and that most are forced to wait for opportunities to come their way.

“I think there’s very few people that feel like they’ve made it, and two of them are wrong,” Cheadle said. “At any time, this business retires you. Most of the time, you don’t retire from it. It’s just a situation where [casting directors] are not checking for you anymore, and you don’t know when that’s gonna happen.”

Cheadle admitted that his desire for job security prompted him to pursue a career as a film producer. At a certain point, he realized he was for more interested in developing films than waiting to be handed opportunities for employment, especially when those opportunities were “few and far between.”

Cheadle and Edelstein concluded their discussion by explaining the development of “Miles Ahead,” Cheadle’s directorial debut centered around jazz musician Miles Davis. Cheadle explained that he did not develop interest in the project until he offered a unique vision for it – one that was far different from the formulaic “birth to grave” biopic. After major bumps in the road, notably the economic crash of 2008, he managed to secure independent financing and proceeded to write the screenplay with Steven Baigelman (“Get on Up”).

Cheadle likewise discussed the benefits – and challenges – of stepping into the role of director for “Miles Ahead.” Although he found it easy to direct other actors, given his own acting experience, he had difficulty directing himself and fought to uphold his vision for the film.

“I am absolutely my own worst critic. The challenge of [simultaneously directing and portraying the protagonist] is knowing that it’s all on you,” Cheadle said. “There’s nobody to blame if your vision doesn’t work. It’s also necessary to be brave and to keep pushing for that thing that you believed in when it was in script form … and in the development process …  When you get on set, you have to be malleable … and know that it’s about trying to protect the piece that everyone came to make. It can be a fight, but you’ve gotta be the captain of the ship.”

“Miles Ahead” will premiere at South By Southwest at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, March 16 at 8:00 p.m. An additional screening will be held at the Stateside Theatre on Saturday, March 19 at 7:00 p.m. The film is set for nationwide release on April 1.