Entertainment & Arts

Don Cheadle: 'Miles Davis was probably bipolar'

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Media captionDon Cheadle tells the BBC's Mark Savage how Miles Davis inspires him

Actor Don Cheadle, who plays jazz legend Miles Davis in a new movie, says the star probably had bipolar disorder.

The Oscar-nominee spent 10 years researching and studying Davis for the film, Miles Ahead, which he also co-wrote and directed.

"If you had him on the couch today, he might be diagnosed as being bipolar, or something of that nature," Cheadle told the BBC.

"But it also is the spring from whence all this incredible work happens."

Bipolar disorder is characterised by periods of depression and mania, with the latter frequently linked to bouts of creativity.

Davis was known to be erratic and habitually unpleasant (he would often perform with his back turned to the audience) but he was never diagnosed with a mental illness.

Cheadle said the star's volatility was "not dissimilar to many artists of that ilk who are creating at a high level".

Image copyright Icon / Sony Pictures Classics
Image caption Cheadle says he needed to cast a white co-star (Ewan McGregor) in order to get his film financed

Miles Ahead, which is released on 22 April, has won critical praise for avoiding the cliches of "cradle-to-grave" biopics - instead focusing on five lost years, where Davis stopped recording and became a recluse.

"There are books that chronicle his life and get all the facts down," Cheadle explained, "so the [Davis] family were completely down with a representation that was more about creativity than some result-oriented piece that felt like it was the CliffsNotes of his life.

"[To] not do something that felt like cookie cutter, but do something that was innovative and impressionistic and felt like cinematic jazz."

Trumpet practice

Cheadle put his own money into the project, and used crowd-funding to help bolster the budget.

But he told Rolling Stone magazine he could not get the film fully-financed without a white co-star - eventually casting Ewan McGregor in the role of a (fictional) Rolling Stone reporter, trying to secure an interview with Davis.

"I could put parentheses around 'white' and said 'international' - someone who would have meant something to an international distributor," he says by way of clarification. "But just me, Miles Davis and the music was not enough."

Image copyright Icon / Sony Pictures Classics
Image caption The star plays his own solos in the film

In preparing for the role, the 51-year-old learned to play trumpet in order to perform Davis' famous songs on film.

"I didn't want to just fake it," he says. "I didn't want to just do something that looked like I was getting by, I wanted to be, at some point of my process, where Miles Davis was at some point in his process in learning how to play."

He had to schedule his lessons around the jobs of scripting, funding and directing Miles Ahead - not to mention his roles in The Avengers and Iron Man franchises, and TV show Thursday Night Football.

"I took the horn everywhere," he says. "If I was on the set and I had a break, I'd go to the trailer and I'd play. I'd be in hotel rooms, getting calls from the desk saying 'is your stereo on?'."

"I just made it a habit to have it with me whenever I could get a spare moment to play it."

Cheadle's biopic will be released at the same time as Marvel film Captain America: Civil War, in which he also stars as Col James Rhodes.

But, having played two legends of American music (he was also Sammy Davis Jr in 1998's The Rat Pack) are there any other musicians he'd like to portray on film?

He smiles.

"Whoever I can play in bed."

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