BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Don Cheadle was not looking to play Miles Davis. He had done biopics before, starring as Sammy Davis Jr. in “The Rat Pack” (1998), which earned him a Golden Globe, and as the hotelier and accidental humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Mr. Cheadle had played the street hoops star Earl Manigault, a.k.a. the Goat, in “Rebound” and the radio D.J. Petey Greene in “Talk to Me”.
Such Hollywood biographies were, he learned, approximations at best. “I sat next to Paul Rusesabagina during ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ and I’d look over at him and go, was it like that?” Mr. Cheadle said. “And he’d be like: ‘No, not really. But it’s close.’”
This weekend Mr. Cheadle arrives in “Miles Ahead,” a decidedly nonbiopic-like film about the towering jazz trumpeter and composer. Far from the typical linear film narrative, in which a great jazz voice is inevitably brought down, often for good, by drink or drugs (think “Bird,” “’Round Midnight,” “Let’s Get Lost” or “Lady Sings the Blues”), “Miles Ahead” focuses on a period in the late 1970s when Davis wasn’t performing at all. “I loved the incongruity,” Mr. Cheadle said. “The Miles ‘play what’s not there’ idea of it.”
Since its premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, the movie has earned praise for its unconventional portrait of the influential musician. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter called it “an adventurous, music-saturated depiction of one of the genre’s undisputed greats,” while A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that “anyone who wants to get a jump on possible Oscar nominees for 2017” should see the film.
Earlier this month, Mr. Cheadle was at the Four Seasons here explaining how he got roped into not only playing Miles Davis but also directing the film and writing the screenplay with Steven Baigelman. Dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, Mr. Cheadle rode up on his motorcycle and later ordered a bowl of plain oatmeal (“I’m pre-prediabetic,” he explained). He spent much of the time recounting funny stories about the trumpeter in his best Miles Davis rasp, geeking out about great jazz albums he listened to as a kid (Davis’s classic “Kind of Blue,” “Julian Cannonball Adderley and Strings”), and singing beloved bass lines from Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album “Head Hunters.”
Mr. Cheadle’s involvement in the film started with a single bold pronouncement from someone he didn’t even know. After Davis, who died in 1991, was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, Mr. Cheadle recalled, Vince Wilburn, Davis’s nephew, was asked “if they were ever going to do a movie about his life. And he said: ‘Yeah. And Don Cheadle’s going to play him.’”
This was all news to Mr. Cheadle, but calls were made and he found himself slowly drawn into the project. He read a few scripts and hated all of them. He asked himself: What sort of movie would Davis himself want to be in? Here’s someone whose outsized love for expensive cars, guns, women and cocaine was the stuff of American music lore, a man who attained rock-star status playing jazz trumpet. “If you make a movie about Miles Davis, it’s got to be gangster, it’s got to be a heist movie, it’s got to be crazy,” Mr. Cheadle said. “It’s got to be as creative and varied and visceral as all of his music is.”
No such screenplay existed, so Mr. Cheadle set about helping to write one, with Mr. Baigelman. To prepare for the role, he mastered Davis’s customary whisper and watched a lot of film of him at work and play. Although Mr. Cheadle had never directed a feature before, he had a clear vision of what he wanted.
“But once it was time to do the work, he lets you fly on your own, which was so freeing,” said Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Davis’s first wife, Frances Taylor. “It was very close to how Miles was with his bandmates. He didn’t like people to rehearse; he wanted things to be pure and on the spot. And that’s really how Don worked.”
At times, he even directed as Miles. “It wasn’t like, ‘Don’t anybody call me Don,’” Mr. Cheadle recalled wryly. “‘I’m Miles all day today.’ I just wanted to stay as close to the character as I could.”
That closeness extended to the musical numbers. Mr. Cheadle, who played alto saxophone in high school, learned to play the trumpet with help from the Grammy-winning Wynton Marsalis, an old friend.
Kristen Bell, Mr. Cheadle’s co-star on “House of Lies,” the Showtime comedy about management consultants, noted that he had been working on this project since they first met six years ago. “I’ve watched my friend go back to his trailer between almost every shooting scene and practice that trumpet,” she said.
Ewan McGregor plays a scoop-seeking journalist looking to interview the reclusive musician. Speaking at the Berlin Film Festival, Mr. Cheadle said that “having a white actor in this film turned out to be a financial imperative,” a comment that generated headlines, not surprising during the season of #OscarsSoWhite.
“No one said specifically, ‘You must go hire this one actor to make this happen,’” he clarified in the interview. “I could have probably hired a major Japanese actor if I wanted to shoot the movie in Japan. But there was kind of a list of actors that would make the money go.”
So it wasn’t, like, I’ve got to hire Ewan McGregor?
“Yeah, right, like that’s a bad thing,” Mr. Cheadle said with a laugh.
Mr. Cheadle also generated headlines with an offhand tweet he sent to Chris Rock before the comedian hosted the Oscars in February. “Yo, Chris,” he wrote. “Come check me out at #TheOscars this year. They got me parking cars on G level.”
The tweet went viral. “That’s why Twitter’s dangerous,” Mr. Cheadle said. “It was just me sitting in a room and tweeting it, and the next thing you know, people have seized on it, and it’s on CNN.”
“Chris did a great job at the Oscars,” he continued. “But I think he could have broadened his diversity scope a bit, instead of just making it black and white, because that’s not what it was about to me.”
The next two months are busy for Mr. Cheadle. “House of Lies” returns for a fifth season beginning April 10. The relationship between his character and Ms. Bell’s is one of TV’s most enchantingly dysfunctional. “It’s a dark Ping-Pong match between the two of us,” Ms. Bell said by phone. “But we love it. He is truly one of my favorite people currently residing on the planet.”
In May, he’ll reprise his role as War Machine in “Captain America: Civil War,” a film that he’s loath to talk about, following the Marvel studio’s directives. “I’m shadowed wherever I go,” he said. “If I start to talk, I see red dots on my chest.”
As for “Miles Ahead,” he hopes that the film will let audiences see Davis in all of his complexity. “He was very sensitive, and he kind of created this persona to protect himself,” Mr. Cheadle said. Then, recalling what a Davis bandmate noted, he added: “This is the guy who you think is the coolest dude in the world, and he talks about not knowing if it was cooler to tap his whole foot, or to tap his foot inside of his shoe. Tony Williams said he used to throw up before every performance they had, and not because he was high.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 27, 2016, on page AR13 of the New York edition with the headline: Becoming the Man With the Horn. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
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