The Muse: Emayatzy Corinealdi on Miles Ahead

Movies Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Muse: Emayatzy Corinealdi on <i>Miles Ahead</i>

Emayatzy Corinealdi has always turned in great performances (notably as the lead in Ava Duvernay’s splendid 2012 Middle of Nowhere), but there’s something different about her portrayal of Frances Taylor Davis in Don Cheadle’s Miles David biopic out this weekend, Miles Ahead. It begins with her physicality, her carriage, her facial expressions, the angle of her shoulder, the way she walks across a room. Even if she never spoke a single line in the film, we would know exactly who this character was. We spoke with Corinealdi recently about portraying the woman who was Miles Davis’ muse and lover, rescuer and lost paradise.

Paste Magazine: This is a performance of such strength and such dignity, but also of such force. You talked earlier about being inspired by meeting the real life woman. Do you want to talk about that more?

Emayatzy Corinealdi: I would love to talk about Frances more. When I looked online, there were so few articles and things pieced together. I was so disappointed. So I hope one thing that comes from all this is that more information about Frances will be out there. When I first met with her, I was so excited, knowing I was going to meet with Frances Taylor Davis. She’s been wanting to see this movie happen for so long, to tell his story. She has such a love and a respect for Miles. Even still today. Which was so beautiful, to see the way she told me these stories. There was just so much love there. She and I met in LA, on Sunset Boulevard, and she was dressed to the nines, looking like a total diva. (laughs) She feels like such a lady to me. She reminds of me of my mom – those women, that just feel like women, you know?

Paste: Absolutely.

Corinealdi: We had, like, three lunches. And what I loved most about our conversations was just her honesty. She was so ready and willing to just be open with me, to share everything with me. I was so stuck on and fascinated by the love that was there. She would talk even about their lovemaking and what it meant to them, what a part it played in their relationship. I asked her what it was that attracted her to him, what made her stay with him through so much, and all she could do is just look at me and say, “I loved him. I just loved him.”

Paste: Like, “Of course.”

Corinealdi: Like, “Of course. I loved him. I just loved him.” It left me a little speechless, the way she tenderly carries him in her heart, still. That’s what I felt like I saw. And her love for dance. She has this pin that she wears that says “Just Dance.” She just has this life force, and I could see exactly what attracted Miles to her. And what made him want to capture that, and keep it for himself, and cage her in. You know, because she has this beautiful electric energy about her, even still. And I can see how someone would want to take that for themselves. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do!

Paste: But you can understand the impulse.

Corinealdi: I can understand the impulse. But that life, that energy, is something I remember so vividly from those lunches.

Paste: And then meeting someone that large, I know it has to be inspiring.

Corinealdi: Yes.

Paste: But knowing you’re going to portray her on Screen, is it a little bit intimidating too?

Corinealdi: Just a little bit!

(both laugh)

Corinealdi: Yes. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I want her to be so happy.” But then you have to walk that line of not trying to make her happy. You know what I mean?

Paste: Sure.

Corinealdi: That was difficult. Especially knowing this was so close to her heart, this story, this man. You really want everyone concerned to walk away from this happy, but especially her. And so I had to not hold myself hostage to it. I really fully believe that in telling the truth of what she was, or my interpretation of it, that she would be pleased with that, and I hoped that would be enough. And when she told me, “You portrayed me with such dignity,” I was just like, “Oh my Lord, thank you.” I was ready to party after that!

Paste: And then your movement as her. Not only in the dance, which is beautiful – by the way, are you a trained dancer, I assume?

Corinealdi: I dance, but I’m nowhere near her level! (laughs)

Paste: But even when you’re not onstage – the way you walk across the room, the way you dip your shoulder, the way you hold your face – did you tap into the emotions first and the physicality came out of it, or did you build the inner character from the physical?

Corinealdi: You know, the movement was really more intuitive. It was really just something I picked up from spending time with her. The way she carried herself, the way she spoke to me. I didn’t really have to figure it out, it just came. Because that’s just who she was. It actually surprised me too, when I saw the film. Because that’s not something I worked on in that way. But to see it come across that way on film—I knew how it translated to me intellectually – but to see it come across that way was amazing. And the same with Don portraying Miles – he just fully embodied everything about him. And I think it came out of knowing who the man was, and not trying to study and move like him. I think when you study someone enough, those are things you pick up on without even realizing.

Paste: You can certainly tell that Don and the cinematographer are in love with this character too. Just the way she’s shot – and not in some over the top, Doris Day, soft lens kind of way, but just emphasizing that physicality of hers. But speaking of Don, he told me about your first day on set, and I want to hear your side of it.

Corinealdi: To shoot the last scene on the very first day, with Don fully, fully as Miles – voice, everything. I don’t know what’s going on. I had just gotten to set. I had just gotten to Ohio, I think, that morning. You know what I mean? He sat down with me for a second and told me what I was going today, and then he just left. And I was like, “Oh, umm…okay. I had more questions, but I’ll just go with it.” You know? It was a way to start. It really put me right into it. It was great! But I was like, “This… is going to be a ride.”

Paste: He said he was a little worried about it, too. But that after he saw what you did in that first scene, he knew you were going to be great.

Corinealdi: Yeah, yeah. I kind of like situations like that sometimes, though. You don’t have time to think; you just do. You’ve already done all the preparations. Get in there and just do it.

Paste: You know, in sports, there’s a principle where you work on something, analyze it, analyze it, analyze it. And then when you get to the game, you try to get all that out of your head. My high school soccer coach used to always say, last thing before the game started, “Just knock the ball around. Have some fun.”

Corinealdi: It’s the exact same thing.

Paste: It’s what actors and directors do. It’s play, right?

Corinealdi: It is play. We get to escape and play for awhile.