Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Don Cheadle

The Man Behind Mouse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Don Cheadle Movies on DVD

Partial Don Cheadle Filmography:
Moving Violations (1985)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Colors (1988)
Roadside Prophets (1992)
The Meteor Man (1993)
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Volcano (1997)
Rosewood (1997)
The Rat Pack (1998) (TV)
Out of Sight (1998)
Bulworth (1998)
Traffic (2000)
The Family Man (2000)
Fail Safe (2000) (TV)
Mission to Mars (2000)
Rush Hour 2 (2001)
Swordfish (2001)
Ocean's Eleven (2001)
Ocean's Twelve (2004)
After the Sunset (2004)
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Crash (2005)
Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
Reign Over Me (2007)
Talk to Me (2007)
Traitor (2008)

In 1995, Don Cheadle gave one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that made him a star -- almost. His hair-trigger performance as 'Mouse' in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) had critics buzzing, but the film flopped and Cheadle's much-deserved Oscar nomination failed to materialize. Instead, something better happened. Cheadle became one of the American cinema's most consistently reliable and exciting performers, not quite a character actor, and difficult to define, but always superb in an amazingly wide variety of roles. Born in 1964 in Kansas City, Cheadle studied both music and acting and eventually chose to pursue the latter as his career. He performed extensively on stage and landed his first movie and TV roles in the mid-1980s, gaining some notice in Hamburger Hill (1987). He finally received an Oscar nomination for his crafty, moving performance as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda (2004), and hobnobbed with Oscars again in issue movies like Traffic (2000) and Crash (2005). At the same time he became heavily involved in helping raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur, even producing a documentary, Darfur Now (2007). But Cheadle still shows his light, funny side, appearing right in the middle of all that serious stuff as 'Basher,' the cockney bomb expert in Ocean's Thirteen (2007). Besides Devil in a Blue Dress, Cheadle seems to specialize in terrific movies that get overlooked, including Out of Sight (1998), Bulworth (1998), Reign Over Me (2007) and Talk to Me (2007), and thus he's always there, waiting to be discovered. Cheadle will receive his CineVegas Half-Life Award on Friday, June 20 at 4 p.m. at Brendan Theatres.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: They're not showing any of your films at the festival. If you could pick one to show, which would it be?

Don Cheadle: Probably Talk to Me. That one didn't get enough love.

JMA: Do you remember your first job, what it was and how long you worked and how much you got paid?

DC: I think it was playing the juicy burger worker in Moving Violations. It was an amazing experience. I learned so much from that film.

JMA: Did you really?

DC: Hell no! I learned not to do it again. We sit here now, and thinking about all these first jobs... Something George Clooney said was so true. You know the day the day they called you for that job? You said, 'f--- yeah!' Anyway, I got my SAG card.

JMA: Devil in a Blue Dress was such a terrific movie, and 'Mouse' was a standout to such an extent that I can remember the name 'Mouse' 13 years later. Did you have a feeling that you were hitting a grand slam?

DC: Not at all. It was amazing to work with Denzel and [director] Carl [Franklin] and Jennifer [Beals]. It was a great experience. I didn't anticipate what would be the result. I didn't see me in the role and my agent at the time was like 'you've got to get in.' Everyone in town had gone to see Carl and she couldn't get me in. I couldn't see that it was my role anyway. One day I was in a doctor's office and the lobby was crowded. And the door opened and banged into my leg, and it was Carl! And he said, 'hey!' Just at that moment the receptionist tried to make some room and she picked the two of us and sent us into another room. We were just talking, about life and everything; I just had a kid. And he said I'm directing this movie Devil in a Blue Dress. And then we kept on talking. The next day I had an audition. They were going to make the whole series of books, but then the movie didn't do well. It was my first rude awaking into how movies are marketed.

JMA: One of your most unusual projects was a live TV production of Fail-Safe, directed by Stephen Frears and co-starring George Clooney. What was that experience like? Did your theater experience help? How much theater experience do you have?

DC: When I went to CalArts, we did a lot of American classics, restoration stuff, everything. By the time you graduate, you've done 30 plays, which is great to have under your belt. I worked at the New York Public Theater, The Goodman Theater in Chicago and the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. As for Fail-Safe, it was great. What made it really bizarre was that George. He would sit there during the scenes we weren't actually in, stressing and looking at the monitor. He said, 'I can't not watch!' And I told him, 'You have to not watch! You have to get into character. We're on in ten seconds!'

JMA: Is there a connection with your playing Sammy Davis Jr. in the TV movie The Rat Pack and getting a part in the Ocean's Eleven remake?

DC: Not really.

JMA: How did you decide to give Basher his cockney accent? Was it in the script?

DC: Unfortunately, yes, it was in the script. I played around with it. Everybody plays around with it. I got a dialect coach, and I resented the fact that I agreed to do it. Everybody else was having a good time, and I was in my trailer with my coach, trying to figure out my diphthong.

JMA: After serious things like Hotel Rwanda and Crash and even to some extent Reign Over Me, which ha a 9/11 theme, and Talk to Me, is it hard to go back to something like Ocean's Thirteen, or is it necessary to explore a lighter side in addition to the heavy side?

DC: Those are the things I'm attracted to. My tastes are varied. It's what I like. I've tried to be strategic about what movies I need to take, but I don't think it makes a lot of sense. I think it's kind of foolish actually. Now I just do the movies I respond to, and I'm more comfortable. Most stars got there by doing things where the audience can count on them. But with me, it's like 'what's he up to now?' It's like Adam Sandler. He tries something different with Reign Over Me and nobody goes.

JMA: Hotel Rwanda moved me to tears, and I'm usually very granite faced. How did that role come about? It was a pretty rare leading role for you...

DC: I met with Terry George. He kind of told me point blank that he was trying to get the money together, but if Will Smith or Cuba Gooding says 'yes,' and I can get the money, I'm going to do it with them. So I said, 'I'll produce it with you, whatever, I'd like to be a part of this.' This is an important movie. It was a real spider web of financing.

JMA: That movie did really well, didn't it?

DC: It did. People kept on going even after the Oscars. And it did really well on video. It's one of those. People feel more comfortable watching at home.

JMA: I loved Talk to Me. But as far as awards go, there was some confusion as to who was the lead actor and who was supporting between you and Chiwetel Ejiofor. So it probably cancelled out some votes.

DC: The concept of it is crazy and it's ridiculous on a lot of levels. Now it doesn't even translate into those things that the Academy once meant, like the box office. The ratings for the TV show have been going down every year. You know, quit taking yourself so seriously! They should make it more interesting, like having the nominees eat the Oscar out of a huge vat of Jello.

JMA: Can you picture Judi Dench doing that?

DC: Judi Dench swimming to the surface with the Oscar between her teeth!

JMA: Mission to Mars, directed by Brian De Palma, was an odd one. It flopped here, but it was well received in France.

DC: Was it? It was horrid. Gary and I were very early in that process when it was going to be directed by Gore Verbinski. It was going to be a very different movie if it was Gore. He got into a money argument, and De Palma came on board. He nearly took down the entire studio. It's just one of those things that happens sometimes.

JMA: I'm told you're working on bio-pic of Miles Davis?

DC: It's going to be a movie wherein the lead is Miles Davis as depicted by Don Cheadle. I'm not interested in doing a factual interpretation of someone's life. We don't want to do another Walk the Line. It's one artist doing an interpretation of another artist. Or as Miles might say: 'some of this shit might have happened.' It's taking a lot of artistic license. It's true to Miles Davis, who couldn't care about any of that stuff. He was more about the freshness and creativity of everything. We're not going to sweeten it and not make it a 2008 experience. Let it be out of time and out of place.

JMA: Do you have a favorite Miles Davis album?

DC: Oh, there are a lot.

JMA: Mine's Bitches Brew.

DC: Now I know you're on drugs! Seriously, if you like that, you should get the Jack Johnson Sessions. It has a lot of those same guys.

JMA: Do you still play music?

DC: I'm playing the piano and the trumpet. The first time I messed around with the trumpet was on Rat Pack.

JMA: I thought I'd save the big question for last: at what point were you clued into the Darfur crisis?

DC: I heard about it during the shooting of Hotel Rwanda. When you start doing the research you start finding out what's going on in the world. All of this stuff started pouring in. It wasn't until we finished it and started doing screenings and Congressman Ed Royce saw it that I really involved. He invited me to go on a Congressional delegation in 2005.

JMA: Do you feel like your work has helped raise awareness?

DC: I do. I feel like we were able to people have to be aware of it. It's a movement that was already happening, and I was able to be a figurehead for people who have been working very hard. It was a confluence of all those things, the film, the delegation, all these things started happening in pretty short order. Articles are now being written about it. I as looking at the New York Times this morning and there was a big article about it. It takes a while because none of this gets solved overnight, but there's mounting pressure.

June 6, 2008

Movies Unlimtied