Retroactivist: The Black Power of Petey Greene
'Talk' Goes on Location, Back in the Day
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
"Now, D.C. is Chocolate City, y'all know that, right?" booms the man in the navy blue leisure pants, long, belted vest and peach-toned long-sleeve shirt with the collar open wide. He's standing on the steps in front of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in yesterday's sweltering midday heat, holding court before a crowd sporting a similar look: lots of polyester and plenty of towering Afros.
"They want to keep us down because white folks are afraid of what's going to happen if we stand up!" he yells, using a bullhorn to whip up his audience. Cheers go up. Across the reflecting pool, a group of 20 antiwar protesters march in a circle, chanting, "We want peace! We want peace!" and waving posters in the air.
Another febrile Saturday afternoon in the nation's capital. Tourists with cameras gawk. Residents pass by with nary a second glance at what's second nature in this town.
"Why do you think they want us in jail?" the man hollers, and a cry goes up in response. "They know that if black folks stand tall, we're gonna have something called black power, y'all!"
And then someone calls, "Cut!"
And the man in the fake Afro and fake sideburns -- actor Don Cheadle -- applauds the extras for their performances and starts rapidly unbelting the taupe-and-blue-striped concoction he describes as a "a beautiful vest." Nearby, a gaggle of teenage girls allowed to get close to the set simultaneously snap photographs and call friends on their cellphones. "What's the movie? What's the movie?" they say back and forth to each other.
No one gives them an answer, and it's a pretty safe bet if they'd been told their faces would draw a blank.
Cheadle, star of "Hotel Rwanda" and "Crash," is portraying the legendary Washington television and radio talk show host Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, who stood on these very steps to protest poverty and racism 38 long years ago. Dead since 1984, Greene -- an ex-con and ex-drug addict who made his way from the Lorton penitentiary all the way to dinner at the White House -- is getting his story told, Hollywood-fashion, in a film called "Talk to Me." "Outside of Washington, D.C., I think very few people know of Petey Greene," said Cheadle in an interview Friday. Inside Washington, too, if they're not of a certain age or haven't had the stories passed down.
Described in an authorized biography by local author Lurma Rackley as a man "who conned, rhymed, 'speechified' and laughed his way to heights he hardly dared imagine," Greene was known for his outlandish humor and wardrobe and his outsize efforts to help the young, the old, the poor and the former cons like himself.
His youth in Washington was a blur of poverty, crime and addiction that landed him in Lorton in 1960, sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery. One day, he helped talk down a suicidal fellow inmate; that earned him an early parole. In a life turn that is legendary, he then became an activist, television personality ("Petey Green's Washington" aired on WDCA-TV) and radio talk show host (WOL's "Rapping With Petey Greene").
By the time of his death, he was so well-known and beloved that more than 8,000 people lined up outside Union Wesley AME Zion Church on Michigan Avenue NE to pay tribute.
"It's not necessarily a heroic depiction," said Cheadle, who feels the script captures Greene as honestly as it could. "I think that was his whole thing, being straight-up. He saw what he thought were injustices, what he thought was right or wrong. It's his own skewed vision, but he had really a kind of inarguable position about most things, I find.
"His take on things was very street level, just real, which is why I think people loved him so much. He'd be the one to say, 'The emperor has no clothes.' "
This bluntness is what attracted director Kasi Lemmons, who also directed "Eve's Bayou." She said she "fell in love" with Greene's story.
"I guess the major thing for me," Lemmons says, "is that we're in a time now where people are afraid to speak out. It's all about conforming. This story shows there was a time when you could use your voice and be completely uncensored. It's a beautiful thing. In some ways, I see this as an anti-censorship movie."
Lemmons was thrilled when Cheadle agreed to take the part and become a producer. "When he's got the wig on and the clothes and the voice comes out of it, I don't see Don Cheadle, I see Petey," says Lemmons. "He wears this flamboyant clothing and he's just fabulous. There's this quality about Petey where he's always at the center of a whirlwind, and [Cheadle] totally captured that."
Also starring in the film is Taraji P. Henson ("Hustle & Flow") as Greene's girlfriend Vernell, while Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer and Lemmons's husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall, all play characters at the radio station.
The film begins late in Greene's term at Lorton and is centered around his friendship with Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor of "Kinky Boots"). Hughes, then the program director at WOL, is the man who put Greene on the air and became his life-long friend. Very little film and tape remain from Greene's shows, according to Cheadle and Lemmons, though they were able to view and listen to some of it. A lot of the famous Petey-isms and Petey stories they learned from old newspaper clips. Like the infamous story of Greene's visit to the White House where maybe he stole a spoon or maybe he didn't. Or the fact that he liked to refer to himself as having a "PhD in poverty." How he liked to brag about overcoming protests at all-white Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda to his invitation to be commencement speaker.
They also got a lot of help from Hughes, who now lives in Los Angeles and served as a consultant on the film.
"Oh, my God, I'm in love with him," Lemmons says of Hughes, whose former wife is Cathy Hughes, the owner of Radio One. "He really moves me. He's a very beautiful, elegant, intelligent man. He has a certain presentation that is immaculate. It's a great contrast to Petey, who's flashy and coming apart at the seams all the time."
Cheadle says that it's been unique filming a movie about a "very male, brotherly relationship" through the lens of a female director. Lemmons, he says, sometimes sees things that would never have occurred to him. She laughs at that.
"When I went in to pitch myself as a director, I said that as a black woman, I know black men better than they know themselves," she says.
Most of the film was shot in Toronto, and the stop in D.C. was brief -- three days in town, with five scenes shot yesterday. One crew shot some local color (including the obligatory scene at Ben's Chili Bowl), while Lemmons and the leads shot at various locations around the Mall, including the Washington Monument and the carousel outside the Smithsonian.
Cheadle, who himself speaks up on issues, made the most of his scant time in the city, but he did it in that other time-honored Washington way: He set up meetings with the important and the powerful. Deeply concerned about the genocide in Darfur (he's making a documentary on the subject) -- he met Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday. On Friday, he was late for an interview because he was with Sudanese rebel leader Minni Minnawi. He also spoke to a group at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Asked how successful these meetings were, the actor says, "No one's for genocide. But it's really the bureaucracy and the very real question and challenge of international diplomacy/pressure, especially at a time like this. There's a really high bar to vault."
It's the kind of careful, measured response that never would have passed Petey Greene's lips.
The following article appeared in the May 2006 issue of InStyle Magazine
The following article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Look Magazine
The following article appears in the February 28, 2005 issue of People Magazine
'I'm gonna grab that Oscar'
From jobbing actor to Academy award hopeful - Don Cheadle, star of Hotel Rwanda, talks to Xan Brooks
Next Sunday will mark Don Cheadle's second visit to the Academy awards. He goes as one of the big guns, nominated in the best actor category for his performance in the genocide drama Hotel Rwanda and taking his place alongside the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood and front-runner Jamie Foxx. Last time he went as a nobody, a jobbing actor with a few credits to his name. He paid $1,000 for a pair of tickets, rented a tuxedo and paraded his wife, Bridgid, up the red carpet. Ahead of them was Cher, surrounded by her circus of acolytes. Behind them came Jack Nicholson. And the humble Cheadles were caught in the middle.
"Bridgid's train was stepped on and ripped," he recalls. "All these handlers were shoving us and pulling us. Some of the paparazzi were screaming for Jack and some were screaming for Cher, and all the flashbulbs were going off. Then, right in the middle of all this commotion, a photographer saw me and shouted, 'Mr Cheadle! Mr Cheadle!' and I turned around smiling and he just goes, 'Get out the fucking way!'" The actor chortles at the memory. "It was a feeding frenzy," he says. "And I was the minnow."
Or, to put it another way, he was the gate-crasher, the interloper, the thief who stole the thunder. It is a role that, over the years, he has made his own. The line on Don Cheadle is that he is Hollywood's supporting actor par excellence. His stock in trade is the trusty foot-soldier, the mercurial background presence. But you have to keep your eye on him. Fob him off with a decent second-string role and he'll play it like a maestro, often finessing the film out from under its star. Denzel Washington took the lead in Devil in a Blue Dress but it was his sidekick who took the plaudits. Out of Sight established George Clooney's Hollywood credentials but it was Cheadle's playful little bad-ass that stuck in the memory. Even sci-fi doggerel like Mission to Mars came to life during his third-billed slot as a marooned astronaut gone out of his mind. Terry George, writer and director of Hotel Rwanda, refers to him as "a chameleon". He shows up, makes a noise, then disappears back into the woodwork, leaving the audience scanning the end credits and wondering who the hell was that.
By the time you read this, Don Cheadle will be gone again. He flew into London late Sunday night and jetted out Tuesday morning, his schedule accelerating as he enters the last full week of Oscar campaigning. But here, sitting in his hotel suite, he is a slender little live-wire; a deep-cover Puck thrust into the limelight.
In the past, he says, he has been content to occupy himself with supporting roles because they tend to be the ones with more juice, more edge. "But I don't think it helps to be thought of as a scene-stealer," he cautions. "That's not comforting for the other actors. They think, 'Well, I don't want to work with him. Go steal from someone else.' So I'm never going into a movie thinking that I want to grab the attention. Quite the opposite: I give that stuff away, because I'm wanting to make the best whole piece. I want to look back at my resume and think, 'That was a great movie,' not, 'Oh, those four movies were shit, but I was good in them.' I want to be a part of great things."
At the age of 40, he has racked up his fair share. That breakthrough role in Devil in a Blue Dress won him an award from the Los Angeles critics. He was brilliant as Buck Swope, a country-music loving porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, and quietly impressive as the federal agent in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. But in box-office terms, Cheadle was B-list at best. "It's not like I was being offered lead roles and turning them down," he says. "Most of the time I wasn't being offered anything at all."
Fingers crossed, that has changed. Hotel Rwanda installs Cheadle, belatedly, at centre stage. He plays hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, an unsung hero of the 1994 genocide who turned his four-star, Belgian-owned resort into a kind of de facto refugee camp. Outside the gates, the Hutu extremists are butchering the Tutsi minority while the west twiddles its thumbs and debates the distinction between "genocide" and "acts of genocide". Inside, Rusesabagina finds rooms for the orphans and fills kettles from the swimming pool. He straightens his tie and tries to keep the horror at bay.
Hotel Rwanda is a muscular, harrowing picture; a stark portrait of an everyday man in a world run out of control. Offscreen, the shoot appears to have politicised Cheadle, who last month travelled to the Sudan to publicise the current crisis in Darfur. On screen, it marks the point where he comes of age, taking top billing and winning that Oscar nod. Except that it almost didn't turn out that way.
"I always had Don in my head when I was writing the script," Terry George admits. "But I had to say to him, 'Look, I'm trying to get this made. I'm schlepping it around Hollywood. And if Denzel Washington or Will Smith express an interest, I'm going to have to go with them.' Because that's the reality. They were A-list and he was not."
Presumably this is something that Cheadle has experienced before: being the first choice creatively, but the third choice commercially? "Oh yeah," he says. "Probably more times than I know. It's the ugly side of the business that an actor should never have to see, because it distils you into a number. Man, I just want to tell stories and inhabit different characters, and be this fool in a way. And they say, 'Well, that's great. But look, this is how much you're worth, little Mr Fool.'"
In any case, too much worth can have its downside. Cheadle's stint in the ensemble cast of Ocean's Eleven and Twelve has led to a friendship with his co-stars. He has vacationed at George Clooney's Italian villa, hung out with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, and has come to view that level of stardom with a deep mistrust. "All of those guys have been over to my house in the last few months," he says. "And the last time Brad came over it was in People magazine the next day, along with the address of where I lived. And I had to say, 'Brad, you can't come to my house any more, that's it.' Another time, Matt was driving over and he rang me from the freeway saying, 'I've got a tail.' The press were tailing him on the freeway, directing him to my house, waving him down the right street.
"That's a part of it that I don't want at all. I mean, I grocery shop. I get my mail. I go buy my clothes at the mall. And I would hate for it to get to a level where I couldn't be someone normal. Where I had to buy an island. Get my 600 acres in Montana. Create my own little world."
Cheadle hasn't acted since completing Ocean's Twelve last summer. Since then, he has been bogged down in his promotional duties for Hotel Rwanda and is also trying to get his directing debut - an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues - off the ground. But he admits that the scripts have started to stack up, and sooner or later he's going to have to choose something. He has to work, after all. Make money, support his family. "Unless I sell one of my kids," he deadpans. Cheadle has two daughters, aged eight and 10. "So the youngest one, maybe. Less emotional investment. I don't know her as well."
Before that, there's Oscar night. He admits he probably won't win. Everyone knows that Jamie Foxx is the heavy favourite, and it will be a major shock if the award goes to anyone else. That said, it should be entertaining, if nothing else. "I mean, they're talking about having all the nominees on stage this year, which is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. So what, we're the Miss America contest now? Just bring my tiara and a wreath."
Then a thought occurs. "Listen," he says. "They really better not have me on the stage, or I'm gonna grab that Oscar. I don't care what name they read out. If it's close, it's mine." He mimes running across the hotel room, brandishing a phantom treasure above his head. "Hey Jamie," he shouts. "You're gonna have to catch me." And off he goes: Hollywood's ultimate scene-stealer, still up to his old tricks.
Cheadle Heads to Sudan for 'Nightline'
LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com) Don Cheadle, the Oscar-nominated star of "Hotel Rwanda," is taking on the role of a reporter for a "Nightline" segment on the ethnic conflict in the Sudan.
Cheadle reports from the African nation on Wednesday's (Feb. 9) edition of the late-night ABC news program as a "special correspondent," the network says. The actor and "Nightline" producer Rick Wilkinson accompanied several members of Congress on a recent fact-finding mission to examine what many observers are calling genocide in the country's Darfur region.
Rebel groups in the region accuse the Sudanese government of funding Arab militias called Janjaweed to wipe out non-Arab enclaves, a charge the government denies. Thousands of people have died in the fighting over the past two years, and nearly 2 million have left their homes for refugee camps.
In "Hotel Rwanda," Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed more than 1,000 people seeking safety from the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He says that not getting involved in the Sudan situation would be "disingenuous" of him.
We are in a time where we are seeing these sorts of micro genocides just multiplying and the displacement of humans at such an extreme number with no end in sight," Cheadle says in a statement. "I think it would just be very disingenuous for me to have been saying all this time ... 'We can't allow this to go on and we have to get involved,' and I had an opportunity to get involved and didn't."
Following Cheadle's report Wednesday, "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel will talk with Rusesabagina about his view of the Sudan on Thursday's show.
Cheadle Heading To The Oscars
Don Cheadle, a Star But Still in Character
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Consider Don Cheadle, the character actor's actor. He is, shall we say, "almost famous," the guy who first stole the show from Denzel Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress," and then moved on to stealing thunder from the likes of George Clooney, Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. He's the bit player who, at long last, is getting his chance to be the guy who appears above the credits. Finally, after nearly two decades in the business, Cheadle gets to play the leading man, starring in "Hotel Rwanda," a big, beefy role based on a real-life horror story, a tale rich with drama and big acting Moments.
Let's take a moment, then, to consider the character actor. His is the role of the perpetual second banana, consigned to appear briefly on camera, illuminated with a flash that all too quickly recedes. Careers are built on being the hey-that's-the-guy-who, the steady freddy who can be relied on to get the job done but rarely gets to play front and center.
So it is interesting to note that, when faced with such an opportunity in "Hotel Rwanda," Cheadle, stealer of thunder, second-bananas himself in interviews about the film. It's his time to shine -- he also produced his first movie last year and directs his first in 2005, and his star turn is already generating Oscar buzz -- but he'd rather talk about the story behind "Hotel Rwanda," which opens in Washington tomorrow.
That, he says, is what really matters: How Rwanda hotelier Paul Rusesabagina saved more than 1,200 refugees during the massacre of 1994 by giving them shelter at the swanky Hotel Mille Collines. Cheadle felt so strongly about the story that, when director Terry George approached him to play the role, he didn't take offense at George's caveat: If Denzel or Will Smith showed interest, then all bets were off. George would have to go with the A-list, the better to obtain funding. After all, movies about massacres in central Africa aren't generally considered a box office bonanza.
Yes, of course, Cheadle told him, in an anecdote that has become part of the press junket lore. "I thought getting [the movie] made would trump me being in it," Cheadle says.
("He's very humble, he's the real deal, a proper actor," says Sophie Okonedo, the British actress who plays his wife in "Hotel Rwanda." "There's no ego. It's very unusual.")
The film was important, he says as he sprawls about in a hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton, looking more than a little fatigued by his latest round of interviews, because: "It put a human face on what Rwanda was about."
What Rwanda was about, of course, was the wholesale murder of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis by their countrymen, the Hutus, a genocide that happened over a 100-day period while the rest of the world watched and did little or nothing. Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi wife, was and is a man with a strongly pragmatist bent. He had connections, from high-ranking European bureaucrats to high-ranking Hutu warlords, and he used them all to save his family, his neighbors and the Tutsi and Hutu moderate refugees who'd stumbled into his care.
Cheadle had read the stories behind the headlines, but like most Westerners, he knew little of the origins of the Hutu-Tutsi tensions. He didn't know about its roots in Belgian colonialism, where 19th-century Belgians picked the taller, more European-featured Tutsis to rule over the shorter, more "Bantu"-looking Hutus. "It was really diabolical," Cheadle says. "Like something out of 'How to Make a Slave 101.' "
But he didn't, he says, understand the full import of what had happened until he started doing his research. The horror of it stayed with him. He e-mailed Rusesabagina, who now lives in Belgium, quizzing him on the most mundane aspects of his life, "blanket questions" like "What do you like to eat?" The e-mails progressed to phone calls, and then he flew to Africa to meet Rusesabagina.
"I was surprised by how calm and together he was," Cheadle says. "He's haunted; he has those moments. . . . But there's a real joy about him, too. This is someone who believes every day is a bonus."
Filming "Hotel Rwanda" in South Africa, confronting genocide, day in and day out, even in a game of make-believe, Cheadle says, altered him.
"I go through a mere fraction of what Paul went through . . . but the actual performance of it" was therapeutic. As any performer knows, he says, by acting out, he got to work through a host of painful emotions. His family was on location with him and it was hard to stay morose, he says, when his daughters were crawling all over him, demanding to tell him about their day.
This sense of family has its roots in his own bourgeois childhood. He was born in Kansas City and grew up mainly in Denver, the son of a clinical psychologist father and a psychology teacher mother. Growing up black and middle-class, he says, anchored him. He's partnered -- his long-term love is the actress Bridgid Coulter, who played his wife in John Singleton's "Rosewood" -- with kids, two little girls who figure often in his conversation. He's a soccer dad. He drives a Prius.
He got his bachelor's degree in fine arts from CalArts in Los Angeles, got a gig on the TV show "Fame" and got his first movie role in 1987's "Hamburger Hill."
His face is that of a Gambian mask, an artisan's study in ebony curves and angles. He's a musician, a saxophonist who's been jonesing to portray Miles Davis, and you can see it, yes, in the lithe frame and the air of nonchalant cool. In his roles, he is both comedian and tragedian, wringing humor out of drama and pathos out of humor. He made his mark on the stage in the off-Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Top Dog/Underdog," as the much-put-upon younger brother who flips the script in a Cain vs. Abel twist.
Take his early, scene-stealing turn as "Mouse" in "Devil in a Blue Dress," starring Denzel as Easy Rawlins and Jennifer Beals in the tragic mulatto role and based on the novel by Walter Mosley. As Mouse, he was Washington's sidekick, the hoodlum whose best friend is his shotgun. At a pivotal moment, Easy leaves a witness/bad guy under Mouse's care. Mouse, being who he is, kills the witness, which infuriates Easy.
"If you didn't want him dead," Cheadle/Mouse deadpanned with a line that brought down the multiplex, "Then why'd you leave him with me?"
With his roles, Cheadle says, "I always want there to be a lot of elasticity, jarring and arresting characters that do things in interesting ways." Those roles are few and far between, he says; "I don't see a ton of scripts" -- a statement that seems a bit disingenuous for someone who works as much as he does. In the past two months he has appeared in "Ocean's Twelve," with Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and "After the Sunset," with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek. Next up he serves as the moral compass for Sean Penn's seriously addled Everyman in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," which opens here Jan. 14.
"The scripts I do see aren't overwhelmingly great," he says. "I get a lot of biopics . . . enough already. My manager and I are always calling it 'What Did Your Grandaddy Do?' movies."
More often than not, though, he is called on to fill in the blanks with underwritten roles, to give heft where there is none. This gives him a steady paycheck but doesn't always satisfy. "It doesn't serve me" as an actor, he says. "And sometimes you get on set and say, wait a minute, this isn't what I signed up for."
Still, after nearly 20 years in the business, he's able to call some shots. Like the time he appeared in "Rush Hour II" in an uncredited scene opposite Jackie Chan. He agreed to do the scene under two conditions: One, he had to fight Chan. And two, he had to do the scene speaking only Chinese. It is this sense of quirkiness, frequently playing against race, that shapes his disparate performances, from the country-western porn star who just wants to settle down with a nice girl in "Boogie Nights" to the resolute cop in "Traffic" to the explosives expert with the Cockney accent in "Ocean's Eleven" and "Ocean's Twelve."
"He has that chameleon-like ability," says the Irish-born George, who wrote "Hotel Rwanda" with Cheadle in mind. "The ability to disappear into a role. . . . He's an actor of enormous talent."
Now Cheadle is looking to stretch those talents. Last year he produced "Crash," an ensemble film directed by Paul Haggis and starring Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon, which is scheduled to open in April. He's directing "Tishomingo Blues," a film executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh and based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. And he's at work on a screenplay with Soderbergh, the director with whom he worked in both "Ocean's" films and "Traffic."
With so much crammed into his calendar, his second-banana days seem to be coming to an end, which is probably a good thing for those A-listers whose thunder he's swiped. But don't hate him because he's a scene stealer, says his "Hotel Rwanda" co-star Okonedo: "He doesn't mean to do that. He's just brilliant."
Cheadle Wonders if Academy Is Ready for Him
By Mike Szymanski
LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com) -- Don Cheadle, on the Oscar campaign trail for "Hotel Rwanda," says he's not sure if the Academy can handle two African American nominees in the same category.
Cheadle stars in the real life story of a hotel manager who helped save people during the genocide in Rwanda a decade ago. The United Artist film is getting widespread critical praise, as is his performance, so he's hosting parties and doing question-and-answer sessions for Academy members to make them aware of the film.
In an interview with Zap2it.com, Cheadle acknowledges he's facing tough competition from Jamie Foxx's performance as Ray Charles in "Ray." He says that although black actors Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were both named best performers by the Academy in the same year, he's not surprised to hear that Academy members may think it's a long shot that two African American actors be nominated in the same category.
"I'm not shocked that that thought process is there; I'm not surprised," says Cheadle. "They're barely ready for more than one 'star' at a time."
Cheadle's star-driven movie of the season is "Ocean's Twelve," where he's co-starring with Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brad Pitt and others. Clooney has teased Cheadle's campaigning, calling him "Mr. Rwanda" during their press conference, but it's now all part of the game.
"I know that this film is going to be a hard sell," Cheadles says. "I think that any attention that could be brought to it be it through Oscar buzz if it can get butts in the seat and people come out going, 'Wow, that was a completely different experience than I thought that I was going to have, and it's not the graphic horror that I was anticipating' but that really at the end of the day it's this uplifting, encouraging film about the human spirit -- if they walk out with that and then tell someone, then it's worth it." The actor says he feels like he's running for office now. "Now it's about campaigning and going to parties and meeting people and doing interviews and being seen at the right places, it's some political thing now.
"I think it's gross, kind of unfortunate."
Cheadle says grading a performance is not like sports. "It's not like pitching a no-hitter, it's not like this guy ran more touchdowns than that guy. How do you compare Leonardo DiCaprio's performance to Jamie Foxx's? They're not doing the same thing."
At the moment, he's nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama -- not competing with Foxx who's in the best actor in a musical or comedy category. And, yes, despite the lobbying, Cheadle would like to win an Oscar.
"If someone went to see it because they were going, 'I heard Don Cheadle is giving an Oscar performance,' then that's fine, too," Cheadle smiles about his movie, which is now in limited release and will expand nationwide in January. "Just come, whatever the reason is. Just come."
The following article appeared in the December 17, 2004 issue of Entertainment Weekly Magazine
Actor Seeks Audience for Movie on Rwanda Savior
By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - He claims he doesn't need the attention, but for weeks actor Don Cheadle has been meeting people, shaking hands and doing some Hollywood politicking to persuade Oscar voters to see his new film "Hotel Rwanda."
The actor is waging the Oscar campaign -- media interviews, public appearances and industry hobnobbing -- because he believes a nomination will draw audiences to a film with a serious and disturbing subject, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Cheadle acts as real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina who helped save some 1,200 people from mass murder. The film is a hard sell for studio marketers.
And it may be even more difficult for Cheadle in the battle for the best actor Oscar in which he will likely face Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Johnny Depp, also playing subjects in biographical films -- respectively aviator Howard Hughes, singer Ray Charles and "Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie.
"To me, that qualification 'best actor,' you can't quantify it, so it doesn't make sense ... but for this film, given the subject matter and the difficulties that exist in selling it, fine, I welcome all of the attention," Cheadle told Reuters.
Oscar nominations greatly boost attendance. Last year's "Monster" about a lesbian serial killer had an uncertain fate at U.S. box offices until Charlize Theron began winning awards for best actress. It earned over $60 million worldwide on a production cost of around $8 million. Theron won an Oscar.
Like Theron, Cheadle is well-respected in the industry. But also like Theron, the 40-year-old Cheadle is far less known to mass movie audiences.
For the most part, he has been seen in art-house films such as the upcoming "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" or "The United States of Leland." On "Assassination," Cheadle jokes, he "made $1.50 and had to bring his own clothes" for wardrobe.
Outside low-budget films, his work in major films like "Ocean's 12" mostly has been confined to supporting roles.
Picking roles, he said, is "sometimes about the project, and my character is not that big in it or that important ... but it's almost always about hoping you can do something with the part and the part can do something for you."
Normally in the background, Cheadle is now at the forefront of "Hotel Rwanda." Co-stars Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix play minor roles and relative unknown Sophie Okonedo is Rusesabagina's wife, Tatiana.
Cheadle calls the movie "ultimately an uplifting" experience and said audiences will be "educated about some facts in the world that you should know about it."
In spring 1994, Rwanda plunged into a civil war between rival Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Extremist Hutus tried to rid the nation of Tutsis by killing them. When the genocide ended in the summer, nearly 1 million people had been murdered.
Rusesabagina managed an upscale hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, and when the killing began, refugees overran it. Hutu guerrillas demanded he get the Tutsis out, but Rusesabagina cajoled his old army contacts in a way that ultimately saved lives.
Rusesabagina said in a telephone interview that he does not see himself as a hero, but rather a normal person who simply did what he had to do. Watching "Hotel Rwanda," he said, awakens old demons.
"It appears as if it was happening today and sounds are always fresh in my mind," Rusesabagina said from his home in Brussels, Belgium.
Cheadle said there were elements of the hotel manager's personality with which he could identify. Cheadle called him diplomatic, driven to help people and committed to family.
For his part, Rusesabagina said Cheadle's portrayal of him was spot on. "He is someone who can disappear into someone else's character," Rusesabagina said of the actor.
"Hotel Rwanda" begs comparison to 1993 Steven Spielberg movie "Schindler's List," which told of the German factory owner Oskar Schindler's sheltering of Jews from the Holocaust.
But Rusesabagina's tale has special significance this year with the current fighting in the Darfur region of western Sudan which has led to tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of some 1.6 million people over two years.
In Rwanda, critics charge, much of the world looked the other way while murder took place, just as the conflict in Darfur, an area the size of France, has been overshadowed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Cheadle said he has been inspired by Rusesabagina's story to speak out about the plight of refugees in Darfur, and he had plans to meet with U.S. congressional leaders about the issue.
He is often asked if he is concerned audiences may feel guilty after seeing "Hotel Rwanda."
"I don't mind, if it is a jumping point into the next question, 'what can I do?' As long as that question is not answered by an apathetic, 'I can't do anything about it,"' Cheadle said.
"Hotel Rwanda" debuted in New York and Los Angeles last week and opens elsewhere in the United States and the world in January.
Don Cheadle Interview@Coming Soon.net
Eyes Success in Film Career
By DOUGLAS J. ROWE
AP Entertainment Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - "I feel like I keep hitting seven," Don Cheadle says,
likening his career to success at craps. "I feel like I'm on the dice."
He knows snake eyes can come up any time, however.
Just not yet.
Recently, he appeared in "After the Sunset" and "Ocean's Twelve." Next comes "The
Assassination of Richard Nixon" (starring Sean Penn in his first role since
his Oscar-winning performance in "Mystic River") and "Hotel Rwanda" _ for which
Cheadle and the film have received Golden Globe nominations.
"I've been really blessed, I think. I've been really fortunate to be involved
in the films that I wanted to be involved in."
And when he's involved in a movie, he often shines albeit in a supporting
role _ as a DEA agent in "Traffic," a porn star who aspires to open a stereo
store in "Boogie Nights," Sammy Davis Jr. in the made-for-cable "The Rat Pack,"
and as the charmingly psycho Mouse ("If you didn't want me to kill him, why did
you leave me alone with him?") in "Devil in a Blue Dress."
He has a rare starring role in "Hotel Rwanda," playing Paul Rusesabagina,
the hotel manager who saved 1,268 people from death during the Rwandan genocide
of a decade ago.
"I read a lot of scripts and most of them are not good; they're just not
good," says Cheadle, who once played a very different kind of hotel manager
in "The Golden Palace" (the spinoff of "The Golden Girls" sitcom).
But he thought the "Hotel Rwanda" script "jumped off the page" and he
was motivated by the fact that few people around the world were familiar
with what happened. (In 1994, news coverage about the slaughter of hundreds
of thousands in the small African country was scarce.)
When he takes a role, Cheadle says he looks for his character to
take "a journey."
"It doesn't necessarily have to be one that ultimately becomes some moral
thing at the end. It can be a journey into hell. It can be a descent, as well.
But I like characters that have an arc. Whatever that arc is, I like to see
them in one place and go to another place.
"I think that's what's fun for the audience."
It's daunting to play a real-life character, but at least he didn't
have to play someone as famous as Jamie Foxx did in "Ray," Cheadle says.
"A challenge that I didn't have, like one that Jamie had _ which I think he
knocked out of the park _ was that so many people know Ray Charles for his
entire life. There's so much footage on him, and so much documented fact
about his life, that he had to do that, he had to nail that."
But no one knew Rusesabagina's story "so I didn't have to try and recreate
something that there really is no document on."
"Hotel Rwanda" director/screenwriter Terry George thinks Cheadle is "clearly
one of the foremost character actors in the world."
"In everything I've seen him in, from `Devil in a Blue Dress' through
to `Traffic,' he had the ability to disappear in character, and yet then
take that character and use his acting talent to project the charisma of
the character he's playing. And that's exactly what I needed for this
role _ somebody who would disappear into it and yet have the acting chops to
pull off the emotions necessary," George says.
But the filmmaker, who directed the 1996 feature "Some Mother's Son" and
co-wrote the Jim Sheridan films "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer,"
wouldn't wish on Cheadle what he sees as the downside of being an A-list, $20
million leading man.
The 40-year-old Cheadle, who with Bridgid Coulter (his wife in "Rosewood")
has two daughters, isn't so sure he would wish that on himself.
He's gratified by the Oscar buzz that's accompanying his Golden Globe
nomination, and thinks an Oscar might bring "unlimited choices _ first
crack at every script I see, being able to pick and choose which ones I
wanted to do, which fit perfectly for my schedule for my family, for my
schedule with my own desires and interests in taking on subject matters
and characters that I want to do."
But he'd still want to enjoy relative anonymity and be able to shop with
his kids without attracting a paparazzi scrum.
"Right now, nobody pays attention to me. I do whatever I do. And it's
great. I'm walking down the streets and it's no problem."
You Know Him. The D.E.A. Agent? The Cowboy Porn Star?
By DAVID HOCHMAN
The New York Times
June 8, 2003
SANTA MONICA, Calif.
DON CHEADLE had to laugh when he saw himself alongside Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Jack Nicholson and other Hollywood pooh-bahs on a recent cover of Vanity Fair.
"First of all, they put me on the inside flap, not the cover," he said, landing the line somewhere between a joke and a sigh. "And then I thought, `Which of these guys is not like the others? Who's still worried about sustaining a career? Who doesn't have a job in the fall? Who gets less than three mill a movie?' "
It's the sort of grousing only a movie star can get away with, but Mr. Cheadle does make a point. Though his name elicits spontaneous knee-bending from other actors, and savvier moviegoers regard him as the very picture of cool, he still doesn't walk among the giants who spawn movie franchises, go by one name and rack up eight-figure paydays. He may be averaging four films a year, but Mr. Cheadle, who's been in the public eye since 1985, endures as the most famous actor most people never heard of.
In a bustling park on a bluff over the Pacific, joggers and poodle-walkers rushed past Mr. Cheadle as he chatted, and nobody gave him a second glance. Part of it was the welcome anonymity that magically protects certain character actors. And he certainly wasn't announcing himself as a big deal. Mr. Cheadle, who is 5-foot-7 and wiry as a teenager even at 38, drove up in an eco-friendly Toyota Prius, which has become a kind of statement in the land of the S.U.V. stretch limo. His only nod to in-your-face fashion were the differently colored swooshes on his new Nikes: one red, one blue.
It's on screen that Mr. Cheadle distinguishes himself, whether by outshining more luminous stars, the way he did as a gun-crazy psychopath opposite Denzel Washington in the noirish "Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995), or by bringing energy to small parts in ways even his colleagues did not anticipate.
"At this point, I realize Don can pretty much do anything," said George Clooney, Mr. Cheadle's friend and frequent collaborator. "His `Ocean's Eleven' character" — the eccentric pipe-bomb specialist Basher Tarr — "was originally written for a tall, white redheaded British guy. So, of course, it was perfect for Don."
That flashy cameo in Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake was as far as it could be from the even-keeled rehab counselor Mr. Cheadle currently plays in "Manic," an unflinching indie drama set in a psychiatric ward for violent teenagers. As the watchful therapist doling out advice and pharmaceuticals to wayward kids, Mr. Cheadle navigates a landscape of red-hot anger and plastic cutlery — not to mention the jolty digital camera moves of the first-time director, Jordan Melamed — to save what otherwise might have been a white-coated cliché. "My dad's a psychologist," Mr. Cheadle said. "Maybe that had something to do with it."
The truth is, Mr. Cheadle specializes in toppling expectations. As a mercurial ex-con in "Out of Sight" (1998), he managed to be both completely menacing and hilariously inept. In "Boogie Nights" (1997), he shattered twin stereotypes by playing a black cowboy and a porn star who fantasizes about getting married. He could have done the Billy Crystal thing as Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO's "Rat Pack" (1998), but instead chose to unmask the despair beneath Davis's grin. His empathetic performance earned him a Golden Globe.
Mr. Soderbergh, who seems reluctant to make a movie without Mr. Cheadle (they've made three together, with two more on the way), says each of the actor's films has a classic "Don moment."
In Mr. Soderbergh's "Traffic," Mr. Cheadle played a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. "Near the end," Mr. Soderbergh said, "there's a scene where Don's character has to push a guy. We rehearsed the scene at half-speed, and when I said `action,' Don pushed the guy harder than anyone expected. For a split second there was no acting going on. The other actor looked like he wanted to go after Don, and Don had this look that said, `O.K., come on.' It lit everyone up. Don gives you this energy that's totally explosive, and if you're not ready for it, he'll blow you off the screen."
Most actors would envy a career like Mr. Cheadle's. Even with missteps like "Mission to Mars" and "The Family Man," both in 2000, his connections and versatility have kept him prospering in television, theater and movies. Later this year, he will make his film-directing debut with "Tishomingo Blues," a crime drama based on an Elmore Leonard novel about a slick Detroit con artist out to take over the Gulf Coast drug business. He'll play a prison teacher in "The United States of Leland," an independent film about the teenage son (Ryan Gosling) of a famous author (Kevin Spacey) who is sentenced to a juvenile detention facility for murder, and he recently signed to play the best friend of Sean Penn's character in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," based on a true story about a 1970's plot to fly a plane into the White House.
And yet several people, Mr. Cheadle included, suggested that certain opportunities still elude him. "If Don were white," Mr. Soderbergh said, "he'd have three-picture deals and be making way too much money. He's already beat the odds in terms of success as an actor, but he definitely bumps against a ceiling white actors simply don't have to worry about."
Mr. Cheadle sees racial bias as part of the rough magic of Hollywood. "It's so subtle that people sometimes don't even recognize it," he said. "The sergeant or the police captain roles always tend to be played by a black guy, but if you raise the question, it's always like, `No, look, he's in a position of authority.' "
The problem isn't the lack of roles, Mr. Cheadle said. There are plenty of black cops and criminals and comic foils in movies. "It's the lack of well-drawn black characters," he said. "Complex leading roles for blacks are rare because the perception is that black films don't perform internationally, which means they can't get financing, which means they won't get made. Sometimes, I feel like the business isn't skewed toward my interests. I look at most of the films being made and think, `There's no heartbeat there.' "
Coming of age in Lincoln, Neb., and Denver, Mr. Cheadle took a glass-half-full approach to racial barriers, even as he attended mostly white schools. "I never thought an acting career was impossible for a black person," he said. "I was a kid who watched `Jaws' and `Star Wars' along with `Uptown Saturday Night' and `Let's Do It Again' and `Sounder.' I was deeply affected by all those movies."
From the beginning, acting was a full-time preoccupation. Cast as a rodent in a fifth-grade production of "Charlotte's Web," Mr. Cheadle practically made it a method-acting gig. "I remember thinking, `What would a rat do?,' and, `How can I be more rat-like?' I read up on rats and got into their psychology."
He received his bachelor's degree from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (known as CalArts) in Valencia, and, with encouragement from college friends, auditioned for a variety of film and television roles, landing a recurring role on the series "Fame."
At 21, he made his feature-film debut with two lines as a fast-food worker in "Moving Violations" (1985). He took on higher-minded fare after the theater director Joanne Akalaitis, then running the New York Shakespeare Festival, discovered his talents. She soon had Mr. Cheadle performing Shakespeare in Central Park. (He returned to the festival in 2001 to create the role of Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Topdog/Underdog.")
After a recurring part as a D.A. who argued with Fyvush Finkel on "Picket Fences" and his supporting role in Carl Franklin's "Devil in a Blue Dress," which many said was worthy of an Oscar nomination, Mr. Cheadle developed a reputation as an actor's actor who shared Gary Oldman's range and Morgan Freeman's grace. As Mr. Clooney put it: "Don has this class and dignity which every actor can learn from. The only problem is, as a performer, you want to steal all his ideas."
Mr. Cheadle, who is married to Bridgid Coulter, an actress, and has two young daughters, seems to have plenty of ideas to go around. A saxophone player who also writes music and sings, he would like to make a film about music, perhaps playing Miles Davis. He has also been mentioned for the title role in a movie about Grandmaster Flash.
In the meantime, Mr. Cheadle is trying to make sense of his place in the entertainment cosmos. Returning to the subject of the magazine cover and all those kings of Hollywood he was pictured among, Mr. Cheadle said: "When it comes down to it, nobody really has security in this business. Maybe there are four or five people who truly don't have to worry about the future of their acting careers. But I bet you two of them are wrong and the rest are probably crazy."
More Don Cheadle Information
Don Cheadle@Internet Movie Database
Don Cheadle Official Website
The Don Cheadle Fanlisting