This may well be Don Cheadle’s year, but as huge as Ocean’s 12 is at the box office, critics are raving over the actor’s groundbreaking performance as French Rwandan hotelier in Irish director Hotel Rwanda. As clearly irresistible as it was to play this character, the Golden Globe nominee knew nothing about Paul prior to being offered the film. ” I had cursory knowledge about the massacre and I think like most people I became mostly aware of it when there were two million refugees in the camps with some of the militia sprinkled among them. But I knew nothing about Paul until I read the script.”
In Rwanda, Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, who, in 1994, sheltered and saved many lives in Rwanda during the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. As tragic as these events were, Cheadle says that he is not surprised that the American media ignored the Rwandan catastrophe. “Look, we had OJ going on, we had apartheid abolished in 1994, so there were other events that sort of took precedent and I think there was no political upside for the western powers, because I think they found Africa was just black killing black and their attitude was: we will get to it when we can.”
Cheadle is unconcerned that films such as this have a tough time finding an audience, and that he doesn’t think about such issues when choosing a project. “I don’t know who the audience is but as an artist that is not my purview. What I do is go ‘this is amazing, this is fascinating, I think there is a compelling story here, I hope it touches somebody and they will be moved by it’ and then I go forward. What comes out afterwards, is a marketing issue.” But Cheadle wants to make it clear, that while Hotel Rwanda has political overtones, there is far more to the film than mere politics. “I think mostly what the movie is, is a kind of thriller and at its centre it’s a story between this man and his family.”
Cheadle is that rare actor who can effortlessly slip between the Indie films on the one hand, and the likes of After the Sunset and Oceans 12 on the other, and is happy to strive for that perfect working balance. “I want to do both and try to do both. I’ll do Brett Ratner’s movie, that are not the small independent films and make money on those that hit a main stream audience, and those are the ones that allow you to eat while you are doing these others that don’t pay anything that you really care about, really love and really want to put all you power behind. I mean, there is nothing wrong with popcorn films, and pure entertainment is fine, but that is not what is driving me, what inspires me, nor what makes me go this is why I want to be an actor.” Yet Cheadle’s popcorn choices are as diverse as his choices that are non-mainstream, and so he tries to be selective when it comes to choosing the bigger Hollywood movies. “It has to be good popcorn! I don’t want some stale fuckin’ popcorn,” the actor says laughingly. “I think Oceans is popcorn, but it is great popcorn. I think Steven is a genius so he’s going to pull it off in a way that is surprising and I think Oceans 12 is head and shoulders above Oceans 11, I really do.” That is confirmed by its box office success, with Cheadle adding that Oceans “is such a throw back movie. It is like a 1970’s travelogue, I mean we go to Paris, Denmark, Italy, Sicily, Como and you know you see it all. It is not like you are shooting you know New York for Paris or Chicago for Amsterdam. He really uses the topography and uses the architecture, taking advantage of that, shooting the film in such a way that it is still felt really organic.”
Having worked with Soderbergh and a plethora of great directors, will prepare Cheadle to take on directing duties on Tishomingo Blues, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. While not giving much away, the actor says he is still figuring out how to direct his first feature. “I haven’t determined exactly how I am going to direct it; but it will be a mix of things, you know?” He says he will use all that he has learned being an actor, to fortify his vision as a director. “Being an actor on a set, you get to see what the director’s doing, what the AD’s doing, what the DP’s doing, what the costumes what the production design, you get to see what everybody does. Oh you get to see how he said that to her, she didn’t understand what he said and now she said that to him and he is about to fuck it up, because he doesn’t know that that is what he meant, and you get to see how all of it works, if you are observant. I mean you do 25 movies like I have done you are prepped and you are ready.” So no wonder, Cheadle has little time to concern himself with Oscar talk, talk that has been generated since the film’s world premiere in Toronto. “It would kill me if I kept on thinking: this is my Oscar movie. On Rwanda, I had to be there everyday on the set fighting the light, knowing we didn’t have enough days, doing the work and keep my focus on that. Again this is the kind of question that piggy backs on when the movies comes out that has so much to do with campaigns, marketing, pressing the flesh and going to the retirement home and shaking hand with all those voters. I mean it is a political process that A) I am not thrilled to be doing and B) It’s the studios’ preview if there going to spend that kind of dough and do that kind of campaigning.”
While all the buzz centred around Rwanda, Cheadle is part of the ensemble that makes up a Crash, an impressively dark pastiche of the cultural divide that is Los Angeles. Cheadle plays a cop investigating a murder, that is linked to a series of events and characters. From the white middle class, to the African American, Hispanic and Asian communities, Crash reflects the diversity of a culturally divisive city. Cheadle says he is unsure how realistically reflective of LA, Crash ultimately is. “LA is so huge, sprawling and disparate, so it is very accurate of a lot of people’s opinion of LA no question that is why I love the script so much. “
36 films and a career that has defined Cheadle as one of America’s most regarded actors, the actor reflects on a life in film that began, he recalls, with the films that influenced his desire to act. There was not a singular film by any means, he says, but “a collective sort of all the movies I had seen that made me think: wow this is a great way to make a living. It is more often changed over the years, because at first I want to do just make believe and get paid to just pretend all the time and then it was just I wanted to have sex with a lot of girls,” says Cheadle, laughingly. “Then it became: no this is a craft and you can potentially effect a large number of people.”
Over the years, Don Cheadle has done precisely that, and based on what is still to come, audiences will continue to be effected by his artistry for years ahead.