Don Cheadle may be one of Hollywood's quietest superstars. He was known for having high impact in supporting roles before Hotel Rwanda catapulted him to fame. He earned an Oscar nomination for playing the real-life hotel manager who protected more than a thousand Tutsis from the Hutu militia during the Rwandan civil war. Cheadle appeared in other critical and box office hits like Crash and Flight. He's now earned an Emmy nomination for his role in the TV show House of Lies.
Cheadle spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about whether he's hit a career peak, and how he'll know when to call it quits.
On winning the acting game
What we all know in this business is that you don't really retire from it; it sort of retires you. It usually happens for people when they hadn't anticipated it, so I don't think it's going to be any different for me. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be part of projects that have meant a lot to me and that ... seem to hold a special place for people. But I don't ever sit back and think that I can just chill out, and that I don't have any more work to do. I always feel like I'm grinding. I always feel like I'm trying to make sure that I am continuing to push it, and push myself into new places, and be as elastic as I can as an actor.
On House of Lies and his role as Marty Kaan
I play a management consultant who is the head of a pod. We're just sort of these, I guess sharky, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-deal done, and can be pretty narcissistic, cutthroat. And, even without our own pod, there are little wars and battles that have gone on. So it's a lot of story and character to cram into 30 minutes. But it's a comedy, and it's kind of a high-octane comedy, a lot of high energy. I usually have 7 million monologues each week, so it's tough.
On whether Marty's race affects how Cheadle plays him
Oh, it absolutely does. I think it shows up just from the fact that he is a black man in a predominately white-male-driven business, and we see that all the time. In several episodes, it's come up in a pretty big way. So we always try to pull that in and make that something that informs his character as strongly as anything else that he's doing. Of course, his race is a part of who he is, and in this world, it often cuts both ways. Sometimes he uses it to his advantage. But very often, it's the thing that's his undoing.
On choosing roles for love, not money
You know, the first day of Hotel Rwanda, in fact, we were in Africa, we were at lunch. My agent called and said, "How's it going?" I said, "It's all right." He said, "Hey, I just wanted to tell you that there's no money ... for this movie." [chuckles] I said, "What?" He goes, "You're there for free. No money has been sent to the bank. So we can send you a ticket, and you can come home, or you can stay there and hope everything works out." I'm like, "Eh, I guess I'm going to stick it out."
On getting the role in Hotel Rwanda
When I met with Terry [George], who directed the movie, he said, "I got to be honest with you. If Will Smith says yes or Cuba Gooding Jr. says yes to this part, it's theirs, because I've been trying to get this movie made for years and years, and I'm going to make it with whoever I need to make it with." And I said, "I fully understand that. And in fact, if I can get it to them and help you get this movie made as a producer, I would love to do that, because I think the story needs to be told." I felt that strongly about the story. A lot of the extras in the film had lived through the genocide, and it was just all around us, and I really believed in the project.
On fulfilling a childhood dream
I was told by relatives — aunts and uncles — that, you know, I remember going home ... and someone came up to me and said, "Hey you did it!" And I was like, "I did it?" She goes, "Yeah you used to say — when you were 5, 6 years old running around here — that you wanted to be an actor." I was, 'I did?" She was like, "Yeah, you used to say that." So, I guess it was something that was in my mind very early. I know I got very serious about it once I graduated from high school. I had a few choices — to either pursue acting or to pursue music. And I think I really looked at what it would take to really commit to being a musician — the work and the kind of commitment to that — and realized that I was not ready for that.
On getting into the business
It's hard for me to give advice, because I started, you know, 27 to 28 years ago now. And the business has changed so much. You look at television nowadays, and you see guest stars that have had film careers. They're like me. ... Those parts used to be able to go to people who were "unknown." So I don't know anymore where you start. The great thing is, now, however, people, if you know they really get serious about their craft and work hard and bring their unique voices and interesting perspectives on stories, there's places where you can sell. So you don't have to knock on the door of a lot of these networks and try to get a gig. You can try to create your own opportunity and just put it out yourself, and find people that will buy it. And then kind of build that infrastructure around you and help you to really realize your full vision. So I always encourage people to — if they want to really get into this business — to be writers first. Don't worry about being an actor first. Be a writer. Create something. Own it. And then the world is yours.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our next guest is one of Hollywood's quiet superstars. He was known for having high-impact and supporting roles, that was before "Hotel Rwanda" catapulted him to fame. He earned an Oscar nomination for playing the real-life hotel manager who protected more than a thousand Tutsis from the Hutu militia during the Rwandan Civil War.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HOTEL RWANDA")
DON CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) Most importantly, this cannot be a refugee camp. The Interahamwe believe that the Mille Collines is a four-star Sabena hotel. That is the only thing that is keeping us alive.
MARTIN: After that, Don Cheadle has appeared in other hits like "Crash" and "Flight." And now he's earned an Emmy nomination for his role in the TV show "House of Lies." We'll find out what happens on September 22, but Don Cheadle is with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome, congratulations.
CHEADLE: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: The star of "House of Lies," Marty Kaan, is kind of like the anti-Paul Rusesabagina, you know, Paul Rusesabagina being the hotel manager.
CHEADLE: They seem very similar to me.
MARTIN: Do they? Tell me?
CHEADLE: No, no, they don't. Obviously, Marty's antithetical to someone who's looking out for everyone else. He's clearly got his own best interest at heart. You know, I play a management consultant who is the head of a pod. We're just sort of these - I guess, sharky, do whatever it takes to get the deal done, and can be pretty narcissistic and cutthroat. And even within our own pod there are, you know, little wars and battles that have gone on. So it's a lot of story and character to cram into 30 minutes, but it's a comedy and it's kind of a, you know, a high-octane comedy and a lot of high-energy. And I usually have 7 million monologues a week, so it's tough.
MARTIN: And the role earned you the Emmy nomination this year for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series. I just want to play a short clip from the preview. Just give people a little taste.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF LIES")
CHEADLE: (As Marty Kaan) Welcome to the new economy, America.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: You open your mouth and the damage just spills right out.
CHEADLE: (As Marty Kaan) My name is Marty Kaan, and I'm a management consultant. How do you make improvements on a masterpiece? Me and my team talk people into thinking they really need us just enough to sell them some more.
MARTIN: There's so many funny lines in it that. The people who work in these - in a lot of fields will recognize, which is that people don't really know what you do, but if you can convince them that they need you, then they need you. What attracted you to this?
CHEADLE: It was fun to take a character who really doesn't care about - I mean, you know, his counterpoint to where we see his emotions is in his family - and I have a great cast in the family. You know, Glynn Turnman plays my father, and Donis Leonard Jr. plays my son, and he's one of the real breakout characters on our show. So we have three generations of black men on screen, and that's rarely seen. There's just a lots of dynamics and a lot of fun that gets to be had.
And it's Showtime, so we get to go everywhere with it and nothing is taboo. It was just a great opportunity to work with great writers. Matthew Carnahan, who created our show, is amazing. We just get great material and it was just a no-brainer.
MARTIN: Well, talking about going everywhere, you mentioned the character of your son. His acting, of course, stands out, but his character stands out because he is struggling with his gender identity. Maybe he's not struggling with it so much as everybody else is.
CHEADLE: There you go, I was about to say that.
MARTIN: He's kind of OK where he is but...
CHEADLE: Yeah. I think Marty's struggling with his gender identity.
MARTIN: Marty's struggling with his gender identity.
CHEADLE: That's right.
MARTIN: Do you remember - how did that idea come about?
CHEADLE: It was in the pilot. I mean, it was something that, you know, as I said, came out of the Matthew Carnahan's brain, who's our show runner and created the show. He wanted to have a kid who was dealing with 2010, 2012 - 2013 problems. And the generation of kids right now, they're all dealing with that - gender fluidity and identity and how they define themselves and how the world defines them. And their right and demand to not be defined by other standards and mores, but to decide who they are for themselves and fiercely individual. You know, all of that stuff is really what's happening right now with teenagers and pre-teenagers. So he wanted to have a character that was in the center of that and just have Marty Kaan, who is all about definitions and lines and control, have to figure out how to dance with that.
MARTIN: Does Marty's race play a role in how you play him?
CHEADLE: Oh, it absolutely does. I think it shows up just from the fact that he is a black man in a predominately white, male driven business. And we see that all the time. In several episodes, it's come up in a pretty big way. So we always try to pull that in and make that something that informs his character as strongly as anything else that he's doing. Of course, his race is a part of who he is, and in this world, you know, it often cuts both ways. Sometimes he uses it to his advantage, but very often it's the thing that is his undoing.
MARTIN: Can we go back a little bit and I just want to ask how you got bitten by the acting bug.
CHEADLE: I was told by relatives, you know, aunts and uncles, that, you know - I remember going home for a funeral of one of my cousins that I really didn't know very well, and someone came up to me and said, hey, you did it. And I was like, I did it? She goes, yeah, you used to say when were 5 - 6 years old, running around here, that you wanted to be an actor. I said, I did? She was like, yeah, you used to say that. So I guess it was something that was in my mind very early. I know that I got very serious about it once I graduated from high school. I had a few choices - to either pursue acting or to pursue music. And I think I really looked at what it would take to really commit to being a musician - the work and the kind of commitment to that- and realized that I was not ready for that.
MARTIN: I understand, though, that you got your first paid acting jobs while you were still in drama school, right?
MARTIN: And you've been working pretty steadily since the 1980s. Do you feel like you've made it now?
CHEADLE: What we all know in this business is that you don't really retire from it, it sort of retires you. That usually happens for people when they hadn't anticipated it. So I don't think it's going to be any different for me. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be a part of projects that have meant a lot to me and that people have seemed to - it seems to, you know, hold a special place for people. But I don't ever sit back and think that I can just chill out and that I don't have any more work to do. I always feel like I'm grinding. I always feel like I'm trying to make sure that I am continuing to push it and push myself into new places and be as elastic as I can as an actor.
MARTIN: So what do you think is the major factor in your - you're not only - you're consistently being able to work but the wide range of things you've to be able to do?
CHEADLE: Well, look, you know, the only power that we have as actors in this business - I mean, unless somehow your financing the piece that you're a part of and are putting it together yourself - we just have the power of no. So it's not that I haven't been offered roles that were just like the last thing I did, I just said I don't want to do it. I just said no. I was always picky. I was very fortunate because the timing was always such that right when things would be getting kind of threadbare and it was like, dang, I hope something happens, something would happen.
And I'd be fortunate enough that that something was something that I wanted to be a part of and was able to - no necessarily effort of my own - able to be part of a project that went because I've been, you know, I've been on sets before - you know, the first day of "Hotel Rwanda," in fact, we were in Africa. We were at lunch. My agent called and said, how's it going? I said, it's all right. He said, hey, I just want to tell you that there's no money in escrow for this movie. I said, what? He goes, you're there for free. No money has been sent to the bank, so we can send you a ticket and you can come home, or you can stay there and hope everything works out. I'm like, I guess I'm going to stick it out.
MARTIN: Why did you stick it out with "Hotel Rwanda?" I think - I'm not sure everybody remembers the back story there. It took five years to make. As you mentioned, there were financial challenges, weather problems, all sorts of, you know, drama, you know, in getting it done. I was wondering, first of all, why you decided to stick it out and, secondly, what did it mean to you when it finally did come out?
CHEADLE: Well, it's one of those movies that, you know, I read the script and I had, you know, started doing the research on the material. Then I'd seen a frontline piece on it, which was really arresting and haunting and deep. And Paul Rusesabagina, who I played in the movie, was in the frontline piece. I had his number and I called him and we spoke for a long time.
And I just felt that it was a movie - when I met with Terry, who directed the movie, he said, I got to be honest with you. If Will Smith says yes or Cuba Gooding Jr. says yes to this part, it's theirs because I've been trying to get this movie made for years and years, and I'm going to make it with who ever I need to make it with. And I said, I fully understand that and, in fact, if I can get it to them and help you get this movie made as a producer, I would love to do that because I think this story needs to be told. I felt that strongly about the story. A lot of the extras in the film had lived through the genocide and it was just all around us and I just - I really believed in the project.
MARTIN: Is that what then motivated you to get involved in Darfur? We were speaking earlier and mentioned that we had talked before about a book that you co-wrote bringing attention to the human crisis in Darfur, and something you had been working on for really quite a long time. You've done quite a lot in this area - fundraising, not just fundraising and not just lending your name kind of passively, but really organizing events and putting your shoulder to the wheel. Did it start with "Hotel Rwanda," or was that something that you had been interested in before that?
CHEADLE: It did. I was - there were several screenings around town, and there was a MGM screening that Ed Royce attended, who was a congressman from Orange County, California. And he and Donald Payne sat on the African Affairs Committee and they were trying to raise awareness about what was happening in Darfur. And it was sort of falling on deaf ears, and they believed that there were a lot of allusions in "Hotel Rwanda." And he got in touch with me and said, you know, we're going on a congressional delegation to the area to speak with some leaders there to try and talk to the government, to tour the area with the African Union, and would you like to attend?
And I said, of course. So that just sort of started the momentum and the ball rolling, and that's what "Not on Our Watch" came out of, both the book and the organization. And I went there again with George Clooney, and we went to China and we went to Egypt to try and speak to the leadership there to exert their influence. So it just - it was something that, you know, like you said, was inspired by the film and my involvement with that, but sort of took on a life of its own afterwards.
MARTIN: Do you feel satisfied with your efforts? Do you feel you made a difference?
CHEADLE: I wouldn't use the word satisfied. I feel like sometimes it's a situation of two steps forward and three steps back, you know. Right now, the violence is not as bad as it's ever been because many of those villages and those people are gone or they're living in the outskirts in Chad and the mountains around the area. So they're not there anymore. But we still have the Janjaweed there. There're still government sanctioned attacks that are happening to the people there because the international community has not done anything to prevent it.
The North-South conflict was something that was much more pressing for people, and that would've, rightfully - I think it needed the attention because that would have - had that blown into a full-blown civil war, it would've been tens of millions of people killed, potentially. So that did deserve the attention, but then Darfur becomes a stepchild and people aren't focusing on that. And so that was sort of allowed to go unchecked. We were able to, with Not on Our Watch, start the Sentinel program with the Enough Project. So there is a satellite that we rented time on that watches, you know, the amassing of troops and where these graves are buried and is collecting data if there is ever a trial at The Hague, where Bashir or, you know, Harun, or any of the leadership are brought to face the charges.
There's a lot of evidence that's been stockpiled and it's been complied. But at the same time, unless there's an international effort to bring them to The Hague and make them answer for these charges, we're going to be in a very similar situation. So I wouldn't say that I'm satisfied. I think there has been progress that's made. But until there's been justice, I will continue to be dissatisfied and will continue to bang the drum.
MARTIN: We call these conversations Wisdom Watch, where we ask people to reflect and maybe - you know, people who are at a point in their life where they can reflect, you know, and sort of think back. Is there any wisdom you'd pass on, perhaps, to somebody just starting out or somebody listening to our conversation who would like to do what you do?
CHEADLE: You know, people come up to me and they ask me what can they do to get started all of the time, and I really feel like it's such a letdown because it's hard for me to give advice because I started, you know, almost 27 - 28 years ago now, and the business has changed so much. You look at television nowadays and you see guest stars that have had film careers. They're like me, leads in television shows that, you know, are film actors.
And those parts used to be able to go to people who were quote-unquote unknown. So I don't know anymore where you start. The great thing is now, however, people if - you know, they really get serious about their craft and work hard and bring their unique voices and interesting perspectives on stories, there's places where you can sell. So you don't have to knock on the door of a lot of these networks and try to get a gig. You can create your own opportunity and just put it out, you know, yourself and find people that will buy it. And then kind of build that infrastructure around you and help you to really realize your full vision. So I always encourage people to, if they want to really work on getting into this business, to be writers first.
Don't worry about being an actor first, be a writer. Create something. Own it and then you, you know, the world is yours. You can really dictate the terms of how that will happen and that's only going to happen because unique, creative, interesting voices and stories are coming up, you know. Don't try to run down the same lane that people have done before, you know. Create your own lane and that's the opportunity that is there now that actually wasn't there when I was, you know, just coming out.
MARTIN: You have a very successful family life, as well, and that's something that people don't always associate with Hollywood. And so - well, not just Hollywood, but let's just be honest about it, it seems like families are under a lot of stress in this country right now.
CHEADLE: No, it's real.
MARTIN: You know.
CHEADLE: That's true.
MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you - have any advice to offer just about having a full life?
CHEADLE: Don't be afraid to work. I think a lot of times people are predisposed to believe that adversity means it's not going to work and this is too hard and it shouldn't work and it's too difficult. I'm very lucky that the person that I was with was down to travel with me. And when I did "Hotel Rwanda," I put my kids in school out there and they were in school and I was working and she had to figure out what to do with her days. Now she's industrious and smart, and so she did that.
But had she not wanted to play ball, that wouldn't have been - that would've been really a tough one. And we, you know, we went through a lot of work together. We had couples therapy. We had family therapy. We knew that we didn't have the tools to do it all by ourselves, and so we went and got tools. So that's something that is available that not everybody does that I recommend that they do, if they're really serious about trying to work that stuff out because it ain't easy.
You know, there's you, there's her, or you and him, or her and her, or him-him, whatever. You guys as individuals, and then that third entity, which is the two of you. That union is not either one of you and that thing has its own rules. So that's a lot of work to figure that thing out. And you bring kids into it - I can understand why people don't, quote-unquote, make it. But if you do, the rewards are amazing and it's worth it.
MARTIN: Don Cheadle - actor, activist, family man. He's been nominated for an Emmy for his leading role in the Showtime series "House of Lies." And he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Don Cheadle, thank you.
CHEADLE: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.