LOS ANGELES — At the recent “Iron Man 2” premiere at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, the film’s stars seemed to be channeling their characters for the over-the-top event, which featured cheerleaders in provocative red and gold uniforms, fireworks and throngs of fans. Robert Downey Jr., who plays billionaire hero Tony Stark, was all ironic charm and sparkling hubris, for instance, while Mickey Rourke, who portrays the sullen villain Ivan Vanko, slowly made his way up the red carpet in sunglasses and a leather-lapel suit that gave him an air of reptilian menace.
And then there was Don Cheadle, who seemed a bit skeptical of the entire affair but dutifully followed the smile-and-wave assignment given to the stars of summer blockbusters. That good-soldier attitude fits his character, Air Force Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who spends much of the film torn between his heart and his marching orders. The 45-year-old actor had plenty of conflicted feelings to draw on for the role; “Iron Man 2” was the Oscar-nominated actor’s first experience in a big-budget special effects movie, and there was a lot of anxiety amid the explosions.
Cheadle had not seen the film before the premiere and, after the credits rolled, he admitted that he had feared the heavy machinery might have spun out of control. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “This is the first time I saw it. I’m very happy.” He didn’t look especially thrilled when giving his review, but then again, that’s probably par for the course, as Cheadle has described himself as someone who is rarely satisfied with the finished product.
There are a lot of new faces in this return to “Iron Man” — Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Garry Shandling among them — but Cheadle is set apart from them because he was brought in to take on a role that was played with flair by Terrence Howard in the first film, one of the biggest hits of 2008. Howard was ejected from the franchise in a spat over personality and a proposed pay cut; he was reportedly the first cast member signed for the franchise and, somewhat surprisingly, the movie’s highest-paid actor.
Marvel Studios, Paramount and director Jon Favreau all fretted about changing the cast member in such a key role. Rhodey is Stark’s best friend and in this new film becomes an armored hero himself — he goes by the indelicate name of War Machine — which was foreshadowed in the first installment. For Cheadle, there was also the awkwardness of replacing a friend. Cheadle and Howard were costars in “Crash,” the 2004 film that won the Oscar for best picture, and Cheadle was a producer on “Crash” who championed the casting of Howard in that film.
“I didn’t actually know the (Howard) situation, and I just wanted to kind of stay out of it,” Cheadle said a few days before the premiere as he sat watching the NBA playoffs at his Santa Monica offices. “I just wanted to make sure that I was not taking a role away from him. Once they had moved off of him and it was clear he wasn’t coming back, they offered it to me. I think they gave me five hours to decide. I was at my kid’s birthday party. They were on a tight schedule and needed an answer.”
Cheadle didn’t have to think too long. He loved Marvel Comics as a kid and gravitated toward that publisher’s singular brand of cosmic melodramas with flawed, conflicted heroes. Also, after putting together an eclectic resume — he was Oscar-nominated for “Hotel Rwanda” and made memorable turns in all-star ensemble films such as “Crash,” “Boogie Nights” and “Ocean’s Eleven” — he was ready for a tour of duty as an action figure.
War Machine is gun-metal and gun-loaded — essentially his armor is a less-sleek version of Iron Man’s suit that has been augmented with “a ridiculous amount of firepower,” as Favreau puts it — and has been part of the Marvel universe for years. When Cheadle took on the role, the studio shipped over a mountain of reference material tracking the Rhodey character back to his first appearance in 1979, but Cheadle’s eyes glazed over after a while. Every few seasons, the writer of the comics would change and so would Rhodey.
“Marvel sent me every iteration of Rhodey that has existed, which is a million different people,” Cheadle said with a chuckle. “There’s no real mean there other than the fact that he is Tony Stark’s friend. That is the paramount relationship in the lives of these two guys. And that friendship is what keeps getting pushed and pulled in the second movie, particularly: How does a friend take care of a friend who’s not taking care of himself?”
In the film, the U.S. military wants to confiscate the armor of Iron Man for national defense, which puts Rhodey in a tense position as he tries to protect his friend. When Stark starts going off the rails in his personal life, though, Rhodey feels betrayed, and he steals the War Machine suit while Stark is getting drunk at his own birthday party. Favreau said it’s an essential part of the film’s physics.
“One of the main tensions in this film is someone being an individual or part of a team — the lone gunslinger or the person who is ready to help his partners,” the director said. “Rhodey, he’s a character that came up through the Air Force, which is all about teamwork and support. No man can go it alone. Pilots are individuals, but they rely greatly on the technology and their trainers and the ground crew and their wingman. That’s Rhodey’s background. Then you have Tony Stark, who’s gotten everything he’s ever gotten by breaking rules, by being a loose cannon. We explore that theme.”
Cheadle brings a very different energy to the character than the dashing yet frosty Howard; there’s plenty of high-tech warfare in this film, but the most interesting conflicts seem to happen behind the eyes of Cheadle’s less-aloof version of Rhodey.
Favreau admits that he was anxious about the departure of Howard from the cast, even though other films in the same sector weathered similar cast changes (Michael Gambon took on the Dumbledore role in the “Harry Potter” franchise after the death of Richard Harris, and in “The Dark Knight,” Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes as Gotham prosecutor Rachel Dawes). In short order, though, Favreau found that his superhero machine was humming along nicely with the new part in place.
“Don and Robert have tremendous chemistry together,” Favreau said.
On screen, the role handoff is handled with a wink. Early in the film, Stark is in front of a hostile congressional committee when a new witness is called — his best friend Rhodey. When it’s Cheadle who walks in, not Howard, Downey says, “Hey buddy, didn’t expect to see you here.” The military man doesn’t miss a beat: “Look, it’s me, I’m here. Deal with it. Let’s move on.”
A few weeks after Cheadle got the role he (almost literally) ran into Howard in the NBC-Universal parking lot. “We had a talk and put it all to bed. I was glad it happened. I think people can kind of get cloudy in this business sometimes and think it’s all about the job and success. It can be seductive to try to get every role. But if you don’t have personal relationships, if you don’t have blood beating in your body, what’s it all about?”
Donald Frank Cheadle Jr. was born in Kansas City, Mo., three days after Thanksgiving in 1964, the son of a clinical psychologist father and a psychology teacher mother. He’s a thinking-man’s actor, but he grows restless with the notion of limiting his pursuits to just reading scripted lines. In addition to “Crash,” he had producer credits on the 2008 thriller “Traitor” as well as the 2007 documentary “Darfur Now,” which spoke to his impassioned work to bring attention to the genocide in the Sudan. He’s also a renaissance man; he plays the saxophone, sings, composes music, and he once beat poker champ Phil Ivey in a national heads-up event.
Cheadle has two daughters, Ayana Tai and Imani, with longtime girlfriend Bridgid Coulter (she played his wife in “Rosewood” in 1997, the same year they had their first child), and he brought the whole family to the “Iron Man 2” premiere.
“My girls, though, they have no interest in this Iron Man stuff,” Cheadle said with a shrug. “I mean, c’mon, War Machine, that is a total boy thing. I mean, look at the guy. He’s covered in guns. Kill, kill, shoot, shoot, fly, kill, shoot ... that is so a boy thing.”
Turning himself into a human action figure was a strange but ultimately satisfying experience, he said, even if it was a little outside his comfort zone.
Cheadle, most recently seen in the brutal “Brooklyn’s Finest” as a deep-cover narcotics detective, will return to the hustlers and handcuffs sector with the 2011 release of “The Guard,” which has him playing an FBI agent in a cast that also includes Brendan Gleeson and Mark Strong. It’s familiar underworld turf for Cheadle, who made his breakthrough with the metal-toothed malice of a killer named Mouse Alexander in Carl Franklin’s 1995 “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
The actor says he seeks out great scripts and great directors, but he does try to keep some variety in the career mosaic he’s shaping.
“Are we driven more by our near misses?” he asked when talking about picking his parts. “It’s an interesting way to think about things. I enjoy doing comedic roles. I think those are roles I have done and people see it and it works for them, but they seem sort of surprised by it still. I did stand-up for a minute, and comedy is some of my favorite stuff to do. And it’s some of the hardest stuff to do.”
New challenges have never swayed Cheadle. He received largely positive reviews for his funny work in “Talk to Me” even if the biopic of radio DJ Petey Greene was shrugged off as too pat and sentimental, and he was unforgettable as Buck Swope, the cowpoke porn star in “Boogie Nights.” And then there was his turn as the British explosives expert Basher Tarr, the exasperated anarchist among the slick con men of “Ocean’s Eleven”; he returned for the two sequels and has, it turns out, now made five films with buddy George Clooney (“Out of Sight” and “Fail Safe” stand as the non-“Ocean’s” collaborations).
Cheadle says he walks onto a movie set with the goal of not stealing scenes — he looks more for a submarine approach, staying contained and under the surface. “I want the movie to be good. You don’t do that by stealing scenes. You do that by giving them away,” he said, suggesting that Favreau’s themes of teamwork apply to film sets as well. For “Iron Man 2,” with Cheadle wearing another actor’s role and uniform, competing for scenes with Downey would have a dereliction of duty.
“We had a lot of fun going back and forth, but it was really challenging most days not to fall into his patois. It’s seductive. You find yourself wanting to play back and forth and both of us have the similar kind of wit. But my character, Rhodey, he is not that guy. He couldn’t play with Tony like that, he wouldn’t be able to or interested. That’s not his mission so it wasn’t mine.”
Now that “Iron Man 2” is off to a flying start, is Cheadle setting his sights on a long career as War Machine in future Marvel films? “I have no idea,” he said. “I’m not just trying to be coy. Look, I didn’t know what we were doing on any given day on the set. You think I know what’s happening with the next movie? I imagine there will be a next movie if this one does good, but I don’t know what it will be or what it will look like.”
He offered a slight smile before adding: “Maybe Terrence will be back and I’ll be out ...”