LOS ANGELES—Don Cheadle doesn’t want to punch a reporter. But he may need to punch a reporter.
“I need to do something,” the soft-spoken actor says with a laugh, between bites of fruit during a late-afternoon chat in his hotel suite.
Talk to Me
Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric The Entertainer, Mike Epps, Martin Sheen
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 13 Jul 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
“If I don’t knock out a reporter, then I’ve got to have sex in public with a huge star or somehow get involved in some horrible controversy. My career needs a little boost.”
Cheadle, who plays real-life 1960s disc jockey Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. in the new film “Talk to Me,” is only half-joking. He doesn’t really want to punch a reporter, but he does feel stifled at times because of his reputation within Hollywood circles as a respected actor who is taken much too seriously to be offered comedies, action films or summer blockbusters.
“Just once, I’d like to be disrespected a little bit,” he explained without a hint of bitterness. “It’s tough being perceived as a serious actor. That whole actor’s actor stuff is crap.
“I’m very thankful that I’ve been allowed to do work that means something to people, but that is only one shell in my gun. There are lots of other aspects to my personality, and lots of other aspects to my skills as an actor. Hopefully, this film will show some other sides of me.”
Kasi Lemmons, who directed “Talk to Me,” said her film will show sides of Cheadle that nobody in Hollywood has ever imagined existed.
“It is Don Cheadle unleashed,” she said. “We’re all so accustomed to seeing Don in a role where he is restrained. He is very good at showing restraint on the screen. But in this film, he gets to be unrestrained, and it’s no surprise that he is very good at that as well.
“Let’s face it,” she added. “Don is good at anything he does, and he is willing to do anything. He just needs the opportunity.”
Cheadle, 42, said the movie industry is run with a bottom-line approach. Money talks and the Don Cheadles of the world get to walk in smaller budget movies.
“I don’t think I’ve been held back in my career,” he said. “It’s really all about the money. It’s not even about race anymore. Ten years ago, it was about race. Once they had their black dramatic actor, who was Denzel (Washington), and their black action star, who was Wesley (Snipes), and their black comedy actors, who were the Chrises (Rock and Tucker), they closed the door. They were satisfied. They didn’t need anyone else, thank you.
“But I don’t feel it’s like that anymore. It really is about the bottom line. The studios only care about who makes them money. Trust me, if one of my small movies were to somehow make $200 million, then the studios would suddenly appear with offers because I proved that I can make money.
“That’s why I started my own production company. I can’t wait around for someone to see something in me that I haven’t been allowed to show anybody. It’s a vicious cycle, where they won’t get you a chance at something different because you haven’t shown that you can do that. But you can’t show them that you can do that because you don’t get a chance to show them. You get the picture?”
Cheadle, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2004 performance in “Hotel Rwanda,” has been in his share of big-budget popcorn movies, most notably the three “Ocean’s” movies, in which he played a clever, fast-talking British safecracker. But those were ensemble movies, and individual members don’t get full credit in the greater scheme of things.
But he did learn something from working with that particular group of actors.
“Matt (Damon) is a great example of something that could happen to me,” he said. “No one in Hollywood thought of Matt as an action star. But along comes `The Bourne Identity.’ It’s flying mostly under the radar, so Matt gets his chance. It goes on to make a lot of money, so Matt gets to do `Bourne’ a second time, and now a third time. I don’t know if he’ll get to be an action hero in some other kind of a movie, but at least he got this chance.
“That’s what I’m hoping for—my `Bourne Identity.’ I wouldn’t mind being an action star for a change.”
Although born in Kansas City. Mo., Cheadle and his family moved around a lot when he was growing up. He attended high school in Denver, and tried his hand at stand-up comedy when he was 17. The focus of his comedy act—jokes about the comic strip Nancy.
“I was great the first two weekends,” he said with a smile, “but the third weekend was not so good. That was it for me.”
He graduated from CalArts with a degree in fine arts, and was good enough as a musician to choose between a career in jazz or acting. He chose the latter, but he will play jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis in an upcoming film produced by his company.
His acting career started slowly, and his first few professional roles were in forgettable movies (remember “Moving Violations?”) and one-shot guest appearances on episodic television (“China Beach,” “L.A. Law,” “Hill Street Blues”). His first meaty movie role was in the 1987 film “Hamburger Hill,” but most people first became aware of the promising young actor in the 1995 movie “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
A steady flow of movie roles have followed (“Rosewood,” “Boogie Nights,” “Bulworth,” “Traffic,” “Swordfish” and “Crash,” to name just six), with occasional stops in the theater (he originated the role of Booth in “Top Dog/Underdog”) and on the small screen, including a memorable portrayal of Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 TV movie “The Rat Pack.” He also co-authored the book “Not on Our Watch” about the atrocities in Darfur.
In his latest film, he plays the irreverent Washington, D.C., radio-show host Petey Greene, an ex-con who got his start broadcasting over the prison public address system and later was credited with bringing calm to the nation’s capital after the city erupted in flames.
Greene died in 1984, and the film chronicles his meteoric rise in radio, but also his long friendship with Dewey Hughes, whom he met in prison (Hughes was visiting his brother). Hughes was the program director at radio station WOL-AM, and it was his bold and controversial decision to put Greene on the air.
“This is not a message movie,” Cheadle explained. “It is a piece of great entertainment about a great friendship between two men who drive each other crazy.
“But there is a bit of a message here, and it comes by seeing a man who was not afraid to speak his mind. You don’t see much of that anymore because it’s been beaten out of people. If you threaten the flow of money into these stations, you’re out.
“A classic example is Don Imus. Not that I condone anything he said, but he didn’t lose his job because of what he said on the air. He lost his job because Al Sharpton raised some heat and there was talk of an economic boycott. There was no morality stance by the broadcasters; it was all about money.”
Director Lemmons agreed that her film was not intended to send a message, but did offer a valuable lesson.
“It’s important for us to remember how much difference one person’s voice can make,” she said. “In the period we’re going through now, it takes a lot of courage to speak your mind and then let the chips fall where they may.”
Cheadle said he doubts that this film will be the one that makes $200 million, particularly in the middle of a summer of blockbuster sequels, but he’s still glad he did it.
“I know I said I’d like to get offers to do the big movies, but movies like this usually have the juiciest roles. That’s because everybody’s in it for the love of making movies. With that kind of passion, it’s always going to be a wonderful experience.”
So, maybe he doesn’t have to punch a reporter.