Don Cheadle likes to be surprised, so he looks for a diversity of roles

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 August 2008


If you say “John Wayne,” you know what you’re getting.

If you say “Don Cheadle,” prepare to be surprised.

cover art


Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Cast: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Saïd Taghmaoui, Archie Panjabi

(Overture Films)
US theatrical: 27 Aug 2008 (General release)

Review [27.Aug.2008]

“I didn’t get into this business to do the same thing over and over,” the Oscar-nominated actor and Kansas City native (he was born here in 1964 but grew up all over the country) said in a recent phone conversation.

Cheadle rarely does the same thing twice. In just the last year, moviegoers have seen him as a jive-talking ‘60s radio DJ in “Talk to Me,” as an uptight NYC dentist in “Reign Over Me,” as a Brit crook in “Ocean’s Thirteen” and now as an Islamic terrorist in “Traitor.”

Cheadle not only stars in the new film but also was one of the producers, something he also did with the Oscar-winning “Crash” and “Talk to Me.”

“It’s an attempt to put my destiny in my own hands,” he said. “Being a producer allows me to develop material that says something to me, to make movies I can be proud of.”

Which is why he was attracted to “Traitor,” a film that he says handles a controversial subject “in an evenhanded and thought-provoking way.”

Unlike most films about the war on terror, “Traitor” looks deep into the motivations of the terrorists.

“If we characterized one side as all good or all bad, you could write off the film as just another piece of action pabulum,” Cheadle said. “I see it as a movie about truth. We wanted to tell an entertaining story, but also to bring out other issues - issues that usually get ignored.”

Life, Cheadle said, has shown him that despite human diversity, certain things remain the same.

“One of the things that being an actor affords me is to travel around the world on somebody else’s dime. You’re getting paid to study other people, other disciplines, other religions.

DON CHEADLE Born: Nov. 29, 1964, in Kansas City. First film: He played “Juicy Burgers Worker” in 1985’s “Moving Violations.” TV appearances: “ER,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Picket Fences,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “L.A. Law,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Fame.” Number of films: 30. Up next: “Toussaint,” a historical action epic based on Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led a slave rebellion in 18th century that sparked the Haitian Revolution (2009). Source: Internet Movie Database

“What I’ve found is that most human beings, no matter what they believe, want the same things - safety for their kids, protection, a roof, food.”

When those things are denied or threatened, he said, people can be manipulated by their leaders.

“That’s what we try to show in this movie.”

In “Traitor” Cheadle plays Samir Horn, an American Muslim who joins a terrorist cell. Samir was a challenging role because of his complexity.

“He’s this very religious man who is never unsure of his relationship to God, but that faith comes in conflict with what he sees as his duty. ... I see him as a good guy but a good guy who has killed innocent people by his actions. He really feels the burden of that - he’s violating one of the main tenants of his faith.”

Cheadle learned of the “Traitor” script when it was owned by Disney, which eventually shelved the project. He negotiated to buy the rights and got financing from the independent Overture Films, which “pretty much left us alone to make the movie we wanted.”

“You know, if you have the money you can make whatever movie you like. But successfully steering your film through the process of marketing and interfacing with the moviegoing audience ... that’s tricky.

“I thought ‘Talk to Me’ was a really good movie, and maybe 11 people saw it. I didn’t want that to happen here.”

Cheadle said there was no specific thing he looked for in a project.

“I guess the answer is that I want to be excited. I want not to be able to anticipate what will happen next. I don’t want on Page 10 to know what will happen on Page 60. If I can figure it out, so will the audience. I want something that keeps me guessing.”

From a practical standpoint, being an acting chameleon has a few drawbacks, Cheadle acknowledges.

“Like I said, I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. But if you don’t, it runs counter to your getting lots of work. The studios are looking for a brand because it makes the product easier to sell. The actor becomes a brand.

“But that’s not exciting to me. Which means that my job is always going to be a bit of a grind, that I’m going to have to hustle a bit more.

“But at the end of the day I can say, yeah, I’m proud of this movie.”

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