Don Cheadle
Photo by Jonathan Leibson

Don Cheadle: “Movies are not attempting to educate you”

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Short Profile

Name: Donald Frank Cheadle, Jr.
DOB: 29 November 1964
Place of birth: Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Cheadle, have you been able to meet many of your heroes?

Oh God, don’t meet your heroes, just keep them over there. That way you can have a good opinion of them and you don’t have to see them cuss out some kids and think, “Oh fuck dude, I have to hate you now.” But I am a single digit golfer and one of the perks of the job is getting to play in these Pro-ams, getting to be inside the ropes and walk around with these guys and exchange numbers and hang out. When David Feherty is announcing and has his phone with him, we’d play “Stump the Fart.” He calls himself the fart. So I like to send him things that I think are impossible for him to say during a golf broadcast and see if he can say it.

Like what kind of stuff?

Like just crazy stuff, like a word you can never say inside of golf commentary, but to have him figure out a way to say it, and just have me and my friends die laughing hearing him work these insane words into the golf broadcast. His co-commentators would go, “What did you just say, David?” It’s hilarious, that shit is just funny.

You’ve been in your fair share of Hollywood blockbusters by now, so I can imagine you have a lot of stories like that. What do you take away from those experiences?

Money! (Laughs) No, it’s a different experience. It’s fantastical and big, personally it’s fun to go back and see those guys every year or so. Our business is just by nature very nomadic but it’s been great to make friends in that space, and then to come back it every once in a while and be in these movies and hang off walls and do stunts and just do big fun shit.

“Filmmakers are not attempting to educate you. They are attempting to give you an experience.”

Like with the Ocean’s trilogy? I imagine that was an interesting bonding experience with 12 men as the core cast.

Right, it was this big fraternity of guys! But over time, coming back with our children grown, different things happening in our lives and making a couple of good friends… You know, Matt Damon and his family and my family vacation together and our kids are close and that’s cool. What I learned about directing from Steven [Soderbergh] was his comfort with allowing the people that he’s hired in the roles to do their job, he’s not interested in micromanaging every decision along the way. He didn’t just have meat puppets there to do his bidding. He wanted you to bring your ideas and your insight and your creativity to the role so that he could use that. We would go into sets and there was no blocking — he would let us figure the scene out and just let him be a fly on the wall and kind of document it.

The Ocean’s trilogy starts off in Vegas, with a casino heist setting things in motion. I hear that you’re actually quite the poker player. Does acting help you when you need a poker face?

I don’t think so. I think the only thing that helps you with poker is being able to play poker. It’s not just rolling the dice and praying.

You used to play poker to raise money for charity, right? Isn’t that a bit incongruous?  

You know, they asked John Dillinger why he robbed banks and he said, “Because that is where the money is.” It’s just fun to play in a tournament. We raised over $4 million for Africa, so we were very fortunate… It was during the heyday of the game so it would be trickier to do now. That said, I do have a charity tournament in a couple of weeks coming up…

You seem very concerned with doing your part to make the world a better place. Do you feel that films should educate viewers?

Well, first off, an audience member needs to be aware that a filmmaker, for the most part in a movie, is not attempting to educate you. They are attempting to give you an experience that will have you wanting to come back and bring 10 more friends. I think that it’s a risky prospect to believe that going to a movie in some way, shape or form is going to give you a good education about the subject matter.

Even in the case of a film like Hotel Rwanda? People were shocked to learn the details through the film, because in the nineties, international media had so falsely portrayed the genocide in its reports.

We are attempting to, in a very short amount of time when you are dealing with subject matter like Hotel Rwanda’s, tackle something that is massive. If you are paying attention, it becomes evident that you are getting a small piece of the entire story. If it whets your appetite, and you walk out with a desire to know more, that’s the best result, as opposed to believing now that because you saw some two hour movie that you have enough of an overview that you know what is going on.

Don Cheadle earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role in Hotel Rwanda (2004).

Now that you have ventured into filmmaking yourself, how do you think your approach sets you apart?

I think it’s a trap to tell yourself that there is some thing that you have to achieve that is out there, that is outside of telling the story. As long as you just focus on having high stakes for what it is that your character wants, and let all the other stuff be what someone else puts on it, I think you have a shot of doing it well. I think if you are end gaming it and trying to think about creating some performance that fits someone else’s idea of what that person supposed to be, then you’re done. So, with my film, Miles Ahead, we were looking to craft something that felt simply like composition.

Kind of a “less is more” philosophy?

Right, we tried to find a way to take the audience through an experience. We just wanted it to be something that when you walked out of the theater you said, “I just got out of a dope-ass ride and I want to listen to all that music and I want to go to the record store right now.” That is what we wanted people to feel. I think people look at Miles Davis and associate him in a reductive way with the type of music that is also marginalized, which is jazz. Anything that is limited like that is rarely something that people believe is a good risk to spend money on for a film — they are trying to hit as wide as possible.

At least you have the advantage that you can possibly call up some famous friends and get them to be involved.

No, it doesn’t go like that. Your mates want to know the same thing that you want to know if they called you up: When, where, how much, who, do what? We are not out there doing favors — this is our career. You might show up and do something if it works out for you, but to just show up, just to be like, “Yeah this is going to be a piece of shit, but I’m going to hang out with you because you’re my friend?” No way. It still has to be something that’s good.