Why isn't Don Cheadle a leading man? He's got the good looks, screen presence, and talent, certainly. It may be a color thing, in part—Hollywood seems to have an unwritten quota of African-American leading actors. But it may also be that Cheadle has proven himself such a great team player, standing out in a chameleon-like variety of supporting roles in high-profile films like Devil in a Blue Dress, Boogie Nights, Out of Sight, and Traffic.
Indeed, Cheadle has mostly taken ensemble roles in big Hollywood films rather than large roles in independent projects, and the approach has paid off in critical attention and regular work, if not star status. Not that he exclusively plays the Hollywood game—a graduate of Cal Arts' B.F.A. theatre program, Cheadle recently appeared in the Public Theater's production of Suzan Lori-Parks' two-hander Topdog/Underdog. But his next appearance—in a film so packed with A-list talent, Ocean's 11, that his role as a Cockney explosives expert doesn't even get him billing—epitomizes the career thus far of this hard-working actor's actor.
If Cheadle is harboring any secret designs on superstardom, they weren't apparent in a recent interview at a Venice eatery, for which he arrived by bicycle in a knit cap.
Back Stage West: After you completed your studies at Cal Arts, how easy was it to obtain professional work as an actor?
Don Cheadle: By the time I graduated, I already had an agent. I had worked. I had my SAG card. I had just started bouncing between collecting unemployment and working, which every actor I knew was doing. We'd work for a couple of months, and then we'd go down and collect unemployment, and then we'd go back to work. I went to a professional waiter school, but I never became a waiter. The day I graduated I got a job on a movie. So I was really fortunate that way. I've been very blessed and very lucky. When people ask me, "How do you get in the business?" I say, "I can't tell you."
BSW: And that, of course, is the question that most green actors want to know.
Cheadle: There is no "how to" [manual]. That book would be a bestseller. Everyone wanting to be an actor would have it, and there would be a million actors working, but the fact of the matter is, there is only so much work and there are so many actors.
BSW: Is there anything you could share about your experience as a young actor that you think would help someone starting out?
Cheadle: Work as much has you can, wherever you can, in whatever you can. If you have to generate the work, do that. My friends and I would scrape together money and produce theatre around the city. I don't think there were ever more than 15 people in the audience, and we usually knew all of them. Even though we lost money, those were great experiences just being onstage four nights a week, especially because the theatres were such small houses. It just gave us sort of carte blanche to explore and to really try stuff out and to push each other and push ourselves. A lot of good work came out of that. A lot of experience came out of that.
BSW: Were you ever discouraged as a young actor? Have you ever considered quitting the business?
Cheadle: I go through that now.
BSW: Really? Even at the level you're at?
Cheadle: What level is that? I think the perception of the level that I'm on is very different from the reality of the level that I'm on. I think that people think I'm working all the time, getting scripts sent to me all the time, and getting lots of offers, but [this business] is not geared toward me. The producing elements—the studios that make the movies—are not, for the most part, signed up to see what they can throw at Don Cheadle. For the most part, it's about Julia and Brad and all these other people I'm in Ocean's 11 with.
BSW: I noticed on the billboards for Ocean's 11 that you weren't even given billing, even though you have a sizeable part in the film. Does that bother you at all?
Cheadle: I didn't do it for the credit. I did it just to have fun and do something with Steven, and I think it's actually kind of fun for people to go see the movie and go, "Oh shit. He's in it." For the people who won't recognize me, it's all good, because they can really just watch the character without any expectations, and for the people who do recognize me, it's not going to matter if I don't have a credit in the film.
BSW: Speaking of Steven Soderbergh, he seems to be the one director who consistently sees what he can throw your way.
Cheadle: He has, for the most part, tried to put me in his things. He wanted me to do Erin [Brockovich], but he went with Julia instead. The studio wouldn't sign off on that. I just feel like he really allows me to—I don't want to say do what I want—but he allows as much creative input as is possible without changing the piece into something else, which I would never attempt to do, anyway. He really allows you to come to the table with stuff that you want to do and things you want to explore and try out.
BSW: You've reached a point where you're recognized for your talent alone—portraying characters who are not ethnically specific. Was that a conscious decision on your part to go after roles that don't necessarily call for a black actor to play the part?
Cheadle: Well, it's funny because having the ability to do it is different from having the opportunity to do it, and having the opportunity to do it is something that is always a fulfilling and upward battle. I think there are two or three black people [Hollywood] wants to put in front of the movie that'll pay. So that's always a struggle.
I didn't set out with any sort of real agenda, other than to get a lot of girls and be famous. I doubt there are very many actors who would say differently. That was the initial goal. Of course that changed and evolved as I went to school and became serious about the craft. As I studied acting and pursued a degree in it and started to see acting as a powerful tool to tell stories, I was just fueled in so many different ways.
It has always been fun for me to play as many different roles as I can. I never expected that I would not be able to do that once I graduated. I really had a naïve take on it. Though I saw that [racism existed] in the world, it never seemed to apply to me. After I did Colors and then played a soldier in Vietnam in Hamburger Hills, I played a D.A. on television, and then I was able to play a wide range of characters. I've been blessed. It's a testament to a hand helping me along.
BSW: What is it about this business that you love?
Cheadle: I don't love anything about the business.
BSW: What about the craft?
Cheadle: What do I love about it? That's a very strong word that I would reserve for other things besides [acting].
BSW: What sustains you as an actor, then?
Cheadle: Some days I think it's all I know how to do. It's strange to think about doing anything else. When it's great, it is about creating something with other people who are turned on about it and at the top of their game, hopefully, and where you're making something out of nothing. If you can help bring an idea to the table that is really thought-provoking or makes people look at stuff in a different way, like Traffic did, then it's the best. You're lucky if you get to do a Traffic ever in your life, and the majority of the time I'm not. So that's why the majority of the time I can't use that word "love."
BSW: What about Boogie Nights or Devil in a Blue Dress? Weren't these projects that made you proud to be an actor?
Cheadle: I love Boogie Nights. That's another one. That's what I'm saying. I've been very blessed to be in some of these films and to be in the right place at the right time, with the right people who were passionate about [the project], who trusted me, who pushed me.
BSW: Do you ever have to audition for a role now?
Cheadle: I haven't lately, but it's not that I wouldn't. If it was something I really wanted and felt like there was a need [to prove myself], I would. If they really need to see something—if they wanted me to do the Miles Davis story and there was a question about the way they wanted to approach that and they want to see me in that, then that's different. Let's do a test.
BSW: Did you mind auditioning back in the day?
Cheadle: What my friends and I used to do is, if I had an audition I would take my [actor] friends with me. So we'd go together and we'd be hanging out and having fun. I'd be relaxed the whole time. Then after my audition I'd ask the casting director, "Hey, can you see my friend? He should read for this part, too." The casting director would say, "You realize that you're asking if your friend can compete for the same part that you're up for?" and I'd say, "No problem." We did that for almost every audition. If I had an audition, three of my friends had an audition. If my friend had an audition, me and two other guys would have an audition.
BSW: Did any of those friends book a role that you were originally called for and that you were really looking forward to playing?
Cheadle: That wasn't possible. Nor was it possible for me to take a role from one of my friends. That's how we looked at it. It's like, "Dude, if this is your part, it's your part. It's meant for you." BSW