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Critically acclaimed actor talks about Miles Davis, ‘Iron Man,’ the Oscars

Kam Williams
Critically acclaimed actor talks about Miles Davis, ‘Iron Man,’ the Oscars
(Photo: AP /Dreamworks Pictures, Sam Urdank)

Critically acclaimed actor talks about Miles Davis, ‘Iron Man,’ the Oscars


His full name is Donald Frank Cheadle Jr., but most people just call him Don. The 44-year-old son of a clinical psychologist and a schoolteacher is best known as a gifted character actor, whose chameleonic knack for disappearing into any role has long caused his peers to recognize him as one of the best in the business.

But despite a resume loaded with critically-acclaimed performances in films like “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Rosewood,” “Crash,” “Traffic,” “Talk to Me” and last year’s “Traitor,” the closest that Cheadle has come to landing an Oscar was in 2005, when he was nominated for his role in “Hotel Rwanda.” Perhaps even more surprising, Cheadle has been up for an NAACP Image Award on 11 different occasions, but he’s never taken one home.

Cheadle recently took a few moments away from his award show drought to talk to the Banner about his production company, his humanitarian work in Darfur, the election of President Barack Obama and his latest film, the family comedy “Hotel for Dogs,” which co-stars Lisa Kudrow, Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin and Kyla Pratt.

So what interested you in doing a kiddie comedy?

The truck filled with money that they pulled up to my house. No, it’s one of the first movies that I’ve ever done that my kids could see. I thought this was a good one and I actually liked the script and the relationship that my character has with the kids. Usually, it’s a kids’ world where no adult has a brain, and the kids are so much smarter and so mentally outclass the grownups.  

So how did your children like the movie?

They haven’t seen it yet.

And how was it working with Lisa Kudrow and the rest of the cast?

Most of my scenes were with the kids. They were great. They were little professionals and serious about the work. They had acting coaches and everything. 

I always think of you and Christian Bale as two of the best actors who have never won Academy Awards. How does it feel to be snubbed every year at Oscar time?

I don’t care about the Oscars. Quite honestly, when you know what goes into that whole process, it’s very much like a political election. You have to lobby and go to parties. It has nothing to do with your performance. It’s a very political thing that I, personally, don’t enjoy doing. That’s not really on the list of things that I want to achieve in this career.

It’s all about money nowadays. There was a time when, if you had an Oscar, there was a direct correlation to the push that it made for you at the box office. That’s not so much the case anymore, if you look at the last few years of Oscar winners and what it did for them, box-office wise. The time between the announcement of the nominations and the actual awarding of Oscars, that’s when you make your money. Because that’s when people look at the paper and ask, “Well, what are the critics saying are the good movies out there?” After that, it really doesn’t matter anymore. 

What is on that list you mentioned of things that you want to achieve in your career?

I want to have longevity. I want my production company to be able to stand on its own two feet. I want to produce movies that I don’t have to be in. I just really want to have a foothold in this business and do the kind of work that I can stand by that has value. Hopefully, I’ll be getting this Miles Davis project up and running soon.

I know you play sax. So will you be playing Miles, even though he was a trumpeter?

Yeah, that’s the plan.

Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?

I like many guys from that era: [John] Coltrane and [Thelonious] Monk and [Charles] Mingus and a lot of the cats Miles played with, like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

What made you want to do a biopic about Miles?

I don’t really want to do a biopic. I don’t think that would be that interesting. I want to do something that uses his creativity and the energy of who Miles was more than a “cradle-to-grave” story about him. A straight biography could be better done by PBS.  

Speaking of PBS, I remember seeing you on “African American Lives” with Skip Gates. How did you like learning about your roots?

It was cool to find out about my lineage. I’d always wanted to trace that back, so that was fun and very illuminating.

I see that you’ll be replacing Terrence Howard as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes in “Iron Man 2.” Are you planning to overhaul the role?

That’s up to the script and what the director wants. I’m not going to try to do anything that they’re not asking me to do. I don’t get down like that.

I don’t think Rhodey did all that much in the original anyway.

Yeah, the part does expand in the sequel, which is much more of a buddy pic than the first one.

I’ve noticed that you sometimes appear uncredited in movies, like in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Rush Hour 2.” Why is that?

For different reasons. I did “Rush Hour 2” just as kind of a laugh, so I didn’t really need a credit. To me, it was fine if people recognized me, and if they didn’t, that was fine, too. With “Ocean’s,” there was some stuff that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t like how it went down, so I just said, “Take my name off it.”

Are you ever afraid?

I’m a parent, so I have gradations of apprehension about the kids. I’m afraid that if something happens to them, I might not be there and won’t be able to do anything about it. But generally, there’s more sort of a low boil of concern about them. 

What do you think about Obama’s win?

I think it’s an amazing and historic victory, and an incredible opportunity to move the country and the world in another direction, which has been sorely needed for the past eight years.

What are you doing these days with your African initiatives to end genocide? Have you asked for help from the new administration in terms of funding that project?

They’ve already spoken about their commitment to Darfur and to the region. So hopefully, we’ll have a little more traction than we had with the Bush administration, which just gave a lot of lip service, although Bush actually can toot his own horn about AIDS and Africa.