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Don Cheadle may be one of Hollywood's quietest superstars. He was known for having high impact in supporting roles before Hotel Rwanda catapulted him to fame. He earned an Oscar nomination for playing the real-life hotel manager who protected more than a thousand Tutsis from the Hutu militia during the Rwandan civil war. Cheadle appeared in other critical and box office hits like Crash and Flight. He's now earned an Emmy nomination for his role in the TV show House of Lies.
Cheadle spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about whether he's hit a career peak, and how he'll know when to call it quits.
On winning the acting game
What we all know in this business is that you don't really retire from it; it sort of retires you. It usually happens for people when they hadn't anticipated it, so I don't think it's going to be any different for me. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be part of projects that have meant a lot to me and that ... seem to hold a special place for people. But I don't ever sit back and think that I can just chill out, and that I don't have any more work to do. I always feel like I'm grinding. I always feel like I'm trying to make sure that I am continuing to push it, and push myself into new places, and be as elastic as I can as an actor.
On House of Lies and his role as Marty Kaan
I play a management consultant who is the head of a pod. We're just sort of these, I guess sharky, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-deal done, and can be pretty narcissistic, cutthroat. And, even without our own pod, there are little wars and battles that have gone on. So it's a lot of story and character to cram into 30 minutes. But it's a comedy, and it's kind of a high-octane comedy, a lot of high energy. I usually have 7 million monologues each week, so it's tough.
On whether Marty's race affects how Cheadle plays him
Oh, it absolutely does. I think it shows up just from the fact that he is a black man in a predominately white-male-driven business, and we see that all the time. In several episodes, it's come up in a pretty big way. So we always try to pull that in and make that something that informs his character as strongly as anything else that he's doing. Of course, his race is a part of who he is, and in this world, it often cuts both ways. Sometimes he uses it to his advantage. But very often, it's the thing that's his undoing.
On choosing roles for love, not money
You know, the first day of Hotel Rwanda, in fact, we were in Africa, we were at lunch. My agent called and said, "How's it going?" I said, "It's all right." He said, "Hey, I just wanted to tell you that there's no money ... for this movie." [chuckles] I said, "What?" He goes, "You're there for free. No money has been sent to the bank. So we can send you a ticket, and you can come home, or you can stay there and hope everything works out." I'm like, "Eh, I guess I'm going to stick it out."
On getting the role in Hotel Rwanda
When I met with Terry [George], who directed the movie, he said, "I got to be honest with you. If Will Smith says yes or Cuba Gooding Jr. says yes to this part, it's theirs, because I've been trying to get this movie made for years and years, and I'm going to make it with whoever I need to make it with." And I said, "I fully understand that. And in fact, if I can get it to them and help you get this movie made as a producer, I would love to do that, because I think the story needs to be told." I felt that strongly about the story. A lot of the extras in the film had lived through the genocide, and it was just all around us, and I really believed in the project.
On fulfilling a childhood dream
I was told by relatives — aunts and uncles — that, you know, I remember going home ... and someone came up to me and said, "Hey you did it!" And I was like, "I did it?" She goes, "Yeah you used to say — when you were 5, 6 years old running around here — that you wanted to be an actor." I was, 'I did?" She was like, "Yeah, you used to say that." So, I guess it was something that was in my mind very early. I know I got very serious about it once I graduated from high school. I had a few choices — to either pursue acting or to pursue music. And I think I really looked at what it would take to really commit to being a musician — the work and the kind of commitment to that — and realized that I was not ready for that.
On getting into the business
It's hard for me to give advice, because I started, you know, 27 to 28 years ago now. And the business has changed so much. You look at television nowadays, and you see guest stars that have had film careers. They're like me. ... Those parts used to be able to go to people who were "unknown." So I don't know anymore where you start. The great thing is, now, however, people, if you know they really get serious about their craft and work hard and bring their unique voices and interesting perspectives on stories, there's places where you can sell. So you don't have to knock on the door of a lot of these networks and try to get a gig. You can try to create your own opportunity and just put it out yourself, and find people that will buy it. And then kind of build that infrastructure around you and help you to really realize your full vision. So I always encourage people to — if they want to really get into this business — to be writers first. Don't worry about being an actor first. Be a writer. Create something. Own it. And then the world is yours.