In 1995, Don Cheadle gave one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that made him a star—almost. His hair-trigger performance as Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress had critics buzzing. Cheadle became one of American cinema’s most consistently reliable and exciting performers—not quite a character actor, and difficult to define, but always superb in an amazingly wide variety of roles. Born in 1964 in Kansas City, Cheadle studied both music and acting. He performed extensively on stage and landed his first movie and TV roles in the mid-1980s. He received an Oscar nomination for his crafty, moving performance in Hotel Rwanda (2004). His other credits include Boogie Nights(1997), Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000), Ocean’s Eleven(2001) and its sequels, Crash (2005), Reign Over Me (2007) and Talk to Me (2007). Also in 2007 he produced the documentary Darfur Now.
In Devil in a Blue Dress, your Mouse was a star-making standout. Did you have a feeling that you were hitting a grand slam?
Not at all. Everyone in town had gone to see [director] Carl [Franklin], and my agent at the time couldn’t get me in. I couldn’t see that it was my role anyway. One day I was in a doctor’s office, and the lobby was crowded. And the door opened and banged into my leg, and it was Carl! And he said, “Hey!” Just at that moment the receptionist tried to make some room, and she picked the two of us and sent us into another room. We were just talking, about life and everything; I just had a kid. And he said, “I’m directing this movie Devil in a Blue Dress.” And then we kept on talking. The next day I had an audition. They were going to make the whole series of books, but then the movie didn’t do well. It was my first rude awakening into how movies are marketed.
How did you decide to give Basher his cockney accent in Ocean’s Eleven? Was it in the script?
Unfortunately, yes, it was in the script. I played around with it. Everybody plays around with it. I got a dialect coach, and I resented the fact that I agreed to do it. Everybody else was having a good time, and I was in my trailer with my coach, trying to figure out my diphthong.
After serious things like Hotel Rwanda and Crash and even to some extent Reign Over Me, which had a 9/11 theme, and Talk to Me, is it hard to go back to something like Ocean’s Thirteen, or is it necessary to explore a lighter side in addition to the heavy side?
Those are the things I’m attracted to. My tastes are varied. It’s what I like. I’ve tried to be strategic about what movies I need to take, but I don’t think it makes a lot of sense. I think it’s kind of foolish, actually. Now I just do the movies I respond to, and I’m more comfortable. Most stars got there by doing things where the audience can count on them. But with me, it’s like, “What’s he up to now?” It’s like Adam Sandler. He tries something different with Reign Over Me, and nobody goes.
Hotel Rwanda moved me to tears, and I’m usually very granite-faced. How did that role come about? It was a pretty rare leading role for you ...
I met with Terry George. He kind of told me point blank that he was trying to get the money together. “But if Will Smith or Cuba Gooding says ‘yes,’ and I can get the money, I’m going to do it with them.” So I said, “I’ll produce it with you, whatever, I’d like to be a part of this. This is an important movie.”
That movie did really well, didn’t it?
It did. People kept on going even after the Oscars. And it did really well on video. It’s one of those ... people feel more comfortable watching at home.
I’m told you’re working on a biopic of Miles Davis?
It’s going to be a movie wherein the lead is Miles Davis as depicted by Don Cheadle. I’m not interested in doing a factual interpretation of someone’s life. We don’t want to do another Walk the Line. It’s true to Miles Davis, who couldn’t care about any of that stuff. It’s one artist doing an interpretation of another artist. Or as Miles might say: “Some of this shit might have happened.”
Don Cheadle receives the Half-Life Award and chats about his career on June 20 at 4 p.m. at the Brenden Theatres.